David Mitchell has repeatedly proved his talents at a chastening productive rate. His first novel, Ghostwritten, was published in 1999 before the author turned 30. His second book, Number9dream (2001), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. With his third work, Cloud Atlas, Mitchell not only garnered a second nomination for the book prize, he achieved a rare feat: He’s produced an ambitious literary novel that undertakes some of the techniques of experimental fiction as well as an accessible story with appeal to a broad audience. (The work has just received the imprimatur of approval from the current arbiters of success in the British publishing world, the Richard and Judy Book Club). Cloud Atlas takes the reader on a dizzying tour: from a 19th century sailing ship to a post-Apocalyptic Hawaii, with stops in between at interwar Belgium, a noirish California, contemporary England, and Korea in the near, nightmarish future.
I began by asking Mitchell how he approached such a complex task, faced with challenge of not only presenting these different stories and styles but making them mesh into a coherent whole.
‘The novel really began with the structure, the Russian Doll structure. The main issue I had to approach was how to make the various novellas fit inside each other and to come up with ways of making the preceding narrative appear as an ‘artefact’ of the succeeding narrative. And the thing was to do that thematically, so the whole thing wasn’t a butcher’s shop exercise with stories meaninglessly presented in a gimmicky way, without adding up to much. I would write the first draft, say, of the Adam Ewing story [the story set on a sailing ship and a Pacific island during the 19th century] in its entirety, think about where I could put a cliff-hanger–which is where the splice was made–think about how it might appear in the next narrative, which in that case was as a torn-in-two book. I did that five times, except of course for the sixth story, the one in the middle, which doesn’t appear anywhere else. Because with the central narrative, as Johnny Rotten famously put it, there’s no future.’
With the middle narrative, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, the issue of influences arises. In a recent issue of the Guardian Review, Mitchell acknowledged the influence of Russell Hoban‘s eccentric masterpiece, Riddley Walker (1980), which is written in a post-Armageddon patois, in which the technologies and institutions of the 20th century are garbled in a strange, broken-down syntax. In Mitchell’s story, the narrator, too, speaks in a sort of hybrid language, primitive but with echoes of our own time. How consciously was Hoban’s example in mind during the writing?
“What’s good when a book like Riddley Walker exists is that it proves that it can be done and you won’t necessarily make a fool of yourself. As for the form it takes, you often come to the same conclusions about, in this case, how to concoct a future dialect. If you look at the way language really does drift, it’s a heady mix of neologisms and archaisms. I think this is how a future language will look. So the result looks the same but I would hope it’s less a matter of slavish imitation than arriving at the same conclusion. Nonetheless, it doesn’t wipe out my debt to Hoban because it’s great to have the book on hand, to see how he might have avoided pitfalls or even ploughed through those pitfalls.”
Regarding finding a voice, Cloud Atlas‘s polyphonic (to use a term beloved of academia) approach seems like a good way of circumventing that obsession with ‘style’ that seems to characterize the English novel. Because if your character uses a cliché, the author is merely being true to the character. It’s not ‘bad’ writing.
“It’s a built-in advantage of the first-person narrative–you can use cranky language or even over-literary language. So you can commit all these ‘sins’ and not only are they not sins, but they add to character. And I suppose Cloud Atlas is an example of that, times six.”
In terms of being allowed to break the ‘rules’ of the Establishment, there’s also the whole issue of writing genre fiction. With the exception of people like Mitchell and, say, Hoban and someone like Margaret Atwood, there still seems to be this barrier between science fiction and ‘literary’ fiction. Is this barrier for real?