Plot Horses and Narrative Helmets: A Morning with David Mitchell

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Although many readers at The Millions are likely to have at least one David Mitchell book under their belt (Cloud Atlas was admitted into The Millions Hall of Fame earlier this year, after all), I’m sure most of you remember what it’s like for the uninitiated. Everyone tells you that you must read Cloud Atlas, and you buy it and it sits on your shelf for three years. You assume that his work is intellectual, serious, complicated, experimental; a multi-voiced beast that is said to be amazing, but that has to be heavily grappled with in order to appreciate. However, spending even a couple of minutes with David Mitchell — the man — made me realize that neither he nor his work should be approached with the kind of hesitation or trepidation that some readers have.

Just before his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell tiptoed down the stairs from the mezzanine office. He sat on the third step clutching his cup of tea, hidden from the adoring masses by a waist-high wall that serves as a railing. From my chair at the back desk, I had the perfect angle for a photo opportunity: the big author mentally preparing for his last reading before heading home. Instead, when he noticed me with the camera, he started making faces at me and mock-scowling. During his reading, he paused mid-sentence to tell anecdotes, he told us that he likes to create onomatopoetic verbs to mess with his translators, and he occasionally provided sound effects to go with his metaphors. This was not the brooding intellectual one might have expected. This was not the “serious author” whose books are to be spoken about with mountainous respect in hushed tones. This man was playful, and instantly open, and remarkably nimble.

Although David Mitchell is almost universally hailed as a creator of literary fiction, it is the lens of games and child-like amusement that often sharpens his work into focus. Michael Chabon described Cloud Atlas as “the novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” Mitchell has been called a ventriloquist for the way that he inhabits voices and “does” other genres so well. Even his naysayers use this lens: in the LA Times, reviewer Eric Banks described the second section of Mitchell’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as a foray into “comic-book Japonica.”

I asked Mitchell what his favorite game was growing up, hoping it might tell us something about his writing as a whole. He described a loose kind of game that most of us probably played in some form or another: an improvised war-type game with two opposing sides and rules and goals that you kind of made up as you went along. You would advance into each other’s territory, set ambushes, and try to spring your own men who’d been captured. Guns were made up of two fingers and a thumb, and there was a sort of honor system when a confrontation occurred. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that it can describe what Mitchell has done in his books – he makes up a new set of rules each time, and he treads into territory that you might not expect in terms of genre, voice, and style. There are usually opposing forces at play, though who is playing for which side can be ambiguous and shifting.

From the micro-view of his own memory, Mitchell quickly waxed analytical. He suggested that games allow us a small view into how the mind works:

We don’t have an effective vocabulary of the mind, because we don’t really know what it is. And we need a couple of Newtons or Darwins or Einsteins–in neurology–before, I think, we’ll begin to “get it”… We know much more about [the mind’s] pathology than we do about its anatomy. But it becomes visible in games. Games gives us a vocabulary of mind that we otherwise lack… Patterns can be made manifest in one form.

Fiction can also “do the mind” — it picks up on patterns like games do. Towards the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob fleshes out the story of Phoebus in Greek mythology and then says: “The truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not its words, but its patterns.”

Several of Mitchell’s novels use games to show macro tendencies: he uses a rugby match to ruminate on chance and fate in Ghostwritten, in Black Swan Green it’s something called British Bulldogs that sheds light on growing up in Thatcher’s England, and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the Japanese game Go provides the ripples and layers. In the final section, after we’ve gotten some sense of the relative equilibrium between the Dutch and the Japanese on Dejima (the Dutch East India Company’s outpost off the coast of Japan in 1799), in comes the English ship, bringing with it global machinations and the need for shifting alliances and multilayered strategies. It is immediately followed by an actual Go match, also full of machinations and strategies, which has taken on all sorts of significance of its own. Not only does it illustrate the power play happening between the Magistrate and Lord Abbot, it foreshadows the waning strength of Japan’s isolationist policies in the face of global advances.

In the present day, interestingly, Go has the opposite role to play in the global advance of technology — Mitchell told me that an algorithm is no match for a master Go player, and the game is “one of humanity’s last strongholds against the computer.”

Perhaps Mitchell is aware of these tendencies, for even he uses toys and games of childhood to describe his writing process. On the recent challenge of writing a libretto for an opera, David wrote that “packing so much human luggage into so few syllables” was similar to sudoku.

When I asked him whether one needs to live in a place in order to write about it, he said it’s hard to make it smack of authenticity if you haven’t. You need more tricks and sleight-of-hand to mask the fact that you haven’t been there. For example, Mitchell had never been to New York when he was working on Ghostwritten. One of the sections is takes place there, so he set it in winter, when windows are hard to see through and details are muted by snow. And then he made the bulk of the action occur on a radio show. How’s that for literary prestidigitation! Historical fiction, however, tends to thrive on rich detail, and after reading his latest novel, no one would doubt that Mitchell spent nearly a decade living in Japan.

Finally, I asked him how, after observing a place in the present, do you access its past or imagine its future? I’m sure that there is some element of Faulkner’s famous quote at work, that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” David also suggested that first you gather the bits. Then, essentially, you’re playing dress up with dolls:

You just think about the story first. And… the people. But they are, as it were, naked.         Temporally naked. So you just think about the story and the relationships and… what their hearts want. And how these wants bounce off each other. Then when you’ve got those, then you clothe them. Literally clothe them in appropriate period costumes, but also sort of… attitudinally clothe them.

While answering questions after his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell got into a groove and offered, in rapid succession, three extended metaphors for his writing process. The best one, the one that can help both writers and readers, came to him just a few weeks ago. He said that writing a novel is like an amusement arcade horse race game with five horses – character, plot, theme/ideas, structure, style – and the goal is for them all to finish at once. For example, you develop the character horse, his history and his personality, and then you ask “What would he do in this situation?” Then the plot horse catches up. I found this metaphor to be useful to me as a reader as well, in terms of describing what does and doesn’t work in a novel.  I asked Mitchell whether one of his horses needed more training, or whether one came more naturally than the rest.

It varies from book to book. I would say that generally, my themes/idea horse probably hasn’t much rider. I don’t really think “This book is going to be about this,” ahead of time. Or perhaps, specifically, it sort of leaves on its own sweet time, late and last. And at some point, after the others have streaked ahead, the rider sort of hops over the barrier from the crowd and then sort of jumps on …[here Mitchell made leaping gesture with his hand];. And then, “Okay, this is what you’re about. Now I see, now I see…”

The other metaphor that Mitchell threw out there was one that helped him finally master writing in the third person: that of the “narrative helmet.” One character wears it at a time, and it’s got a “camera filming the action but with a spike going into the brain so you can get that character’s thoughts but no one else’s.” He then told us that the plot of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is perhaps more complex than it seems: in the first act, only Jacob wears the helmet. In the second act, the helmet alternates between Orito and Ogawa. In the final act, Jacob, the Magistrate, and the English sea captain wear the helmet. By doing it this way, the momentum increases as you progress in the book.

With building blocks, some children build simple walls and steps, and others build castles with moats and turrets using the exact same materials. Mitchell must have been one of the latter —  he recently described his books as “Lego-novels,” made up of component pieces. After spending a few hours in his presence, it is clear that he thinks of language and literature in degrees of magnitude. “A word is a musical note, with its own timbre and attack and fade,” he said at the reading. “And a sentence is therefore a musical phrase, and a paragraph, therefore, is something like a song.” He’s written several novels of interconnected stories and his latest is really more like three successive novellas.

But we’ve all built towers that collapsed, and even David Mitchell can attempt too much. He told me that Cloud Atlas was originally going to have nine parts, not six, but it got unwieldy. One of the narratives was to be from a Korean rock star who was watching a video cassette that (of course) broke in the middle. But when Mitchell sensed it wobbling, he realized that he already had a young musical prodigy in Frobisher. He couldn’t bear to waste the time and money spent on researching Korea, so he set “An Orison of Sonmi-451” there instead.

Mitchell brings to his work the fine balance of playfulness and complexity. I think what turns some people off from “postmodern” writing in general, and something that Mitchell manages to avoid, is a feeling of being toyed with, a feeling that the writer knows something that the reader doesn’t. When you finish, you want to feel as though your mind has been engaged, not as though you’ve been had. Mitchell teased out the distinction a bit:

Maybe it’s the difference between, in the former case, being obliged to be the victim of a practical joke, where it’s not fair because you don’t know what the terms are, and it’ll happen to you and you just have to sit there and take it. Which is really annoying. As opposed to sort of being taught the rules of the game, and sort of being given an invitation, “Would you like to play, too?

Mitchell invites us to play with him, to enjoy the stories he writes, and to have fun trying to figure things out. He also invites us to think hard, and to grapple with the challenges of civilization. As a culture, we could use a bit more of that playfulness and complexity.

Bonus Link: A podcast of the Mitchell event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles