introducing readers to writers since 1995

February 24, 2004

The Return of David Mitchell

by Ron Hogan

I interviewed David Mitchell shortly after the American release of his second novel, Number 9 Dream, when he was in the process of moving back to England from Japan, where he'd been teaching English to high school and then college students and writing his novels whenever he could. He's since moved again, to Ireland, but he's still close enough to the UK that when Cloud Atlas came out recently, The Independent and The Guardian found it quite easy to get hold of him. UPDATE: So too The Telegraph. (Thanks, Mark!)

"I have a problem with the way Japan is usually portrayed in the West, as the land of cherry blossoms, geishas, Mt. Fuji, and kamikaze pilots," Mitchell told me back. "I wanted to do what Haruki Murakami does, depicting Japan as it is, and finding the beauty in the ugliness." The Murakami namecheck struck me as an apt comparison; both writers appear fascinated by the surreal surface area of modern Japanese life, poking and probing it to discover emotional underpinnings. Another apt reference point might be the texture of recent William Gibson novels, especially Pattern Recognition (and not just because it's fresh on my mind). Or to put it another way, The Guardian says his "vision of the future is like Naomi Klein's No Logo taken to its ultimate conclusion: a consumer society in the process of consuming itself."

Melissa Denes also discovered something about Mitchell I never picked up on during our phone conversation (in retrospect, I probably made the same assumptions she did):

Until he mentioned it, I wasn't aware that he had a stammer, and though he says I'm kind to say so, it is virtually undetectable - an occasional pause or hesitation between words that I had taken for thinking time. "Having a stammer is like being an alcoholic," he says. "You never actually lose it, you just come to a more practical accommodation with it - and my working accommodation as a child was just not to say very much. I probably had enough going for me in other areas to compensate, but it's like having a faceful of acne on the inside and you can't put lotion on it."

It struck me as all the more interesting because about two months ago, I interviewed Paco Underhill for PW (available to subscribers), and he had also cited a lifelong stutter as a prime factor in his becoming what others have called a "retail anthropologist," a relentless observer of the consumer experience whose Call of the Mall can seem at times like a rough sketch of environments where some of Mitchell's (or Gibson's) characters would fit right in.

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