(David Mitchell reads at Town Hall tonight. Tickets are free with purchase of The Bone Clocks.)
In fact, I plain don't like his books. Mitchell's magnum opus, Cloud Atlas, is my favorite of his works, and I still don't really like it very much. I admire that it's a technically impressive and multilayered ode to storytelling, but it leaves me cold in much the same way that a technically impressive Eric Clapton blues riff fails to move me. My displeasure with Mitchell is visceral and instantaneous. I was nearly bored to tears by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I disliked Black Swan Green so much that I wrote a review that now strikes me as unfair and borderline emotionally deranged. It was my early days as a book reviewer, and I made an amateur mistake: I wasn't reviewing the book so much as my response to the book. I'm not proud of it now; in fact it pains me to link to the review at all. But my discomfort with Mitchell continues—I abandoned his newest novel, The Bone Clocks, within a few dozen pages because I thought the main character's voice was impossibly cloying. But intellectually, I understand he's a good writer. Why do I dislike him so much?
Even worse, Mitchell is by all accounts a very pleasant human being. When he read at Third Place Books for Black Swan Green, he was asked about my review and reportedly gave a very generous and understanding answer about how you can't control reviews. He charmed the pants off that room. And the literary industry abounds with stories of how great David Mitchell is. Just last week, I was interviewing the novelist Michel Faber about an upcoming book, and he addressed why he withdrew from the literary scene after publishing his huge international bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White. "I met a lot of authors who disappointed me as people," Faber said flatly. "I would love their work and I respected their work and I would meet them at literary festivals and at hotels and I’d realize these people are assholes, they really are. They’re a pain in the ass, and that’s demoralizing, it’s discouraging and after a while, I thought it wasn’t doing me any good." Without any coaxing, Faber continued, "I’m not saying it’s true of all [authors]. You know, David Mitchell, who is a very fine author, is a lovely man, a very fine man." I felt a knot of something sour in my belly as he said that, because I knew he was telling the truth, and it made me feel even worse about not enjoying Mitchell's books.
I don't generally react like this to authors. If I dislike a book, I can at least maintain a professional relationship with it and investigate the source of my distaste, but I just can't do that here. Why do I feel this way about David Mitchell? I called maybe the biggest Mitchell fan in the greater Seattle area to get his opinion.
Vladimir Verano is a bookseller and book designer at the Lake Forest Park Third Place Books. In the decade-and-a-half that he's been selling Mitchell's books to people, he's only spoken to one other person besides me who didn't enjoy them. Verano has loved the author since he encountered an advance reader's copy of Ghostwritten back at the turn of the century, and he admits to feeling "selfish" about enjoying Mitchell ever since. He was drawn to the book "because it had a beautiful cover," but "from that moment on I was a big fan of his. Every book that [Mitchell] came out with, I felt that he was writing for me." Verano can't pinpoint any one thing he enjoys most about Mitchell's fiction, because every one of the books is different. Though he's a voracious reader, Verano slows down when a new Mitchell comes out: "I never read his books fast, because I want to live in that scene, in that paragraph."
Bone Clocks, Verano says, holds a unique place in Mitchell's body of work because "it’s the logical end point of every book he’s ever written." In the "prismatic" Bone Clocks, Mitchell employs "techniques he’s used in Ghostwritten or Number9Dream" and Cloud Atlas and all his others, making it a kind of greatest-hits compilation of a novel. "He definitely needed to stretch his storytelling abilities for this," Verano says. "I think it’s very adventurous, it’s very heartfelt." He likes, too, that the book "goes absolutely crazy into fantasy. I was kind of expecting something sort of fantastical to happen, but even I was unprepared for the sudden shift of reality this character starts to experience." The difference between Mitchell and other writers who incorporate genre into their work, Verano says, is that "he’s not cutting corners. He’s still taking all of that ludicrous stuff as seriously as Franzen treats domestic disruption."
Almost all the comparisons that Verano drops as he praises Mitchell—Colson Whitehead's Zone One, Haruki Murakami—are names that I dearly love. The sole author he mentioned who has never moved me is Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose work has always been a bit too new-agey for my tastes. Since my conversation with Verano, I've focused on that name as though it were some kind of a key: Is Mitchell as earnest as Coelho? Is there a Coelho-like spiritualism to his books that sets my atheism on edge? I started Bone Clocks again. I didn't detect any Coelhoisms in the text, but I still found the prose to be annoying. I set the book down again, defeated. You know how sometimes you get on an elevator and there's someone standing quietly in the corner and your hackles just get on edge? It's an inexplicable distaste for a person who has done absolutely nothing to earn your scorn, a base mammalian discomfort, the opposite of love at first sight. That's all I can use to explain this. It's a failure on my part, and I am not proud of it, but I simply can't overcome it. David Mitchell will never speak to me.