October 12th, 2011 / 12:42 pm


March of this year we were in the desert and, like Stephen Crane’s famous creature, we were bestial and squatting; maybe we were naked as well. It’s possible—we were on one drug or another, and memory is strange. I did not hold my heart in my hands but a shotgun. We had bought a box of old records from a flea market on the way down and were taking turns tossing them up in the air and making it rain black diamonds, fragments of song titles and run times. We had liquor, and music, and all five of David Mitchell’s novels—Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I brought along the audiobook versions as well, as we were staying the night and planned on being too insensate before long to do any actual reading.

I had received the books in Venezuela a few months earlier, from an expat Israeli I met in a hotel in Caracas. He wouldn’t tell me his real name or what he was doing there, so I could only assume he was hunting Nazis. I was in South America because Hunter S. Thompson had spent a year writing in South America, and I loved Hunter S. Thompson very much. Ushuaia is also in South America, southernmost city on the planet, all the way down in Patagonia where the sea lions perch on the rocks like sentries awaiting Armageddon, and I also love Ushuaia very much. The Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse sits on the Beagle Channel. East of that is the Lighthouse at the End of the World. You take the Tren del Fin del Mundo through Tierra del Fuego—you actually ride through a place called the Land of Fire on something called the End of the World Train; the names are very portentous and grandiose, and you feel really small and unimportant and lost, so they’re all very fitting. It is my favorite place on Earth, and I had been planning to die, and where better to die than in your very favorite place? I was drunk most always and buried deep in ketamine holes, painfully self-aware of how much of a cliché I was, so dying didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time.

I didn’t make it to Ushuaia. I killed time in Rio for about a month, indulging my fantasies of being South America’s answer to The Sheltering Sky’s Port Moresby before miserably deciding one rainy depressing afternoon that I missed my niece very much and wanted to go home for Christmas. While I was down there I read Mitchell’s books, all of them, because that’s what you do when you’re stuck in a hostel, depressed and all your beer money gone: You stare at the ceiling, try to catch and crush mosquitos in your fist, gaze with a thousand-yard stare at anyone who tries to talk to you, ask them for drugs, and you read.

“His prose makes you cry,” the young Yakov Liebermann told me as he pushed the books across the table. “The ‘Gulls’ passage in Thousand Autumns made me cry. But he is at his best when it comes to creating aphorisms. He is a genius.”

David Mitchell is a genius, I think. I say “I think” because while anyone can write books that are deliberately difficult, I think it takes a genius to do deliberately difficult well. I don’t know. I read Cloud Atlas first and the difficulty reminded me of my first run-through of Delany’s Dhalgren, which cost me half a year, three copies of the book, and two friendships when none of us could agree on what the hell was going on. Cloud Atlas is a Matryoshka doll of an anthology, where each story nests inside the succeeding one and then out of nowhere some evil bastard locks the whole thing inside Hellraiser’s puzzle box and stabs you with the key.

It’s a difficult read, yes, but I was in Rio, three thousand miles from home, wondering if I would ever be able to make it back, alone and scared and penniless with spider bites marching up and down my arm and a rash growing on my crotch, and this most amazing thing happened: In my head I was in Mitchell’s dystopian Korea, where a genetically engineered clone named Sonmi-451 is being executed for daring to be human; in the next story, further into the future still, I found out that Sonmi-451 is regarded as a god, and I laughed for the first time in days, ‘neath the sound of strange rain. David Mitchell made that happen, and that was all right.

Other things happened as well, and I made it home, eventually.

In March, in the desert at night, a slooowww crash from pink mushroom clouds way in the middle of the air, and we were listening to the audiobooks and spitting chewed shell casings into the fire. I had my notebook with me, and for the next eight hours we switched back and forth between the books and skipped around at random as I wrote down and annotated some of the aphorisms and prose that made a grown-ass Nazi hunter cry:

· “Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over until it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.” [Could have sworn this was Warren Ellis talking, at least until the not-hurting-people bit.]

· “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.” [Mitchell, you magnificent bastard, you fucking genius! You just hinted at the entire shifting narrative style and the structure of the book’s anthological and chronological pro/regression: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1!]

· “At least I had a seat, and I wouldn’t have given it up for Helen Keller.” [Me, neither. Paraphrasing Carlin: Bad luck should apply across the board.]

· “The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making. But who says the world has to make sense? ” [The Second Law of Thermodynamics, maybe? I don’t know.]

· “Why does any martyr cooperate with his Judases? We see a game beyond the endgame. As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.” [Right. I got nothing. This is just straight up badass.]

· “Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman.” [(Sign on door?) Remember to party responsibly: Drink just enough to make you hate, but not enough to make you love one another.]

· “Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Dreams are beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the will-never-be may walk awhile with the still are.” [Or: The gist of Gaiman’s entire bibliography.]

· “War’s an auction where whoever can pay the most in damage and still be standing wins.” [Bertrand Russell’s is better. A Mitchell devotee could make the case for the auction aspect making it more topical, though.]

· “Eva. Every day I’ve climbed up the belfry chanting a lucky chant at one syllable per beat, ‘To-day-to-day-let-her-be-here-to-day-to-day.’” [Humbert Humbert by way of Quasimodo. Pretty little line—a bit too “Lo-lee-ta” for my liking, but substantially less creepy.]

· “This world contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” [Jesus Christ. THE “GULLS” PASSAGE. REMEMBER THIS. REMEMBER THE GODDAMN “GULLS” PASSAGE. Oh, my merciful lord, I am killed.]

· “The soul is a verb.” [No, it isn’t.]



Phil Roland was born in the Philippines, found a copy of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on a stairwell when he was 8, and now blogs at philroland.tumblr.com. He lives in Los Angeles, but he hopes to move to the Internet soon.

Image: Cloud Atlas by Angie Rogers



  1. Juan Murillo

      Mitchell is an endless source of envy for me.

  2. deadgod

      Cloud Atlas isn’t a “difficult read”!

      The structure is intricate – that “‘sextet for overlapping soloists'” pull (p. 469??) is a metaatem operating manual to find the “cloud atlas” melody-pearl.

      –but the paragraphs and sentences in each part, and in Ghostwritten and the other three novels, is never “difficult” (in the ways that Proust and Finnegans Wake are hard to read); they’re clean, fluid, precise – and without being offensively palatable.

      Mitchell is a great writer.

      –but I hope he doesn’t hear people say that too often.  Just feed him and leave him alone for another fifty years, you know?

  3. deadgod

      fucked up the stop-italics instruction after Atlas, making the comment a difficult read ha ha

  4. puzzlingcreativity

      I’m just about to finish all of his books and it’s quite an amazing journey haha. I picked up Mitchell because I’d heard he shares many things in common with Haruki Murakami. He resonates with the same kinds of themes as Murakami that really peaks the interest of a Murakami nut like me, but is his own writer with a knack for originality all his own. 

  5. alex crowley

      I’ve only read Cloud Atlas and while I enjoyed it immensely (except the weird moralizing at the very, very end), I can’t call it a difficult novel by any means. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the laying out of those “easter eggs” that give away the structure (thanks for teaching me that word: metaatem). That reminded me of Melville, who was apparently the inspiration for the bookend chapters.

      Maybe Phil has something particular in mind when he says “difficult”? I wish he’d explain more what he means by that.

  6. alanrossi

      agreed, and while difficult and fun aren’t necessarily exclusive, Mitchell is so so so much fun in so many ways that’s it’s kind of impossible to call him difficult.