“Everywhere I look, you could frame it”: David Mitchell’s Mission to Describe
Abstract: David Mitchell’s novels are often discussed in terms of large themes, but this paper adumbrates a different approach: reading Mitchell as a stylist, tracing the tendencies of his writing at a more local level and probing their implications. Focusing on Mitchell’s debut Ghostwritten (1999), the essay explores Mitchell’s persistent penchant for aphorism and for succinct visual description. In the novel’s “Tokyo” chapter we observe the cyclical growth of cherry blossoms as part of the narrator Satoru’s attention to the world. In the “Petersburg” chapter, another narrator, Margarita Latunsky, walks through the city at night, listing vivid visual details, and remarks: “Everywhere I look, you could frame it and just by doing that you’d have a picture.” This attention to detail is redemptive. The same is true of another character, Neal Brose, earlier in the book, who, just before his death is granted a perceptual relief, an ability to see and appreciate more clearly the physical world around him. In all this, Mitchell compares tellingly to the great stylist of the previous generation of British novelists, Martin Amis. The reviewer Adam Mars-Jones observed that “Amis’s originality as a stylist” had been “to detach lyrical language from the lyrical impulse,” writing with exquisite style about degradation. Mitchell inverts this aesthetic, bringing our attention readily to bear on the external world in a spirit of curiosity and care. This connects to Mitchell’s ethical impulse as a writer: his care for words betokens a care for the world.
Keywords: Stylist, Lyricism, Aphorism
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Published in August 2019