Or The Big Summer David Mitchell Reread
Of the people I know and the BookTok people I see on the internet, I’m the only one obsessed with David Mitchell. This baffles me. For example, it shocks me that there is almost no useful information on the David Mitchell fandom wiki.
I adore David Mitchell’s books. I love the rich, complex characters; I love the vivid historical fiction; I love the splash of fantasy and science fiction; I love the clear-eyed predictions of our future as a species and society. But my very favorite thing is that all of Mitchell’s books take place in the same universe. This leads to characters waltzing into and out of his various novels, recurring themes, and fun Easter eggs.
In a note at the end of The Bone Clocks, Mitchell addresses his recurring characters saying if he were to create a mega-book of all his works, he would call it The Überbook (hence the title of this post). Mitchell discusses how the recurring characters started off small, partly as a way to not have to invent whole new people every time he needed another character (why not borrow an already created character from one of this other works?), but continued as he likes to imagine all of his characters living in the same universe. You do not have to read all of his books or read his books in a certain order to understand what’s going on. Each book stands alone. I do not believe Mitchell wrote all eight novels with the intention that they be treated like the Marvel Cinematic Universe in timeline order. This did not stop me.
I decided this summer to reread all eight of Mitchell’s novels. But not just reread them, I organized the sections and chapters of each novel into chronological order and I read them in that order, ping-ponging between books where necessary. I also began a big spreadsheet, where I attempted to track recurring characters and themes and keep all the insights I had doing this project.
I had great fun with my nerdy little project. The only problem was that I began this project knowing there were connections, but not really knowing what I was looking for during each reread. This, along with changing the way I entered information into the spreadsheet part of the way through, has led to some inaccuracies in my spreadsheet and the feeling that I need to start over and read everything again. I also am writing this post after I’ve moved. I read all the books before I moved and I left them at my parents’ house, so I’m writing this post with aid of my spreadsheet, but without the aid of the copious notes I took in my copies of each of Mitchell’s books.
But for now, I’ll share with you what I have so far.
I realize that the embedded spreadsheet is difficult to look at on this webpage. I don’t know enough about WordPress to fix that, so here is the link to look at in Google Docs.
About each book
I think it might be useful here to give a super-duper brief summary of each book for those who haven’t read all of them.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
In 1799 a young Dutchman working for the East India company lives in Deijima, where the Dutch are trying to establish trade with the Japanese. Jacob de Zoet fights Dutch corruption and navigates xenophobia from both the Dutch and the Japanese. He falls in love with a young midwife and medical student named Orito Abigawa. In the mountains near Nagasaki, the sinister Abbot Enemoto is running a secret cult. When Orito is abducted it’s up to Jacob and Uzaemon Ogawa, one of the Japanese translators, to save her and stop Enemoto.
The Bone Clocks
The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes, who on a fateful day in 1985, offers sanctuary to a woman she meets on the road. The woman’s soul sleeps dormant in Holly’s psyche until Holly can help a group called the Horologists, who’s souls remember all their past lives, defeat the Anchorites, a group who consume others’ souls in order to be immortal.
Made up of ten interconnected vignettes, Ghostwritten explores the world and its interconnections. It follows a terrorist in Okinawa, who calls a music shop in Tokyo where two young people fall and love and move to Hong Kong, where they are seen by a businessman, whose maid’s grandmother lives on a mountain in Sichuan Province, China, and was host to a disembodied soul, who searches Mongolia for where it belongs, and on its journey is hosted by a KGB operative, who stops a museum heist in St Petersburg and kills a man whose friend in London is having his life biographied by a ghostwriter, who saves a physicist from getting hit by a car, who goes on to invent an advanced AI, that talks to a late night radio host, who also speaks to the terrorist from the beginning. And I know that was like the worst run on sentence ever. Fight me.
Six interlocking stories examine reincarnation and the circularity of time. The stories follow a young lawyer on a sea voyage from New Zealand to San Francisco in 1849, an ambitious composter working as an amanuensis in 1931 in Belgium, a shrewd journalist investigating a report on a new nuclear power plant in 1975 near San Francisco, a publisher who through a wacky chain of events ends up incarcerated at an old folks home in Hull in 2012, a clone trying to lead a revolution in 2145 in Seoul, and a young tribesman living in a primitive society 106 Winters after the Fall, or some kind of nuclear catastrophe.
In the late 1960s a folk rock band is formed of bassist Dean Moss, guitarist Jasper de Zoet, pianist Elf Holloway, and drummer Griff Griffin. The novel follows their formation, hand chosen by manager Levon Frankland, and their origins playing in clubs to their meteoric rise to fame. Don’t worry, there are disembodied souls and Horologists in this one; it’s not just your average rock’n’roll narrative.
Soul carnivores Norah and Jonah Grayer live in Slade House and hunt an unsuspecting person once every nine years. Once they’ve entrapped their prey, they consume the person’s soul, so that they can live on indefinitely.
Number9Dream is the coming of age of Eiji Miyaki, who moves to Tokyo hoping to find his father, whose identity is unknown to him. Eiji must learn to let go of the grief and guilt associated with his twin sister’s untimely death, his anger at his mother who abandoned him and his sister, and to find new love and connection. And if that sounds relatively normal compared to the other Mitchell books, I assure you, weird shit does happen.
Black Swan Green
The coming of age of Jason Taylor in the village of Black Swan Green in Worcestershire, England. Jason must deal with a stutter, middle school bullies, and his parents’ crumbling marriage by having the courage to stand up for what is right and take responsibility for his own actions. This one is probably the most ‘normal’ of Mitchell’s books, but don’t worry, there are still recurring characters and some weird dreamy sequences (not as weird as the dreamy sequences in Number9Dream, but still).
Music in Mitchell’s books
One thing I realized I should be doing as I read, was making a Spotify playlist. Mitchell is a music enthusiast. Many of his characters are musicians or composters (Robert Frobisher, Marco, Satoru, the band Utopia Avenue, etc.), and it’s clear from the way he writes that he loves music. Many songs are referenced throughout Mitchell’s works. If I’d thought of it earlier, I would have made a playlist that featured every song mentioned in one of his books. But this will have to be something I do on the next read-through. For now, here is a playlist compiled from ones other people have made on Spotify pertaining to several of his books and added to by me.
Something else to note is Mitchell’s auditory style of writing. Certain sections contain heavy use of rhythm, rhyme, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. This most often happens when the POV character is a musician but notably appears a few other places. In the Sloosha’s Crossing section of Cloud Atlas, for example, Zachry’s voice represents a future where humans have regressed to small primitive tribes after a nuclear fallout. Mitchell’s use of rhythm, rhyme, onomatopoeia, and alliteration in this section signals a return to oral storytelling and more primitive living, underscoring the theme of the circularity of time in Cloud Atlas.
Throughout Utopia Avenue we get a lot of onomatopoeia, which makes sense because all of the POVs are musicians uniquely concerned with sound, but in Jasper de Zoet’s POV this is heightened. Hidden in Jasper’s psyche is a noncorporeal being, the soul of Abbot Enemoto from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Enemoto is always knocking in Jasper’s mind, intent on killing him in revenge for his ancestor’s defeat of Enemoto in 1800. The constant onomatopoeia of the knock-knocks serves to heighten the tension throughout the novel.
In Number9Dream, in the chapter called “Study of Tales,” Eiji Miyaki stays in the house of a deaf author and he reads some of her short stories. The short stories are about an anthropomorphic goat named Goatwriter, and they are full of linguistic playing with rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. Goatwriter also has a stutter which contributes to the rhythm of the language. There are several notable things about this section, I think. First is that the author (Mrs. Sasaki’s sister) is deaf, but through her writing creates auditory patterns. There’s also Goatwriter’s stutter, which is a recurring theme; Jason Taylor from Black Swan Green also has a stutter, and David Mitchell himself grew up with a stutter. Though Jason works on overcoming his stutter, Goatwriter leans into it to create the unique rhythm of the stories. Then there is the name Goatwriter, which can’t help but bring to mind the word ghostwriter. Ghostwritten is obviously the title of one of David Mitchell’s other books, in which one character, Marco, is a ghostwriter (working for Timothy Cavendish in the London section). I don’t know that Mitchell necessarily meant for that to be a connection, but I do think in Eiji’s coming of age by the end of Number9Dream, he has learned to write his own story, so to speak.
Locations in David Mitchell books
Something else I love about David Mitchell books is their global nature. Several of his books take place in a series of related locations, and locations reappear in multiple books. I decided to plot important locations on a Google Map. Once again, this map is not exhaustive, as I’m sure I forgot some locations. Each book is on its own layer and its pins match the color coding in the spreadsheet. Locations that appear in multiple books are in yellow.
If you’d like to visit the map and turn on and off the layers, you can see the map here.
Recurring animal friends
Apart from recurring characters, Mitchell has a few recurring animals. The moon-gray cat is the first one I noticed. The moon-gray cat is an omen, signaling good or bad luck for the character that sees it. For example, the moon-gray cat leads Orito Abigawa to safety in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It saves Ed Brubeck’s life in The Bone Clocks when his hotel in Bagdad is bombed. It appears to Jason Taylor from Black Swan Green before he successfully completes the Spooks. Whenever the moon-gray cat appears dead though, it’s a bad omen. Jason Taylor sees it dead before he breaks his grandfather’s watch. Nathan Bishop from Slade House sees it before he is killed. Dean Moss from Utopia Avenue looks for it, but can’t find it shortly before he is killed. I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list of the moon-gray cat’s appearances, because I didn’t know I was looking for them.
Another animal that appears periodically is the Fat Rat. This is another one that I wasn’t looking for and only realized too late that I should be keeping track of. Fat Rat appears when a character appears to be hallucinating, or dealing with something particularly traumatic. Characters see Fat Rat and hear the Fat Rat responding to them, either their spoken words or thoughts. Orito Abigawa speaks to Fat Rat in the shrine on Mt Shiranui, where she is being held captive. Zachry also speaks to Fat Rat in the Sloosha’s Crossing section of Cloud Atlas after the Kona have attacked and destroyed most of Zachry’s village. I want to say Fat Rat appears in Number9Dream too, in the chapter “Reclaimed Land,” but I’m not certain.
The most obvious of Mitchell’s themes are reincarnation and the circularity of time, the idea that we cross and recross paths with each other. But another one that comes up often is the futile search for Paradise or Utopia. Mitchell also fights back against the idea of basic human nature as “dog eat dog.” Many characters throughout his books share the idea that “the weak are meat, the strong do eat,” or a kind of Social Darwinism that is used to justify all kinds of atrocities. Mitchell is always pushing back against that idea that that is basic human nature. Almost all of Mitchell’s books deal in some way with racism or xenophobia or other types of prejudice.
Questions I still have
I’ve now read Cloud Atlas 5 times, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, and The Bone Clocks 3 times each, and all of his other books twice and I still feel like there’s more to find. If I was stuck on a deserted island, I’d take David Mitchell’s collected works. I still have questions:
Who is Hilary V. Hush? In Cloud Atlas, each segment is discovered by the protagonist in the next segment (Adam Ewing’s journal is found by Robert Frobisher, whose letters are found by Luisa Rey, whose story is read by Timothy Cavendish, whose memoir is turned into a movie watched by Sonmi, whose story becomes the religion of Zachry’s people). But Timothy Cavendish reads Luisa Rey’s story in the form of a crime novel written by Hilary V. Hush. Who is that? Why didn’t Luisa write it? It makes it seem like Luisa is a fictional character written by this person, but Luisa appears as a successful journalist in Utopia Avenue and Ghostwritten. In the movie, the submitted manuscript is written by Javier, Luisa’s neighbor’s son. So who is Hilary V. Hush?
When is the Night Train segment of Ghostwritten set and how long does it last? And to that end, when is the entirety of Ghostwritten set? I estimated 1999 which is when the book came out, but it is never actually mentioned. The Night Train section does take place over several years, as the Zookeeper calls in about once a year. Bat Segundo states that he’s been running the show for eight years on the night of the apocalypse, so are we meant to believe that section runs from 1999-2007? And let’s not forget, Bat was on the radio back in 1968 when he interviews Utopia Avenue. Dwight Silverwind appears in this segment and is killed by the Zookeeper. We know Dwight Silverwind is alive in 2004 when he meets Aoife Brubeck in Cloud Atlas, so at least that part and everything after it in Night Train has to take place after 2004. And this of course begs the question of when the very last segment in Ghostwritten takes place. It appears right after Night Train, so I would assume it takes place after.
How does the Mongolian heal Jasper de Zoet if they never go to Europe? In the Mongolia section of Ghostwritten, the Mongolian tells the reader about all the places they have drifted as a soul without a body between 1937 and 1999. The Mongolian states that they never went to Europe. But in the 1960s, Jasper de Zoet is helped by the Mongolian, who helps subdue Abbot Enemoto for a time inside Jasper’s head. I think this is just a plot hole. I think Mitchell just forgot that he had said that about the Mongolian in Ghostwritten, as that was written long before Utopia Avenue. We know there are other noncorpora out there (one calls into Bat Segundo’s show) but I doubt we would have more than one who calls themself the Mongolian.
Why is Meronym the only character in Cloud Atlas who has a comet birthmark but is not the POV in her section? This is interesting because in the movie, Zachry has the birthmark. Also on the subject of the movie, are we to assume that Zachry and Meronym leave earth for the moon at the end? And if so does that mean Meronym is an alien? Because I don’t get any of that from the book. At the end of their section in the book, Zachry leaves is decimated village and goes to live the remaining people from Meronym’s community on another of Hawaii’s islands. But Meronym’s people come from Prescience Isle, formerly known as Iceland, as we learn from The Bone Clocks.
So I guess now I’ll go fix the David Mitchell fandom wiki???