James Wood reviews David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
The jacket copy of “Cloud Atlas” mentions Nabokov and Umberto Eco, and calls Mitchell a “postmodern visionary.” This is true enough, but one is struck by the gestural nature of Mitchell’s postmodernism. You could remove all the literary self-consciousness without smothering the novel’s ontology, or coarsening its intricacy. It is not exactly that Mitchell’s heart isn’t in his authorial games; to put it positively, the persuasive vitality of his stories is strong enough to frighten off their own alienation. The novellas have a life of their own, and will not be easily burgled—which is to say that they function like all successful fictions. The revelation that, say, Adam Ewing’s journal might have been fabricated by his son, or that Luisa Rey’s journalistic crusade in California might just be a thriller written by someone with the nom de plume of Hilary V. Hush, actually strengthens the autonomous reality of these fictions. This is the opposite of the weak postmodernism of a writer like Paul Auster, whose moments of metafictional self-consciousness—“Look, it’s all made up!”—are weightless, because the fictions themselves have failed to achieve substance: a diet going on a diet. In this respect, Mitchell is more like Nabokov (or José Saramago, or the Roth of “The Counterlife”) than like the feebler novelistic creator Umberto Eco. Of course, the paradox whereby the exposure of fiction’s fictionality only buttresses its reality is at least as old as the second part of “Don Quixote,” and reminds us of the ancestral postmodernism of the novel form.