even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales


When people talk about “natural storytellers,” they are probably paying an unintended compliment to the unnatural. They mean that such writers are unnaturally gifted in artifice; that, better than the rest of us, they can draw us in, sound a voice, shape a plot, siphon the fizz of suspense. Yet the compliment is not merely inverted, since even freakish mastery of such tricks does not account for those impalpable gifts—the tremor of presence on the page, the overflow of vitality—which rival the abundance, even gratuitousness, of nature itself. The English writer David Mitchell belongs to this returning army of nature. Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, he is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known novel, features six interlocked and rotating novellas, each completely different from its neighbor: the journal of an American notary, travelling by boat from Australia to America in the eighteen-fifties; the letters of a young bisexual English composer, sent in the nineteen-thirties to a college friend; a slice of nineteen-seventies paranoid political thriller, in which a young California journalist takes on a sinister energy corporation.

more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.