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Patrick O’Donnell, A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell

New York: Bloomsbury, 2015 (216 pages); ISBN: 978-1-4411-5728-7, £12.59.
Gerd Bayer
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Patrick O’Donnell, A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015 (216 pages); ISBN: 978-1-4411-5728-7, £12.59.

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1David Mitchell has turned into one of the most celebrated and admired novelists of his generation, and his work has already received a fair amount of critical attention. Patrick O’Donnell’s A Temporary Future goes on the record as the first monograph devoted to Mitchell’s writing, covering his first six novels, up to and including The Bone Clocks (2014). The volume can serve readers who do not yet know the novels as a competent guide through the, at times, complex plot structures and rich group of characters; and it will offer academics who also work on Mitchell a good point of departure for further research.

2Each novel is treated in a separate chapter. For each, O’Donnell provides a detailed plot summary and lists numerous smaller details, such as information about the many incidents when characters who were introduced in one novel re-surface in later works. On this count alone, his monograph has to be praised for giving readers an almost encyclopaedic introduction to Mitchell’s oeuvre. Yet what makes this study an even more impressive first foray into extended critical analyses of these novels is the fact that such a wide range of theoretical concepts is brought in. Poststructuralist theorists feature most prominently, with Derrida on spectres, Deleuze and Guattari on rhizomatic structures and Debord on psychogeography, surfacing at diverse moments in this study. The overall conceptual frame that structures O’Donnell’s reading of Mitchell’s novels sees in the author’s use of temporality a key heuristic device for bringing into harmony both the thematic lines of interest and the somewhat experimental formal properties of (most of) the novels.

3Alongside textual analyses of key passages of Mitchell’s novels, this study also demonstrates the intertextual links to various other authors and artists, including both an impressive range of British and American writers (with the roles played by fellow Brits Ishiguro and Fowles potentially somewhat undersold when compared to the more frequently evoked transatlantic lines of influence) but also people like Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami or German filmmaker Tom Tywker (both, alas, repeatedly misspelled). What O’Donnell manages to show rather convincingly is that both the formal strategies employed in the novels and the author’s thematic interests intersect in various ways with recent aesthetic developments on a global scale. The book thus underlines the much-noted role played by cosmopolitanism for Mitchell’s writing, implicitly suggesting that the novels engage not just across time through their temporalities but also across place with their multi-ethnic, trans-geographic localities.

4The chapter on Ghostwritten devotes a substantial passage to introducing Derrida’s notion of hauntology, which resonances almost uncannily with Mitchell’s invention of non-corporeal narrative personas. Following the extensive plot survey, O’Donnell makes short shrift of actual critical text-work and points out various points of confluence, both in terms of aesthetic and narratorial principles and through actual characters, between Mitchell’s first published novel and The Bone Clocks. The chapter on number9dream turns from Derrida to sociologist Georg Simmel (whose first name is spelled, variously, Georg, George, and even Georges) to discuss the complex issue of metropolitan individuality, an approach that proves very productive for a reading of the novel’s protagonist and his, clearly traumatized, struggle to reconnect with his (family) past. The manner through which he relates to what this chapter teases apart as the “fabric of reality” (63) evokes quite powerfully the virtual nature of this almost cyber-novel, here tentatively labelled (amongst other terms) as “intertextual scrapbook” (65).

5Discussion of formal features also takes up much room in the chapter devoted to Cloud Atlas, so far Mitchell’s most impressive and successful novel. O’Donnell productively employs the novel’s title for a spatial and even ecological reading of the work’s chaos-inspired structure, marked as it is by its “elasticity of temporality” (96). Hybridity, also encountered in the blended identities of various characters, underscores this line of argument, and the chapter indeed manages to portray very well how Mitchell mixes utopian and dystopian elements as he weaves the global net of his cross-historical novel. The section closes with a brief take on the film adaptation.

6In blackswangreen (to follow the study’s rendering of Mitchell’s frequently unusual front page typographies), the focus is more on the personal life and experience of the teenage Jason, afflicted with a stammer; it is firmly embedded in the Falkland crisis of the 1980s and, one could add, the post-colonial meltdown of the formerly global and now merely great island of Britain. As elsewhere in this study, the chapter stresses the importance that storytelling plays in Mitchell’s novels, with the manner in which the past (personal and national) is remembered and told taking on ever greater significance.

7While the subject of temporality in the novels, discussed in the previous chapters, frequently featured excesses of different kinds, the role of time in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is far more restricted. Mitchell’s carefully timed chapters already indicate through their references to two different calendars, one European, the other Japanese, that even synchronicity is little more than a cultural convention. What Johannes Fabian has famously discussed in Time and the Other as Western anthropological discourse’s denial of coevalness to ethnic others, O’Donnell’s analysis of Mitchell’s novel stages through the clash of racialist stereotypes that, from both directions, hinder more substantial forms of cultural exchange between the colonialist traders and the Japanese. The discussion of Thousand Autumns stands out for its closely knit textual readings that bring to the fore the scientific layers of cross-cultural exchange, the cosmopolitan islands within rather restrictive imperialist social spheres, and the playful engagements with a wide range of genres that Mitchell invites his readers to enjoy. While geographically this novel is far more focussed than the rest of the oeuvre, cultural richness enters this narrative through the omnipresent need for translation and other forms of cultural migration, an aspect that this chapter discusses very solidly. Less convincing is the closing section that aims to take the reader, via Freud’s writing on civilization, on a detour into recent criticism of empire (by Hardt and Negri) that remains somewhat unconnected to Mitchell’s novel and that furthermore, though being in many ways an apt theoretical mode to probe into the novel’s trans-nationalist rationale, is not applied very productively here.

8Wrapping up this study, the author managed to include a chapter on The Bone Clocks drafted when the novel was not even available through official print channels. O’Donnell once again provides a very nuanced skeleton key to the various historical puzzle pieces and, even more important for readers unfamiliar with the novel, the rich cast of characters that, to make things more complicated, will frequently shape-shift through rather fantastical feats of metempsychosis. Relatively little is offered here, however, in terms of critical context, with Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” almost the only attempt at giving readers a conceptual framework for approaching this novel. The chapter tries to tone down the novel’s substantial departure from earlier Mitchell in terms of its reliance of extensive fantasy elements; yet one has to agree with O’Donnell that Mitchell laid the seed for this novel in the non-corporeal entities that were floating around Ghostwritten. The chapter also picks up on a theme introduced earlier, namely that Mitchell sees in narrative a crucial strategy for re-shaping memories and, through this, the past. But here, too, one would have wished for a more substantial engagement with more specific scholarly discourses, for instance from within narrative theory or by authors like Walter Ong. The importance of orality, so powerfully performed in the centre-most section of Cloud Atlas, is frequently evoked but not contextualized too widely.

9The study closes with a discussion of Mitchell’s place in the arena of contemporary writing, awarding him (of course) a very prominent position. This section, while kept very short, nevertheless might prove a wonderful treasure trove for research to come, as it hints at the need to read Mitchell via postmodern theory, to reflect on the shape of the novel-to-come, and to ask how changing reading habits and matters of print consumption will impact the literary novel. As befits a pioneer, O’Donnell has provided a vast territory for future research to move into; and he has included a very impressive range of theoretical approaches in a book that has nevertheless retained its readability for students and the general reader. The not infrequent editorial infelicities seem to hint at a rather tight production schedule for this very timely monograph on the temporalities of fiction. Despite this, the book will no doubt become a major touchstone for what promises to turn into a lively scholarly debate about a writer who has already published another novel, the Twitter-story-born Slade House, which continues in the mode initiated in The Bone Clocks.

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Gerd Bayer, « Patrick O’Donnell, A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 50 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 avril 2016, consulté le 26 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Gerd Bayer

University of Erlangen, Germany

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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