David Mitchell, Earth calling Taylor
And now for something a little different from novelist David Mitchell, a short story titled “Earth calling Taylor”. You can read it online at FT.com. FT.com is the online version of the Financial Times, so it’s not surprising that Ryan Taylor, the protagonist of the story, works in the finance industry. The story starts with Ryan waiting to hear whether he has received the promotion to portfolio manager that he’s expecting.
The scene then shifts to a hospital, where Ryan joins his mother and step-siblings to visit his father who is recovering from a fall. It seems to be a happy and supportive family – they are sitting around the bed, squabbling with the father, who is clearly “on the mend”, over a game of Scrabble. His brother, Jason, is (“only”, says Ryan) a speech therapist and his sister is a successful lawyer in human rights areas, while Ryan, as we know, works at the more self-centred, self-serving end of the occupation spectrum.
And, he’s edgy, so he leaves them, on a flimsy excuse, to go check for messages on his Blackberry. He’s not a very appealing character – he blatantly and unrepentantly fantasises about a nurse in the lift, he wishes for a little cocaine to settle himself down while swigging some hard liquor from his hip flask, he jumps to the wrong (read, negative) conclusions about people, he throws a tantrum when the expected message doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Running through the main narrative are intonations by his boss Calvin Hathaway on such subjects as “wanting” (in an uber-capitalist meaning of the word) and a little third person, somewhat mock-heroic, tale in which Ryan stars as himself:
The crowd went wild. King Ryan is anointed.
Rather puerile, eh? When he reads his Blackberry messages and, with only one to go, still hasn’t received the hoped-for message, he thinks “suddenly I’m down to my last life”. An appropriate pop culture allusion that mocks his intensity.
Fortunately, our Ryan is not all bad. Set against his comparatively minor concerns are some characters with real miseries in their lives, providing a nice contrast with his petulance over the “will-I-won’t-I” promotion problem. And, he shows that he can in fact evince some empathy for others, such as for an old, sick woman in hospital. “I’ll be her, one day” he thinks, and responds kindly to her. However, when she calls him “a very kind young man”, he thinks that that’s not an “accusation” he hears at his workplace.
The resolution, though formally open-ended, is somewhat predictable and yet, due to the various undercurrents Mitchell has injected into the story, you want to keep thinking after you’ve finished reading. By rounding out Ryan just a little, Mitchell encourages us to feel some sympathy for him at the end, even though we think that his values are rather skewed.
The irony is that the story takes place on New Year’s Eve – but, we wonder, will Ryan make the most of his new start (whatever that turns out to be)?