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)?
12 thoughts on “David Mitchell, Earth calling Taylor”
Who’d have thought that you could find a free book on a newspaper website? I like the “down to my last life” quote and recognise the feeling behind it – we have to make the most of every moment I think. Did you grab the URL of this story and mail it to your free Kindle email address? I do this a lot nowadays
Oh Tom, I’ve just discovered – as Lisa did I think – a bunch of your comments in my SPAM folder. Why did this happen I wonder? Anyhow, this is not a book, just a short story, and so I printed it out and read it that way. I usually print our short stories rather than read them online.
I am just typing up my review of Mitchell’s GHOSTWRITTEN so I am intrigued by your reference to this story. I will definitely take a look!
Do look, Justine … I didn’t spend much time thinking about how it fits into his oeuvre. If you have any ideas let me know.
Hmm, he can’t be all bad if he comes from a family that plays Scrabble together? 😉
No, except that he didn’t join in the game which is a bit of a worry! Did you read it … there’s a lovely little dialogue in which the players argue about whether certain words are acceptable or not.
I’ll have to save the story to read later. Do you think it is going to be part of larger work?
Could very well be … works fine on its own (a couple of OTT bits in it) but could be part of a novel about Ryan Taylor. Just hope it wouldn’t be another Bonfire of the vanities! Been there done that..
The only Mitchell I’ve read is ‘Cloud Atlas’ although I’m fairly certain that if I turn round I’ll see ‘Black Swan Green’ sitting waiting for me on the shelf. In one sense this sounds fairly untypical Mitchell as he doesn’t appear to be playing around with the normative narrative structure at all. Is that the case?
Ah Annie, I have Black Swan Green on my shelf too … no the narrative structure/chronology is more traditional.
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Thanks for this link. I have finally reviewed Ghostwritten! I can’t believe how impossible it was to contain in words!! Looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas next 🙂