David Mitchell and his autobiography alike are not strict inhabitants of their genres. He is the comedian, the actor, the video podcaster and the panelist. His autobiography is a ‘walking guide to London’, a memoir and a weight loss manual. His problematic back has resulted in his having to take long daily walks about the metropolis, and as he goes he details sights that link to an anecdote or amusing meditation. This structure ensures that the unfolding memoir does not fall into the trap of being too thickly prosaic, providing intervals of scenic respite even within chapters.
It is a clever and self-conscious book, part of Mitchell’s comedic style is to let the self-consciousness alleviate tension by addressing it full on. He never lets a sentence dangle awkwardly without purpose, instead letting any oddity flourish and evolve. In one such case he mentions that his mobile phone rung while he was in France. He then spends some time celebrating how much like a functional adult the sentence makes him sound.
From the outset he acknowledges that his back pain is not as glamorous an affliction as one might expect to find sparking other celebrity memoirs. True enough nowhere is there to be found drugs or rock n’ roll; but there is trying to make ends meet, flat roofed pubs, a teenage aversion to cider, and wearing a hat. In short, do not expect something similar to ‘My Booky Wook’. Nor is BackStory like the laugh-out-loud ‘Bossypants’, its style is quieter while being just as insightful and funny.
At first the tales of childhood worry and apprehension amuse the reader, then before you know it you’re invested in the concerns of a college student and the fretful hopes of the graduate. One moment Mitchell is a young boy dressing up as Louis XIV in his garden, the next he is reading history at Cambridge. It is hard not to be on tenterhooks about Mitchell’s success as a comedian as the walking memoir unfolds; despite the evidence that had he failed, Backstory would not have been written. The anxiety over the result of an audition, the success of Peepshow and the possibility of being a panelist therefore is accompanied by knowledge of an eventual happy ending. There is a wonderful conclusion to the fantastical aspirations of the child (as he puts it ‘to be a Time Lord or wizard’) and the realized ambition of the adult when Mitchell likens his first appearance on ‘Have I Got News For You’ to flying the TARDIS, ‘amazing and impossible and terrifying’.
BackStory is a cleverly arranged mix of intuition and reflection that keeps you on your toes. It is at times deadpan and witty, at times bittersweet. For those who are unfamiliar with David Mitchell’s comedy and want a sample an excellent place to start would be his video podcast, ‘David Mitchell’s Soapbox’, available for free on iTunes. These short videos feature a comedic rant on all manner of subjects, including from talking to strangers, wine tasting, Downton Abbey to bread and butter.
BackStory by David Mitchell, Published by HarperCollins 2012
Audiobook read by the author, Harper Audio
By Morgan Kwok