WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.
Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism. “Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell.