Over the course of his 15-year career, it has become clear that there are really two sides to the English novelist David Mitchell. At first, readers were introduced to the dreamer, a mild-mannered yet stratospherically ambitious polymath whose books careened around the world and across time, and were always brimming with stories within stories within stories. His 2004 novel Cloud Atlas had the simple yet audacious premise of cutting six disparate novellas down the middle and then suturing them back together again; it was also one the breakout literary successes of the century, selling more than 500,000 copies, getting shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and later being brought to Hollywood courtesy of Tom Hanks and the Wachowskis.
But with the release of each new book, readers have grown gradually aware of a different side of the novelist – call him Mitchell the cartographer. This is the Mitchell who has been quietly planting clues that his novels, incongruous as they seemed on the surface, were all deeply connected. Characters from one book would make cameo appearances in others. The phrase “cloud atlas” itself turned out to have been first used in Number9dream, years before it became a title in its own right. A much larger plan was emerging, and here it’s useful to point out that Mitchell’s love of writing was predated by a love of maps: as a child he would spend hours drawing imaginary continents and then studiously naming each part of them. He even refers to these drawings, now, as “protonovels.” The map described by Mitchell’s fiction, however, is a living document that has grown larger with each new novel – and there is always a sense that some key piece of information, the legend that will explain it all, remains just out of reach, visible only to the cartographer himself.
Nowhere have these two Mitchells come together as clearly, or are felt working in tandem more keenly, than in his latest effort. On the one hand, The Bone Clocks gives his earlier work a run for its money in terms of page count, characters, breadth of setting and vocabulary, and any other quantifiable metric you care to name. But it’s also the place where the cartographer steps into the spotlight, and where the worlds of Mitchell’s previous books, even the sealed-off Black Swan Green (set exclusively in small-town England circa 1984) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (1799 Japan), quite literally collide.
The novel is arranged, like Cloud Atlas, into six sections, each with a different narrator and setting. We begin in 1984, when a teenaged Holly Sykes runs away from home over a fight about her choice of boyfriend. Then, in 1991, a college-aged womanizer named Hugo Lamb rings in the new year on a rather unusual skiing vacation. A decade later, a war reporter itches to return to the Middle East; a decade after that, a washed-up novelist does the festival circuit in increasingly poor spirits; a decade after that, Mitchell bazookas the doors clean off everything that’s come before. We close on a remote Irish peninsula circa 2043, where a small group of citizens tries to find a new way of life following a series of global catastrophes.
In true Mitchell fashion, each section has its own rhythms and tone, and each completely convinces you that it could have been its own book. The story of Holly’s teenage rebellion, for instance, is a natural companion piece to the blue-collar English realism of Black Swan Green. And the section about the washed-up novelist, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet,” is a riotous send up of a not-even-veiled Martin Amis figure that’s so well ventriloquized it hurts. (To the glowering Crispin, a lighthouse is “a stumpy middle finger sticking up from a rocky rise, grunting, ‘Sit on this, mate.’”)
But whereas Cloud Atlas was content to join its sections obliquely, through the suggestion that each part became a found text in the world of the next one, connections in The Bone Clocks hit like a sledgehammer. Those hints in previous books about reincarnation, or cannibalism? They’re all borne out – and on a much larger scale than you’ve been led to expect. It turns out that lurking in the background of every single David Mitchell novel was no less than an epic, centuries-old battle for human souls. The good guys are the Horologists, who reincarnate into new bodies naturally, and with full memory of their pasts; the baddies are Anchorites, “carnivores” who retain their immortality only by sacrificing innocent victims every few months. Each section of the novel gets duly interrupted once the Horologists and Anchorites burst through the walls, continuing a blood feud that stretches back farther than just about anyone realizes.
I’ll leave it to a more devoted slice of the Internet to catalogue all of the ringers who wander through these pages. But close readers will be bowled over. Even my incomplete list runs into double digits, and includes Lamb, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, and especially Dr. Marinus, originally a secondary character in Jacob de Zoet, and who gets an even more central role this time around. Heck, even a certain moon-coloured cat from several earlier books shows up in time to save someone from a hotel bombing.
The real common denominator, however, is Holly Sykes. As the novel’s unlikely centre, whose life story is revealed in fragments across all six sections, she is meant to provide the sort of human touch that a book about carnivorous time travellers inevitably requires. Whenever the Horologists v. Anchorites storyline teeters on the verge of total silliness, Mitchell brings out Holly – finding love, losing love, getting sick, fighting back – in an attempt to remind us what’s really at stake. The list of Mitchell’s virtues as a novelist runs long, and that’s likely why his emotional intelligence always gets underrated. But it’s there, at least when he remembers to make time for it.
In theory, The Bone Clocks is a sure thing. It contains just about every conceivable ingredient for literary greatness; by any criteria I can think of, Mitchell himself is a genius. But a map is not a novel, and what looks irresistible when outlined in a notebook can feel too much like a pre-programmed chess match in execution. Looking back, you realize the sections in Cloud Atlas actually benefitted from their ignorance of the larger book they were contained within. Here, by contrast, the war of the soul-eaters exerts too much gravity on the novel’s constituent parts. Any nascent emotional stakes among the regular people are all but discarded as soon as one of Mitchell’s immortals, consistently the least interesting characters in a very large cast, arrives on the scene. For all of the novel’s talk about souls, humanity is in relatively short supply.
The bigger question is where Mitchell and his always thrilling, occasionally exhausting talent will go from here. He recently gave Kathryn Schulz of New York magazine detailed outlines of his next five novels, as well as a plan for what will hopefully be his twelfth book, set 250 million years in the future. Sounds suitably ambitious. But given his commitment to keeping this ever-expanding map coherent, are smaller subjects and people now off the table entirely? Will he ever be able to pen another realist novel like Black Swan Green now that readers know there’s always a fantastical war of the immortals being waged in the middle distance? It’s a pretty tough corner for a novelist to write his way out of. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time Mitchell has done exactly that.
Michael Hingston is books columnist for
the Edmonton Journal and author ofThe Dilettantes.Report Typo/Error
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