“As an experienced editor,” says the pompous publisher Timothy Cavendish in David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with MAs in postmodernism.” But this declaration is, of course, a tricksy device—and not just because Mitchell’s own MA was in postmodern fiction. Cloud Atlas famously consists of six novellas, all crammed with flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices of various kinds, and each set in a different time and place, from the nineteenth-century Pacific to a postapocalyptic Hawaii. The six are connected by their common themes—including rapaciousness and the dangers of human tribalism—and by the book’s structure, with every narrative breaking off halfway, until the Hawaii story is told in full, and we then get the conclusion of the previous five in reverse order. (And that’s the simplified explanation.) Yet what’s perhaps most remarkable of all about Cloud Atlas is how world-conquering it proved to be: it is one of the few intricately constructed nests of centuries-spanning stories to have been made into a movie, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
So how has Mitchell pulled off the same trick the Beatles once did—acclaimed by critics for his technical daring, while still almost universally enjoyed? The answer, I think, is for the literary equivalent of the same reason. On the whole, no matter how experimental the Beatles became, they never forgot the importance of a good tune. Likewise, however challenging Mitchell’s novels might seem, they’ve always provided plenty of classic old-school storytelling, complete with narrative twists and thrilling set pieces. “I’m a plot ’n’ character guy,” he insists—and one who believes that the best books “stroke your brain and milk your adrenaline gland at the same time.”
With some writers, the brain-stroking might be produced by the exploration of highly complex ideas. With Mitchell—and again, this might help to explain his popularity—it’s more related to the solving of puzzles and the making of connections. Once you’ve put the various elements of his books together, there’s generally no difficulty distinguishing the bad characters (greedy, often murderous) from the good ones (fundamentally kindly, but unafraid to fight villainy). Nor is there much likelihood of disagreeing with his central themes: that cruelty and oppression are wrong, and that any hope of a better world lies with people laying aside their divisions.1 Nevertheless, there’s no denying the pleasure to be gained from making the connections—especially given the infectious exuberance of all that storytelling.
It was a method that Mitchell announced in his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999). Not for him the obviously autobiographical portrait of a bookish teenager growing up in middle England. Instead, he gave us ten loosely overlapping novellas by nine narrators on three continents, and in genres that ranged from romance to thriller, science fiction to social realism. Next came Number9Dream—its title taken from a John Lennon song—which, despite being based around the single quest of a Japanese boy for his father, also threw in an impressive selection of literary forms and subplots, of which the most esoteric concerned a story-writing goat on a fairy-tale search for “the truly untold tale.”
After taking the mosaic technique still further in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell appeared to downsize into something more conventional with Black Swan Green—oddly enough, an obviously autobiographical portrait of a bookish teenager growing up in middle England. Yet not only was there a certain tricksiness involved in what he called “writing a first novel with the experience of having written three novels already,” but the book also confirmed another ambitious aspect of his fiction: that its connections aren’t confined to each individual work. One of the characters is the elderly Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, last seen as a young woman in 1930s Belgium in Cloud Atlas. Another is Neal Brose, the money-obsessed banker in Ghostwritten, here in his younger days as a money-obsessed classmate of the narrator, Jason Taylor. “I’ve come to realize,” Mitchell has said, “that I’m bringing into being a fictional universe with its own cast, and that each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel.” Or as he more self-deprecatingly put it elsewhere, “I’m really best at writing novellas, [but] I’m a novella-writer and a maximalist.”
For those who like to spot the links between Mitchell novels, his next book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set on a Dutch trading post in eighteenth-century Japan, offered comparatively slim pickings. But that’s because, as his following novel revealed, it contained more foreshadowings than flashbacks, with both a central crime and a minor character resurfacing in The Bone Clocks in vastly expanded form.
To explain how requires some backtracking—to perhaps the single strangest aspect of Mitchell’s work: its unashamed, even blithe use of souls as a narrative device. In real life, he has said, “I doubt that we have [souls] and I hope that I’m wrong.” In his fiction, they crop up regularly—not, it would seem, as part of any grand spiritual system or even as something to be understood symbolically, but simply as another element of his storytelling, to be taken at face value. True, the defining characteristic of souls in his fiction is familiar from Judeo-Christian tradition (so familiar, in fact, that Mitchell rather takes it for granted and expects the reader to do the same): they are a person’s noncorporeal essence. Yet Mitchell also endows them with an unusual degree of mobility—as well as making them vulnerable to unusually literal forms of attack.
In the early books, it was the mobility that predominated. One section of Ghostwritten is narrated by a “noncorpum,” a soul that successively enters dozens of living people, coexisting with their own soul, while absorbing their memories and occasionally shaping their actions. In Cloud Atlas, there was a firm suggestion that the main character in every story was a reincarnation of the same soul—another tricksy device to which Timothy Cavendish objects. (“Far too hippie-druggy-new age.”)
But then in The Thousand Autumns, the use of souls took on a more sinister aspect. The book was rightly praised for its depiction of the uneasy relationship between Japan and the West, done with just the right combination of historical research and novelistic imagination. Tucked in the middle, though, was a very different type of story, in which imagination was all. In a Japanese hill-top monastery, a group of women were kept in sexual slavery to breed babies for the monks. The peculiar reason why was eventually revealed when, in best Bond-villain style, the monastery’s abbot outlined the whole dastardly scheme to one of the good characters just before killing him. The babies, he proudly explained, were immediately murdered so that the monks could “distill their souls” and “imbibe” them as a way of gaining immortality—which is why the abbot himself was more than six hundred years old.
Now, in The Bone Clocks, the same crime, known in Mitchell’s world as “Animacide” (the murder of the soul), has become more global, and even madder, thanks to a secret group called the Anchorites. While their name might suggest religious hermits, sadly for the rest of humanity this is misleading. Instead, these Anchorites—or to give them their full title, the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass—were born ordinary mortals, but have discovered a way to avoid the aging process by finding psychically gifted people (ideally children), killing them, and drinking their souls in the form of “Black Wine.” And just in case that’s not mysterious enough, they can also appear wherever they want in the world, can recruit other people to their “syndicate of soul thieves,” and, once they’ve sourced a suitably psychic victim, can open an “Aperture” from anywhere on earth straight to that Dusk Chapel in the Alps where the soul-drinking takes place.
And this, I’m afraid, is the heart of what’s wrong with the book. Moments of overdone fantasy writing are nothing new in Mitchell’s work. The difference here is that they’re no longer moments. Instead, they end up not merely pushing the transmigration of souls well beyond absurdity, but also swamping what might otherwise have been another satisfying series of interlocking novellas. Moreover, that we don’t find out properly about the Anchorites until page 450 means there’s a lot of head-scratching to be done in the first four sections whenever the realism gives way to yet another teasing but incomprehensible hint that dark forces are at work. Mitchell has spoken of his fondness for the “slow reveal” and “delayed gratification” that a long novel can provide. But in The Bone Clocks, the reveal is not so much slow as glacial—and the gratification, while undoubtedly delayed, not gratifying enough.
The book starts deceptively plainly, with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes running away from her Kent home in 1984. By page 16, however, what she accurately refers to as “the Weird Shit” has already begun. When she was seven, Holly tells us, a beautiful blond woman called Miss Constantin started to show up in her bedroom at night. At this stage, neither she nor the reader can possibly realize that Miss C is an Anchorite, checking out Holly’s psychic powers with a view to imbibing her soul. Luckily, though, the psychiatrist that Holly’s parents send her to is Dr. Marinus.
To Holly, he’s just “the first Chinese person I ever met, apart from the ones at the Thousand Autumns Restaurant.” To Mitchell’s readers, he’s manifestly a reincarnation of the Dutch surgeon from The Thousand Autumns, whose references to his own immortality in eighteenth-century Japan no longer seem as ambiguous as they did then.2 His touch on Holly’s forehead instantly banishes the visitations—although it’s not until page 457 that we (sort of) know why: “I inoculated you by draining off your psychosoteric voltage and rendering you unfit for Black Wine,” Marinus tells her; which, by the book’s standards, is as clear as it gets.
Holly’s psychic powers, meanwhile, evidently remain in place. Back in 1984, she heads into the countryside where, between scenes of impeccable psychological realism and fruit-picking, she meets an old woman called Esther Little, who offers her tea in return for “asylum…if the First Mission fails.” Holly also has a vision of some sort of cosmic battle in a large stone chamber with an eyeless icon and Miss Constantin pointing a silver-tipped finger. (Again, we won’t know why for quite a long time.)
In section two, set in the 1990s, the narrator is Hugo Lamb, Jason’s charming but dangerous London cousin from Black Swan Green, now a Cambridge undergraduate. I suspect I might not be the only reader whose heart sinks slightly when Hugo gets chatting with a blond who introduces herself as Miss Constantin and who talks in vague terms about the possibility of living forever. Fortunately, after that, he concentrates on the more entertaining business of being a complete cad in several locations, including an alpine ski resort where he meets Holly, who is working as a waitress. Faced with unfamiliar feelings of human fondness, Hugo briefly considers falling in love—before a delegation of people calling themselves Anchorites make him an offer he doesn’t refuse: eternal youth in return for providing a psychic child to kill every three years.
But this raises problems in another way too. Mitchell has talked about The Bone Clocks as his “midlife crisis novel”—with immortality the only temptation strong enough for people to enter a “Faustian pact” in which they allow their conscience to be amputated. And yet, as we’ve been made abundantly aware by then, Hugo never had a conscience—and neither, from what we see, did anybody else who’s become an Anchorite. For such a careful writer, this seems a curious oversight, and one that robs the book of virtually all moral complexity.
On a happier note, in the next two sections the Anchorite theme takes more of a back seat. In “The Wedding Bash,” Holly’s war-journalist partner Ed returns from Iraq in 2004 for the wedding of her sister Sharon, where the contrast between ordinary British life and the memories of what he’s seen in the war give them both a heightened, almost hallucinatory quality. We then head into the near future for a satire on the literary world, narrated by Crispin Hershey, the aging “Wild Child of British literature,” whose sales and talent are in freefall as he drifts from one international writers’ festival to another, frequently bumping into Holly, who has somewhat improbably published a best seller about her psychic childhood.
Mitchell has denied that Crispin is based on Martin Amis. Nonetheless, the titles of Crispin’s Desiccated Embryos and Red Monkey might remind some readers of Amis’s Dead Babies and Yellow Dog. And while there may be other British novelists who, like Crispin, play chess, smoke a lot, have a controversially aggressive agent with a scavenger’s nickname (“the Jackal” in Amis’s case, “the Hyena” in Crispin’s), and so on, there really can’t be many whose famous late father used to tell an anecdote about Roald Dahl that’s almost word for word the same as one in Kingsley Amis’s memoirs.
By this stage, in fact, the reader might wonder if The Bone Clocks is offering an inadvertent Faustian pact of its own. In order to enjoy the funny, stirring, touching parts, all we have to do is put up with the Anchorites stuff intruding from time to time. Out walking with his daughter, for instance, Ed has a mercifully short encounter with Miss Constantin. In 2019, Crispin bumps into a still-youthful Hugo Lamb, who appears out of nowhere to interrogate him because a story he once wrote seemed to show some knowledge of how the Anchorites operate.3 The fifth and longest novella, though, comprehensively dashes all hopes of any such compromise.
“An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” set in 2025, is narrated by Marinus himself, who tracks Holly down for what proves to be a final apocalyptic showdown between good and evil—but not before he’s given her (and us) a belated and punishingly thorough explanation of what’s been going on. The level of detail in his exposition sadly confirms that Mitchell is most interested in the book’s least interesting elements, but along the way we do learn that Marinus is a Horologist—Mitchell’s coinage for the kind of good “Atemporal” (i.e., immortal) who, as opposed to the evil Anchorite sort, doesn’t need to kill anybody to live forever. Nobody knows why, but Horologists “inherit resurrection as a birthright,” their souls reappearing inside a naturally deceased child forty-nine days after their previous life ended. As well as retaining memories of all their past lives, Horologists can also disembody themselves and make their souls temporarily “ingress” into any mortals—which is why, unbeknownst to Holly, Marinus’s fellow Horologist Esther Little has been holed up inside her since 1984, when the First Horologist Mission to destroy the Anchorites did indeed fail, and asylum was required. After digging Esther out, Marinus leads the Horologists and Holly to that Alpine Dusk Chapel for a second go at finishing off the Anchorites.
When telling Holly about the failed First Mission (of which we now realize she had her vision in chapter one), Marinus rather sheepishly confesses that “it’s hard to describe a psychosoteric battle at close quarters.” This, however, doesn’t stop Mitchell from trying—often with the aid of the prefix “psycho.” Once battle commences, we get page after page of sentences such as: “Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.” Given that the Anchorites have psychobolts, psychodumdums, and psychoincendiaries at their disposal, another defeat for the Horologists initially seems a distinct possibility. Until, that is, Esther ingresses her soul into a crack in the chapel wall and detonates a blast of “psychosoteric dynamite.”
The problem with all this is not merely that it’s a bit silly, but that the customary exuberance of Mitchell’s storytelling is replaced by something that feels more like self-consciousness, even anxiety. Although the prevailing tone is determinedly solemn, there are occasional nervous jokes that appear to acknowledge the underlying preposterousness. (“You lost me at ‘Atemporals,’” says Holly after Marinus begins his metaphysical explanation.) More than once, Mitchell seems to notice potentially tricky questions—and hastily, sometimes desperately, seeks to answer them. Why, for instance, should a supposedly indestructible chapel have such a convenient crack in it? “The Chapel was built by faith,” Esther points out. “But faith requires doubt, like matter requires antimatter. That crack, that’s the Blind Cathar’s doubt.” Meanwhile, in a particularly spectacular example of delayed gratification, on page 526 we finally discover what the novel’s title means: “bone clocks” is the Anchorites’ contemptuous nickname for people who grow old and die.
To Mitchell’s credit, the book doesn’t end with the Horologists’ great victory—on the indisputable grounds that most lives don’t have an obvious climax after which nothing happens. The year 2043 finds Holly back as the narrator and living in Ireland during what, Mitchell readers might not be surprised to hear, are postapocalyptic times. (“A writer only has a relatively small family of themes,” Mitchell has said, “and however hard you try to write about something else, they reemerge like indestructible whack-a-moles.”) As hideous dystopian futures go, this one is pretty standard: with the planet’s oil reserves running out, travel, reliable electricity, and digital communications are fading into memory. Nonetheless, the collapse is thoroughly imagined, with both the incidental details and wider implications powerfully spelled out. By concentrating on Holly and her neighbors, the chapter also restores some of her and the book’s humanity after the excesses of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth.”
But then comes a last and clinching miscalculation: the reappearance of Marinus, who, in his latest incarnation, arrives to take Holly’s granddaughter and adopted grandson to the mysteriously safe haven of Iceland. For all his dark thoughts about the ineradicable nature of human ruthlessness, Mitchell is fond of happy endings—but with the rest of humanity left to its fate and just two people saved, this feels dangerously close to the facile. More importantly, its glibness serves as a jolting reminder—and final proof—of how much the Atemporals have disfigured the book, even to the point of Animacide.
Mitchell has described his fictional method as “putting elements together that…apparently don’t belong together”—something he’s triumphantly achieved in the past. In The Bone Clocks, though, the failure of the human stories and the metaphysical powers to coalesce means that its self-deprecating moments (unlike in Cloud Atlas) have a disconcertingly accurate ring. It is, for example, hard to disagree with Crispin Hershey’s agent when Crispin says his next book will be “one-third fantasy. Half, at most.” “A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant,” the Hyena replies.
Oddly, this is a piece of advice that Mitchell himself appears to have taken to heart—at least for now—in Slade House, an uncharacteristically slim novel that’s followed The Bone Clocks with surprising speed (a surprise shared by his own British publishers). The book had its origins as a short story told in tweets that Mitchell agreed to write as a means of building excitement for the publication of The Bone Clocks. But having found that extending it into something longer was “enormously fun to do,” he’s decided to offer the whole thing as what he calls “almost a dessert if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, and a starter if you haven’t, and hopefully a standalone amuse-bouche if you’re not going to.”
Slade House duly plunges us back into the world of soul-drinking baddies, this time as represented by the siblings Jonah and Norah Grayer, who’ve formed a two-person breakaway group from the Anchorites. Not for them all that complicated business with Black Wine in alpine chapels. Instead, they simply own a large house that reappears for one night every nine years in a provincial English town, and into which they lure their victims for the more straightforward kind of Animacide they require to top up their immortality—until they try the same ploy on a psychiatrist called Marinus.
Again, the metaphysics are unblushingly presented (“The operandi works provided we recharge the lacuna every nine years by luring a gullible Engifted into a suitable orison,” Norah reminds her brother at one stage). Again, the various voices, with each section narrated by one of the victims, are all pitch-perfect—from a thirteen-year-old autistic boy to a divorced middle-aged policeman. The difference from The Bone Clocks, though, is that Mitchell commits himself so whole-heartedly to the fantasy element that some British science-fiction fans have already taken Slade House as conclusive evidence that he’s now firmly one of their own.4
Admittedly, those of us who still prefer the playfully realistic Mitchell to the hard-core sci-fi version might wish that he’d chosen to jump the other way. Even so, the result is certainly a much more coherent novel than The Bone Clocks, as well as a much tauter one. Or as Mitchell’s American publisher wrote, maybe ill-advisedly, when announcing the book, “On the heels of The Bone Clocks, perhaps his most ambitious novel yet, [David Mitchell] has delivered Slade House…quite possibly his most entertaining.”
Presumably the publisher didn’t mean to suggest that the ambitiousness of The Bone Clocks often comes at the expense of its entertainment value (i.e., all those good tunes). Yet if he had, he wouldn’t have been far wrong.
In another of his self-deprecating moments, Mitchell told The Paris Review that “I used to try to make myself look clever by saying I was in search of the narrative saturation point of fiction”—and with The Bone Clocks, you can’t help feeling, he’s finally found it. Paradoxically, it seems, even maximalism has its limits.
At the risk of overdoing the Beatles analogy, the closing pages of Cloud Atlas are not unlike a nineteenth- century-prose version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “If we believe divers races & creeds can share this world…peaceably…, if we believe…the riches of the Earth [must be]…shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” ↩
“Readers of [The Thousand Autumns] don’t know it,” Mitchell told The Paris Review when the novel came out, “but…he’s on his twenty-eighth lifetime.” ↩
One for the Mitchell obsessives: the same story was the basis of a movie the narrator watches in Number9Dream. ↩
And no wonder: faced with a touch-free automatic soap dispenser in 2004, a minor character in The Bone Clocks marvels that “life’s more science-fictiony by the day.” Mitchell’s work, meanwhile, appears to be getting more science-fictiony by the book. ↩