Practically everyone I know loves Cloud Atlas except me. David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is ambitious and clever, I can see that, combining six storylines, each written in a very different style, all loosely connected by a shared vision of human weakness and impending (self-)destruction. (Actually, “novel” hardly seems an adequate term for this kind of 500-page stem-winder. If a small novel is a “novella,” what is an overlong one? Novelissimo? Novepedia?) Switching modes from epistolary novel to thriller to dystopian fiction, Cloud Atlas foregrounds the art of storytelling while doing what science fiction does, and what most of us too seldom do as we’re carried along in the river of the present: ask where we’re going and how we got to where we are. By borrowing elements from genre it achieves that grand sweep from history to future that’s always exciting when you encounter it for the first time.
When you look at the parts separately, though, what do you have? A couple of highly ironic historical fictions, a second-rate thriller, one extended satiric interlude, and two sci-fi tales, all too long, all drenched in a sticky sauce of pastiche and imitation. The parts set in the future feel especially hollow: Mitchell lacks the inventiveness, the originality of vision, the moral urgency or wild-eyed paranoia that might make him a great writer of speculative fiction. As big and memorable as it is essentially gimmicky, Cloud Atlas is the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of postmodern literature.
Instead I admire a different Mitchell, the one who is so good at evoking real places and moments of everyday intimacy. His terrific gifts as a realist can best be seen in Black Swan Green, his short, sweet novel of English childhood in the 1980s, full of living, breathing characters, funny, moving, and believable human interactions, and moody, beautifully realized settings. As the hero journeys through the small dystopia that is the age 13, Mitchell gives each event its own tinge of magic.
Mitchell’s sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, is more like Cloud Atlas, another genre-blending, career-advancing doorstop of a book. But here Mitchell’s realist gifts are all seductively, brilliantly on display. It begins in the summer of 1984 in Thatcher’s England, when Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old with spiky hair and a thorny attitude, has a fight with her mother and leaves her home in Gravesend, east of London. On foot she follows the Thames toward its mouth at Sheerness, over flat, empty, sun-filled land, stitched with power lines and motorways, scarred with bunkers and gravel pits. The Thames, that slow river of the present, is “biro-blue; the sky’s the blue of snooker-chalk.” In Mitchell’s hands, a calm summer day on the edge of London, in a landscape where the place names that sound magical but turn out to be on the map—Allhallows, Saint Mary Hoo, the Isle of Grain—becomes a ravishing setting for the beginning of an adventure.
As in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell breaks his narrative into six sections, switching sharply from one perspective to another. This time the stories are more closely connected, though, both to each other and to our own time and place. After Holly, we step into the mind of a fatally self-involved Cambridge student, then jump to 2004 as seen through the eyes of Holly’s husband, a war reporter and devoted father. Then we move into the future with the former “Wild Child of British Letters,” a misbehaving middle-aged writer à la Martin Amis. This satiric interlude is followed by a long fantasy action sequence, culminating in a supernatural battle; and when Holly returns to tell the ending, she’s a grandmother and the year is 2043.
Some of the narrative and thematic strands that connect these stories have to do with time, rebirth, what of us survives after death. As a child, Holly is “cured” of hearing voices by one Dr. Marinus, who is later revealed to be a Horologist, a member of a small group of souls that are reincarnated, life after life, with all their memories intact. (He is, of course, the same Dr. Marinus who appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; several figures from Mitchell’s earlier novels are given new literary lives in The Bone Clocks.) Opposed to the Horologists are the Anchorites, who preserve eternal youth in their own bodies by drinking the souls of others. “Bone clock” is the Anchorites’ scornful word for a mortal body, doomed to tick away the hours from birth to death.
This reincarnation fantasy is also a commentary on one of Mitchell’s central themes, the art of fiction. It serves as a metaphor for what readers do as they move from story to story, in each one occupying another person’s body and mind. It’s also—especially since Mitchell has said his books should be read as a set of linked narratives—a way of continuing Mitchell’s ongoing interrogation of man’s fate. Within the narrow limits of human power, what’s worth doing? What gives weight to an individual soul? Writing, Mitchell suggests, is only one way to live beyond death; so are family bonds, caring for children, and other domestic acts of kindness. This is not a dramatic or unprecedented answer, and The Bone Clocks lacks one of the compelling qualities of Cloud Atlas, its atmosphere of lurking menace. But it’s a more adult conclusion, from a mature writer who is ready to stop storytelling and start writing.
At the same time Mitchell is still working on the problem of fusing realistic and imaginative fiction, high art and low. Halfway through The Bone Clocks, a character snarls that “a book can’t be a half fantasy”—a statement the author has staked his literary career on trying to disprove. Once again, he only half succeeds. While the fantasy plot gives The Bone Clocks its narrative energy, its thematic resonance, and a great page-turning middle section, it’s also the place where Mitchell’s maturity deserts him. All of a sudden there’s a war on between the good guys and the bad guys, the wise Horologists versus the vampiritic Anchorites, who speak in cartoonish lines, like “What’s it like, knowing you’ll be dead as a fucking stone in sixty seconds, Holly Sykes?” and “Crush them like ants!” The final battle seems lifted from Harry Potter, with the combatants shooting “psychobolts” at each other and Holly in the role of Molly Weasley, taking out an enemy while shouting “I told you, nobody threatens my family!” If this is literature, then I’m from the Lost Continent of Mu.
The problem is not that it’s fantasy but that it’s not very good. Truly great fantasy, from Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ to Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’, speaks to our unconscious, not just our love of adventure, and Mitchell isn’t yet at that level. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether Mitchell’s lack of feeling for genre isn’t the reason for his popular success: his readers may prefer clichés to being taken too deep into the realms of the weird. But if The Bone Clocks is flawed, it’s also evocative, intimate, and powerful; it feels less safe and more challenging than Cloud Atlas. Mitchell may be a terrific realist, but I don’t want him to stop mixing realism and fantasy. I’m prepared to keep going there with him until he gets it right.
Trouw, January 10, 2015. David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (London: Sceptre, 2014), Tijdmeters (Amsterdam: Nieuw Amsterdam, 2014). Originally published in slightly different form.