Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, in which human beings are mere pawns to be used by his feuding immortals. Credit Illustration by Sachin Teng
As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J. K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”
David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince. “Black Swan Green” (2006) is a funny and sweet-natured semi-autobiographical novel, conventionally told, about a boy growing up in a stifling Worcestershire village. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known book, is a brilliant postmodern suite, comprising six connected and overlapping novellas, set in such eras as the eighteen-fifties, the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-seventies, and the dystopian future. His 2010 book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, ” is a more or less traditional historical novel, set in 1799, in the bay of Nagasaki, about relations between the Japanese and the Dutch. He has a marvellous sense of the real and of the unreal, and his best work keeps these elements in nice tension—a balancing of different vitalities. One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist; Mitchell is a steady entertainer. Pleasing his readership, he has said, is important to him: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this, and to try to find a positive answer for that. People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.”
His latest novel, “The Bone Clocks” (Random House), is often enjoyable in this way, and is rarely without Mitchellian charm—a good sense of humor, a lack of pretentiousness, and decent prose. It is very long, is profuse with stories, and reëmploys the form of “Cloud Atlas”: there are six large, related narratives, stretching from 1984 to 2043. There are plenty of vivid protagonists, including Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a teen-ager, in 1984, and finally take our leave of in 2043; Hugo Lamb, a dastardly Cambridge undergraduate, seducer, thief, and near-murderer; and Crispin Hershey, a successful English writer with tinctures of both David Mitchell and Martin Amis, who is obsessed with taking revenge on his harshest reviewer, one Richard Cheeseman.
But pure storytelling seems to have triumphed here; the human case has disappeared. The novel keeps producing iterations of itself, in different places and times—England in the nineteen-eighties, Iraq in 2004, America in 2025, post-apocalyptic Ireland in 2043—but instead of formal capability there is a sense of empty capacity. It hardly helps that threaded through the book is a science-fiction plot about warring bands of immortals, named the Horologists and the Anchorites. Weightless realism is here at slack odds with weightless fantasy. Both the book’s exuberant impossibilities and its restlessly proliferating realities have a way of refocussing one’s suspicions of his earlier work: Mitchell has plenty to tell, but does he have much to say? “Cloud Atlas” offered an impressive narrative parquet, but what else was it? In that novel, to take an example, Robert Frobisher, a composer working in the nineteen-thirties, is writing a musical piece called “Cloud Atlas Sextet”; later in the book, in the pulp-fiction tale set in nineteen-seventies California, a character named Luisa Rey listens to this piece in a record store; she had discovered the music in a series of letters written in the nineteen-thirties by this same Frobisher. “Cloud Atlas” is made up of intricate replications like these, but what do they amount to? Does “Cloud Atlas” do much more than announce and adumbrate a universal, and perhaps not very interesting, interconnectedness? “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” begins as a formidably achieved historical novel but gradually turns into something out of Japanese anime, complete with a shadowy nunnery and an evil abbot, bent on grooming young girls as sex slaves. And although that book inhabits its late-eighteenth-century milieu with easy power, there is perhaps something ungrounded about its very ease, as if Mitchell might as well have set his tale in eighth-century England or fifteenth-century Granada. Mitchell can seem a weirdly frictionless entertainer.
“The Bone Clocks” begins in 1984, in pleasingly familiar territory. We are in the provincial England of “Black Swan Green”—a world of possessive lower-middle-class parents, bad English cars, inventive slang, and terrific music (Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music, ” the Police’s “Zenyattà Mondatta, ” a “Quadrophenia” T-shirt). Holly Sykes, a fifteen-year-old whose parents own a pub in Gravesend, Kent, has an argument with her mother and runs away from home. Things quickly get peculiar. On the road, Holly encounters a strange old woman named Esther Little, who knows her name, and who mysteriously says that she may need “asylum” if “the First Mission fails.” Holly tells us that from an early age she has had visions and has heard voices, which she used to call “the Radio People.” At the age of seven, she woke up to find a spectral visitor, Miss Constantin, sitting on the edge of her bed. Dr. Marinus, a Chinese child psychiatrist based in London, was called in to treat Holly, and used what he said was a technique from “the Old Country” to cure her: with his thumb, he touched a point in the middle of her forehead.
Now the problem of the visions returns with force. Holly has a vision of her kid brother, Jacko, under a bridge, even though she is miles away from home. She has various adventures and further visions. Holly ends up picking fruit at a farm. It is here that a concerned school friend, Ed Brubeck, arrives, with the news that Jacko has gone missing. So ends the novel’s first section, which is about ninety pages long.