Magic Dirty Realism

The Bone Clocks: A Novel BY David Mitchell. Random House. Hardcover, 640 pages. $30.

Aristotle thought all stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the novels of David Mitchell begin and end so often they can seem like all middle. Critics have called Mitchell a stylist. In fact, he is a structuralist. His first novel has nine narrators. His second has three false starts, signposts for the maze to come. His third, Cloud Atlas (2004), is the most elaborate—six plots, four continents, eleven chapters. The plots interlock, and the chapters mirror each other. It is the apex, and possibly the ceiling, of the Mitchell method. People and problems recur, a chase scene is spun out across centuries, and motifs proliferate, too many to count. “We cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters,” thinks one character. Structures this complex can start to resemble the chaos they’re supposed to articulate (skate over the same patch of ice often enough and it will turn to slush), but to fault Mitchell for this would be like faulting Ulysses for poor grammar. Pushing form toward an imitation of formlessness is the point. In literary terms, the slush is gold.

David Mitchell has a theory of history. Roughly, this is it: Progress is neither bad nor good but circular and inescapable. It will lead humankind, inexorably, off the cliff, yet you can count on humankind (just as inexorably) to pick itself back up again. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize,” he writes in Cloud Atlas, “but human hunger killed it too.” Entropy is the technical term. His books are shaped like bell curves, as much rise as fall. Of the first five, two dramatize the apocalypse, one hits Tokyo with an earthquake, and a fourth features a Shinto abbot who drinks the souls of infants. Black Swan Green, a coming-of-age story, repeats this theme in miniature. Innocence is lost, experience gained. It’s entropy as puberty. “The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making,” the narrator explains.

Or, “The weak are meat, the strong do eat!” as a character in Cloud Atlas (carnivore subdivision) puts it. Fatalistic on a large scale, Mitchell is also obsessed with chance. His heroes never just take a turn on the road—they take the wrong turns (or right ones) to end up in the right places (or wrong ones) at the right time (you get the picture). “Weird,” thinks a character from Ghostwritten after he’s dive-tackled a passing physicist out of the way of a taxi. “If that chair hadn’t arrived when it did, and Katy hadn’t flipped out and asked me to leave, then I wouldn’t have been at that precise spot to stop that woman being flattened.” Which is some line of dominoes. As someone else says, “I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing.”

It’s a sensation to which Mitchell’s characters are prone. He likes to underscore his power as creator to call the shots. This can be sadistic—watch me squash a bug, the novelist-as-God says. (Nabokov: “My characters cringe as I come near them with my whip.”) It can also be artistic. In number9dream, Mitchell’s second novel (the one with the three false starts), gangsters force the hero, a Japanese teenager, to roll a bowling ball at the head of a man buried up to his neck (long story). He misses. He thinks, “Can a chance difference in spin and angle really make me not guilty?” In life, a moral question. In art, a technical one.

Randomness interests Mitchell because it’s the one thing a novelist can’t have. Fiction is on purpose. When literary characters bump into each other, when they throw a dart, chip a tooth, run a red, or take a number, the novelist is there, choreographing every move. It’s all up to him; it’s never “just one of those coincidences.” Mitchell’s first two novels suggest a writer comfortable with the terms of this omnipotence. But from Cloud Atlas on, the fiction seems to run up against the limits of its own virtuosity. Mitchell is very good at doing it all—heist plots, Chinese history, all manner of postmodernist high-tech. But is doing it all, novelistically, everything?

Appropriately, the ability to do anything, make anybody do anything—power—provides the subject of his new book, The Bone Clocks. The story is relayed in six parts by five narrators—“a good Chaucerian mix,” as one of them calls it. By design, it is preposterous. “Plausible,” that character thinks, “if you live in a fantasy novel.” All of Mitchell’s novels experiment with structure. The Bone Clocks is an attempt to turn the power structure of the novel inside out.

The plot riffs on a fragment of a movie seen by the hero of number9dream, called The Voorman Problem. (This fictional fragment has since been made into an actual, Oscar-nominated short film—the exact sort of transdimensional mutation you’d expect to find . . . in a novel by David Mitchell.) The movie tells of a doctor sent to evaluate a madman who claims that he created the universe nine days ago. Being God is, Voorman (the prisoner) says, his “profession.” What does his practice consist of? the doctor asks. “Postcreation maintenance, mostly.” To prove his identity, Voorman tells the doctor, he has decided to make Belgium disappear, a notion so outrageous the doctor repeats it that evening to his wife. She is confused: Is Belgium a “new cheese”? When the doctor turns to point it out on a map, Belgium is gone, replaced by the “Walloon Lagoon.”

In The Bone Clocks, The Voorman Problem resurfaces, this time as a short story by Crispin Hershey, the old, and therefore sad, bad boy of British letters (think Martin Amis with a decapitated CV), and one of the novel’s five narrators. His story has gone from fantasy to breaking news: A cabal of Voorman-like demigods known as the Anchorites is preying on mankind, sucking out the souls of small children with a device called a “psychodecanter.” In this manner, the Anchorites preserve themselves from that “terrible wasting disease called mortality.” A cabal of natural immortals—the Horologists—opposes them (horology being the study of the measure of time). They’ve been immortal forever, more or less; the Anchorites are parvenus. It’s class warfare via The Twilight Zone. “Think larger,” one character says. “Redraw what is possible.” The redrawing happens incrementally. The novel’s opening sequences, set in provincial England in 1984, chronicle the heartbreak of fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes at the hands of an older man; this could be dirty realism, plus adverbs. Later on, Holly’s younger brother, Jacko, disappears, and the book interweaves the tale of the consequences of this trauma with that of the showdown between the Horologists and the Anchorites. Call it magic dirty realism. Characters otherwise fit for literary fiction of the kind that wins the Booker Prize (for which The Bone Clocks has been long-listed) confront what Holly calls “The Weird Shit.” “It’s like I’ve got headphones superglued over my ears,” Holly thinks, “and through one speaker I’ve got ‘None of This Is Happening’ blaring and through the other, ‘All of This Is Happening.’” Count on Mitchell for All of This Is Happening; it might serve as the motto (or warning label) for his books.

Some characters lose their skepticism painfully. Others are ready to accept a world run by demons. Twenty-one-year-old Hugo Lamb, one of the narrators, is the kind of Cantabrigian who volunteers on holiday at homes for the elderly, where he beds the Brazilian nurse after declaiming Conrad to a stroke victim (whom he defrauds). A career in finance, all too obviously, awaits him. He wonders, “But what does ‘beating the system’ mean?” The Bone Clocks poses a slightly different question: Can the system beat itself? Superficially his most fantastical book, The Bone Clocks is also his least sentimental. Paths keep forking, consequences compounding. Heroes age, err, and then die, confounded by the “labyrinth . . . of decisions and priorities” they have bricked themselves into. Novels are a series of choices made by novelists: He shall have brown hair, she a carcinoma. Is real life, Mitchell seems to be asking, a series of choices made by people? His characters receive glimpses of what they call “The Script” (e.g., “I’m scripted to stay with you”), which enable them to intuit upcoming plot twists—coin tosses, the locations of missing children, a death or two. The effect is to expose the scriptedness of their condition as fictional characters. “The certainties chased me,” Holly says, referring to a moment of clairvoyance. But any literary character, clued in to her own predicament, could say the same. In a plot, the end is decided from the beginning. That is the novelist’s power.

Is fiction about people, or is it about power—the power to do things to people? The fantastical elements of The Bone Clocks are more realistic than the realism of many novels. They are attempts to be honest about literary design. Fictional characters are slaves, stuck inside plots they cannot control. The script can’t be beat, even by the likes of Hugo Lamb. Hugo strolls through life’s labyrinths as if they were straightaways, but there is no exit from a novel. “This freedom is eternal,” he thinks, hitting a ski jump he won’t land, “for as long as it lasts.”

James Camp is a writer living in New York.