Once again, David Mitchell has sent a large bucket down into the deep well of his imagination and produced a masterwork: The Bone Clocks [London: Sceptre, 2014]. Mitchell enjoys the writer’s challenge of imagining the improbable, even the impossible, and writing such compelling prose that the reader is completely absorbed, suspends disbelief and revels in the story and, as ever, the language. Mitchell also has that essential gift of being able to write fluently from inside the mind of his several narrators. The narrative here is about precognition and the power to enter the minds of others and redact their memories; all that and more. But it is also a human story of a life lived to its fullest extent.
As Mitchell’s novels have appeared over the years, readers have detected recurring patterns. He seems intrigued by the paranormal, the metaphysical and the boundaries of the credible. But this is not some drug-infused and paranoid Philip K Dick but rather a logical 21st century extension of the Dickensian Christmas Carol but with much better literary skills (pace fellow Dickensians!). Dickens loved coincidence, which of course was never an unintentional event but always a carefully contrived device. That analogy of the well of his writer’s imagination is illustrated not only by the way that characters weave in and out of The Bone Clocks but also reappear from earlier novels to which there are several intertextual references that catch the reader’s eye. I went back to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to find the first mention of Marinus, the doctor there who is now a psychiatrist here, as well as to Black Swan Green. Mitchell has referred to his ϋber-novel, suggesting that his oeuvre is one continuously developing piece of work; very much how it feels to me as a reader.
The Bone Clocks is an epic that voyages around the globe: Gravesend, Hay-on-Wye, St Petersburg, Cartagena in Colombia, Rottnest Island off the coast of Western Australia, Shanghai, west coast Ireland and a second (third?) rank American University in upstate New York where, around the middle of the book, we find one of the characters, Crispin Hershey, a mid-list, and slipping, novelist whose career has taken a hard knock as a result of a devastating review by the critic (and even less successful novelist) Richard Cheeseman whom we have seen praising his earlier work. The humour Mitchell is capable of can be read at its best in this chapter. Interviewed at the Hay-on-Wye Festival and asked to justify his apparent contradictions, Hershey replies, “I would maintain that without shifts in viewpoint, a writer would only write the same novel ad infinitum. Or end up teaching uncreative writing at a college for the privileged in upstate New York.’ The irony there is that this is where Hershey does, literally, finish up in December 2020.
‘Crispin?’ Devon Kim-Ashkenazy: ‘Are you okay?’
My post grads’ faces suggest that it was a prolonged time-out. ‘Yes, I was recalling a Tanizaki novel that does wonderful things with a similar diary-narrative to yours, Devon. The Key. It could save you from reinventing the wheel. But generally,’ I hand her back her manuscript, ‘good progress. My only cavil is the, uh, violation scene. Still a little-adverb rich, I felt.’
‘Fine.’ Devon uses a breezy tone to prove she’s unoffended. ‘The violation in the flower-shop or the violation in the motel.’
‘The one in the car-wash. Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve you adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well.’ Pens scratch. ‘Oh, and beware of the verb “seem”: it’s a textual mumble. And grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below. It hurts when you operate, but afterwards you feel much better. Japheth?’
‘Japheth Solomon (author of In God’s Country, a Mormon Bildungsroman-in-progress about a Utah boy to a liberal east-coast college where sex, dope and a creative writing programme provoke existential angst) asks, ‘What if we can’t decide if a metaphor’s a three or a four?’
‘If you can’t decide, Japheth, it’s only a three.’
Maaza Kolofski (Horsehead Nebula, a Utopia about life after a plague destroys every male on Earth) raises her hand: ‘Any holiday assignments, Crispin?’
‘Yes. Compose five letters from five leading characters, to yourself. Does everyone know what a letter is?’
‘A paper e-mail,’ answers Louis Baranquilla (The Creepy Guy in the Yoga Class about a creepy guy in a yoga class). My pre-Internet credentials are an ongoing joke. ‘What do we put in these letters?’
‘Your characters’ potted life histories. Whom or what your characters love and despise. Details on education, employment, finances, political affiliations, social class. Fears. Skeletons in cupboards. Addictions. Biggest regret; believer, agnostic or atheist. How afraid of dying are they’?’
Somehow, I think not a few creative writers would benefit from taking Hershey/Mitchell’s advice to heart. However, the extract above might give the impression that The Bone Clocks is some light-hearted campus novel that would never Lodge in the mind; not at all. Mitchell’s book is a serious study of the end of the 20th and the first forty years of the 21st centuries and the decline into what he calls Endarkenment as a result of the wounds humanity persists in inflicting on itself and the planet. It is also a gripping adventure story in which the relatively good succeeds in a battle with the really evil and pre-cognition gets the place it deserves in contemporary literature. This is vintage Mitchell which, though only two years old, is already reading well!