For the conscious mind can be set aside and subdued by the emotions, but in a dream world all is logic.
— Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast
One can hardly reproach a reader entranced by the stories of David Mitchell, sold on his aesthetic games and primed for every fresh display of his metafictional tricks, for failing to suppress a squeal of delight on cashing in a ticket for the oldest of loyalty rewards: the recognition of a familiar face. Or in Mitchell’s case, notorious as he is for threading his characters along a washing line of transmigration, not a face but a dislocated name, a clue to a persistent mind and memory. “Fifteen pages into The Bone Clocks,” Kathryn Schulz says of his latest novel (which begins in 1984), “I sat up so fast I clocked my own bones—skull against ceiling, in the low nook where I was reading. [The protagonist Holly Sykes] had just mentioned that, as a child, she had been cured of the strange voices in her head by a visit to one Dr Marinus. Mitchell fans will recall that Marinus is also the name of the doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When we meet him in that book, it is 1799.”
The recurrence of characters across a writer’s oeuvre is nothing new; Schulz acknowledges Shakespeare’s Falstaff as a precedent, and we could say the same for Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, the other patrons of the Boar’s Head, whose encounter with the titular king of Henry V is all the more reverberant if you recall from earlier plays their rapport with the young Prince Hal. But Mitchell’s signature devices, the transmigration of souls and the porousness of the border separating narrative from lived reality, dramatically expand the range and flexibility with which a character occurring in one story can be thought of as identical to a character in another, joined by a continuous sense of self.
This is a trick he plays both within his novels and across them. Often our only clue is a name, but as with the early Soviet cinema, the meaning is in the cut: we are ever only who we are in the instant we are living now, and our past or future selves are not the same embodiments of drives and experience, yet we find it intuitive to think of them as part of the same coherent personhood, its growth implicit in the abruptness of difference from one discrete stage to another.
How did you get from there to here? This is what Mitchell entices us to wonder about his players at every turn, and when Neal Brose, the neurotic financial lawyer in Ghostwritten, shows up a school-aged popularity racketeer in Black Swan Green, where we first meet the avatar of adolescent peer pressure Hugo Lamb, who returns in The Bone Clocks as a sociopath making his way up the Cambridge elite and is soon recruited into a secret society of predatory immortals by Elijah D’Arnoq, a rifler from the Chatham Islands implied to be the descendant of a churchman in Cloud Atlas who meets with the crew of the Prophetess, whose first mate Boerhaave sails into Nagasaki as a young midshipman in The Thousand Autumns aboard the Profetes—presumably the same vessel, though you will have to ask the staff of the museum ship preserved in a Californian harbour espied in Cloud Atlas by Luisa Rey, the crime writer who calls into Ghostwritten’s Bat Segundo Show (not to be confused with the literary podcast by Edward Champion where Mitchell has appeared as a guest several times)—you see his method at work, lapping waveforms on top of each other in search of an emergent resonance, a drone. The people, the families, the sailing ships—they are the same, yet not the same, and we read into their histories from not only what we see but what we don’t.
It sounds like a grand conspiracy, a whiteboard of mugshot Polaroids and arrows scrawled in felt—remember, this is a writer who takes epigraphs from Don DeLillo—and it is a testament to Mitchell’s breadth of imagination that more often than not, his web of recurrent elements defy the typical mistake of conspiratorial thought in adding complexity rather than subtracting it, in creating mysteries instead of collapsing them into easy solutions, in persistently dangling the question of how one gets from A to B. This positive equilibrium is the mark of the best practitioners of the “systems novel”, and while Mitchell is rarely as overtly concerned with conspiracy as DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon, for whom the very point is how networks escape the reach of any individual agency, the entirety of his published work reads as a bid to capture the propulsive magic of the baseball in Underworld or the rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow. (In this he is not alone: in the growing catalogue of novels-of-shorts that deliver vast yet vivid casts in glancing collisions and momentary glimpses, the retention of identity from one snapshot to another is explicitly taken up as a central theme in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad—a novel that spawned a companion Twitter story, “Black Box”, that predated Mitchell’s own foray into the format and was in my estimation a good sight better.)
Whatever Mitchell is aiming for, his constellational approach to character has only invited his champions to keep a scorecard, as Kathryn Schulz did in the table below:
To Schulz’s chart we can add another column. The fifth part of six in The Bone Clocks, a section set in 2025 entitled “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” that has proven to be the most divisive in the novel, is narrated by Dr Iris Marinus-Fenby, a middle-aged black woman from Toronto who is the latest incarnation of the Dutch surgeon Lucas Marinus from The Thousand Autumns and the Chinese psychiatrist Yu Leon Marinus who cures Holly Sykes earlier in Clocks. (Another book involving the character has reportedly been mapped out as a future project many volumes down the queue, rounding out a trilogy we can only imagine will be informally referred to as the Rime of the Ancient Marinus.) The entity Marinus, who dates his or her birth to 640 AD, belongs to a league of natural-born immortals, the Horologists, locked in a centuries-long conflict with Carnivores (among them the villainous Anchorites, the society of Elijah D’Arnoq and Hugo Lamb) who sustain their eternal lives by harvesting mortal souls. Iris Marinus has shown her face before, albeit not anywhere Schulz would have thought to look. So has her manservant Sadaqat, whose services she retains in full awareness of his defection as an enemy spy. Of Sadaqat, Marinus says:
Sadaqat owns very little not earned from or given by Horology. How could he? He spent most of his life in a psychiatric hospital outside Reading, England. A freelance Carnivore had got herself employed as a secretary in the hospital, and had groomed a psychovoltaic patient who had shared confidences with Sadaqat before the poor woman’s soul was decanted. I disposed of the Carnivore after quite a strenuous duel in her sunken garden…
Dedicated followers of Mitchell’s work who keep abreast of the English National Opera—not the most populous intersection, I admit—will have no trouble spotting this passage for what it is: a summation of the novelist’s collaboration for stage and screen with the Dutch composer and video artist Michel van der Aa, Sunken Garden, which premiered at the Barbican in April 2013 and runs until 20 March at the Théâtre National Populaire in Lyon. (This was Mitchell’s second libretto: I am not in a position to say whether The Bone Clocks pays any tribute to his first for Wake, an opera composed by Klaas de Vries about the Enschede fireworks disaster.)
Sunken Garden is no ordinary stage experience. The production calls for three live performers and several others who appear only on video, first in a shifting lattice of video screens and later, as we venture through a portal into a projected 3D environment shot in one of the geodesic biomes of the Eden Project, as life-sized holograms. The performers sing in counterpoint across the divide while the conductor directs the orchestra with the aid of a click track to remain in synchronization with pre-recorded voices and electronic cues in the score. In its original run, to enter the foyer of the Barbican Theatre was to be greeted by ushers who distributed stereoscopic glasses in zippered cases, with a special batch set aside to fit over prescription spectacles—an aspect of venue management that is in no way within the province of the librettist, though I struggle to think of a more concise encapsulation of Mitchell’s place in contemporary literature, his synthesis of special-effects bedazzlement with meticulous care for presentation in pursuit of what we might call artisanal kitsch.
Written in 2011 as an interlude between The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks (Mitchell described it in 2013 as “an early offshoot of what my next novel might have been”), Sunken Garden is an Oz-like portal fantasy where a protagonist from our quotidian reality finds himself solicited as a pawn in the agendas of a good witch and an evil witch, the latter making the first overture—a dynamic that occurs again in Clocks in the trinity of Holly, Marinus, and Immaculée Constantin. In the opera this protagonist is Toby Kramer, a filmmaker played by Roderick Williams, an enigmatic baritone I had last seen attired as a dodo in the courtyard of Oxford’s Story Museum leading thirty choir girls in a musical adaptation of the Caucus Race in Alice that he had himself composed in the early nineties.
Toby is approached by a generous benefactor, Zenna Briggs (Katherine Manley, soprano), who funds his documentary about the missing software developer Simon Vines (Jonathan McGovern, high baritone on video) to cover for her own complicity as the “freelance Carnivore” who lured both Simon and the “psychovoltaic patient” Amber Jacquemain (Kate Miller-Heidke, mezzo-soprano on video) to her soul-decanting lair, a garden defined by the entrancing feature of a towering vertical pond.
Sadaqat Daastani, played by Stephen Henry, appears in a batty, temperamental speaking role exclusively on film.
Toby and Zenna are two of the live singing parts; the third belongs to the good witch Iris Marinus, and from her scant physical description in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, which takes place five years after the events of Sunken Garden, one gets the impression Mitchell wrote the character on the page with the soprano Claron McFadden firmly in mind.
Her section of the novel makes the smallest mention of a New York bookseller named Toby, but the author’s acuity for coincidence notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe this is the same person as the English documentarian in the opera. For one thing, when Toby emerges from the sunken garden at the end of the show he is played by Katherine Manley; some connivance on the part of Marinus has transplanted him into Zenna’s body. The libretto is a wordy one, as you would expect from a writer known for his loquacious style, and if you are not paying attention the transferral of souls is perplexing and easy to miss. Still, keep an eye out for Toby in the novels to come. One doesn’t know where he might show up next—or who he will be when he does.
The atlas and archipelago
Recognition is a transitory thrill that comes and goes; the real durability of Mitchell’s work is found in resonance. As Paul Kincaid observes, “David Mitchell does not write stories, he writes patterns.” The substance is in the structure: one occurrence of a pattern gives us the context for the others, and the more iterations you see, the clearer the fabric becomes. number9dream and Black Swan Green are set in motion by the telephones of absent fathers; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks close with the arrival of ships from Cloud Atlas. As I read Clocks I was on alert for traces of Sunken Garden well before Iris Marinus or Sadaqat arrived on the scene, as the central incident of the first section is the disappearance of Holly’s brother Jacko, who vanishes into a phantasmagoric underpass, evoking the urban portal of a climactic sequence in the opera where a panoramic aerial shot dives into a nest of flyovers: as the camera zooms into a pillar, Roderick Williams puts on his stereoscopic glasses to signal that the audience should follow suit, then steps through the glowing incision in concrete that leads to Super Marinus 3D World.
Thus it is galling to find that in all the critical response to The Bone Clocks—and my, is it ever voluminous, thanks to Mitchell’s status as one of the few active writers of fiction in our fractured landscape whose publications are major events for several literary traditions at once—hardly anything said of its more controversial elements has properly attended to his structural machinery (a lacuna most conspicuous in the pieces claiming to do exactly that). Most everyone agrees that for better or for worse, it marks a significant point of transition where the subtextual undercurrents of his earlier books have now been brought to the fore; the cosmology once obliquely suggested is in full flower. It is here that the author fully commits to pulling the disparate threads of his loosely unified suites of novellas into the weave of a single übernovel. To acknowledge this is to merely point out the obvious, and it provides little insight into why Mitchell’s familiar strategies of genre pastiche and networked maximalism feel qualitatively different from his earlier efforts at the same.
My own appraisal of The Bone Clocks is not far removed from those of Nina Allan and Laura Miller, both keen observers of disturbances along the crumbling literary/genre border who have historically been more than friendly to Mitchell’s output, and both dismayed to find that his latest opus so thoroughly bungles its venture into the conventionally fantastic that the rest of the edifice collapses around it. Humpty Dumpty came tumbling down, and he was not more than the sum of his parts. Oh, the parts are largely sound enough; the energetic buzz of the prose is as present as ever, as is the sense of peering into an abyss of deep time as you behold the weathered age of the activity of storytelling itself, here conveyed with the folkloric richness of the middle chapters of Ghostwritten and the telescopic ambition of Cloud Atlas in the figure of Esther Little, a soul of Noongar extraction who enumerates her remembered lives with over two hundred pebbles. Mitchell’s modus operandi has always been to fire everywhere at once, and his hits are such palpable hits we can forgive the sporadic miss. And indeed there is a miss: so much of the action in The Bone Clocks is ultimately driven by a Secret Wizard War between the Horologists and Anchorites that falls short of the author’s usual standard of craft or human interest, the rest of the novel suffers for it.
The tenor of the critical conversation about the book would have you believe that to set the Secret Wizard War in opposition to the Muggle world of runaway strawberry pickers, war-addicted journalists, and petty literary rivalries is to commit to a wider conflict over the seriousness of the fantastic, and the temptation to enlist is not abated by soft targets like James Wood—always a pleasure to read for his unfaltering consistency in stubbornly holding every book that crosses his desk to a unitary standard of Flaubertian psychological realism, no matter how myopic it may be, and whose jab at Mitchell’s indulgence in “the demented intricacy of science fiction” is the very definition of bait. I see no pressing need to defend the honour of genre; my investment is strictly in good literature and not in any speculative ideal, and it suffices to reply to Wood as Nina Allan does, that “one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.”
The clunkiness of the Secret Wizard War is not in itself all that dispiriting; the real disappointment is in its implications for where Mitchell wants his unfurling series to go. The proponents of his emerging fantasy plot have embraced this direction, and their words of praise are telling. James Smythe: “The genre elements […] do more than they could: they drag every novel he’s published into the same world, changing the existing texts, shining new light upon them.” Brian Finney: “Like globalism, [his evolving macronovel] attempts to encompass everything […] Each new novel of his causes all its predecessors to shape-change.” Kathryn Schulz: “Mitchell’s novels share the same past, future, events, ethos, laws, problems, causes, and consequences. They are an archipelago of islands.”
The unquestioned assertion beneath all this enthusiasm is that the coagulation of a unified Mitchellverse is straightforwardly enriching; that every new development on whatever scale—chapter, novella, 3D opera-film—adds resonance, never interference, to all the stories that have come before it. It makes no allowance for the many ways in which a story that draws on its precursors might undermine them, and it fails to acknowledge how the Wizard War plot of The Bone Clocks differs in kind from Mitchell’s other excursions into the not-so-real in a manner that proves to be an encumbrance. Fantasy is the least of its vices; its worst offence is disambiguation.
To understand this we must turn to the archipelago, a motif that evokes another living master of supercolliding fiction, Christopher Priest. Many of the structural gestures pervading Mitchell’s work can be found in Priest’s: they share an interest in a form of emergent storytelling that calls to mind the illusion of swarm intelligence in a colony of ants, where meaning coheres for the reader as only the reader has the omniscience to follow the pattern of interaction among local, microscopic flecks of narrative. Central to their aesthetic are elements of the multifarious traditions of science fiction, fantasy, and whatever we want to call the metaliterary inheritance from Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. (The estimable jazz historian and critic Ted Gioia lumps them all under the umbrella of “conceptual fiction”, a scheme I am not convinced is specific or rigorous enough to be informative even as I see it as suggestive of a coherent value system.)
Priest’s toolkit is more thoroughly worked out: he has after all been writing for much longer, and his Dream Archipelago, a recurring shadow reality where his fascination with illusionists, explorers, and Rashōmon effects is extruded towards a nearly abstract purity, is not only an absorbing playground for the imagination its own right but a strong conceptual foundation for thinking about the narrative mechanics of fractured fiction, far more precise than the anachronistic catch-all of “postmodernism” as applied to every variant of literary bricolage. His speciality is architecture; in style he is the Steinitz to Mitchell’s Nimzowitsch, more methodical than dynamic. Mitchell’s prose is slippery, propulsive; the characters are all so thrilled to be alive, the sentences so well lubricated that a reader accustomed to fording knee-deep rivers of nutrient-rich verbiage may find the lack of resistance suspect, a thin film to be approached with caution and mistrust. Priest reads as stolid and uniformly cold, a texture that stands out in jarring contrast to his characters’ exuberance in the act of legerdemain. There is good reason to believe this dissonance is the desired effect: The Prestige explicitly contemplates how the apparent absence of spectacle or obfuscation is itself a method of misdirection, a way of rolling up one’s sleeves to assure the audience there is nothing hidden so as to make them search elsewhere. The beholder must see a hint of the rigging to believe the illusionist fallible and thus let down their guard.
The wonder of the Dream Archipelago, an idea cultivated in over thirty years of novels and short stories and most concertedly developed in The Islanders, principally arises from its embrace of uncertainty. A gazetteer of vignettes reminiscent of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, The Islanders opens with an introduction that firmly declares, “There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago.” The reasons given for this are ostensibly practical, but maplessness is the defining mark of the novel’s sense of place. The archipelago is never stable; it is always in flux, occluding the surveyor from any objective grasp of consensus reality. Every island has only the most tenuous knowledge of its neighbours (yes, even the ones whose economies rest on burgeoning IT industries), mediated by the mercantile transactions of penfriends and intrepid travellers whose names show up from place to place in hazily remembered incidents, many of them mutually contradictory.
William Faulkner revelled in the multiplicity of unreliable accounts, while Terry Pratchett understood absurdity went hand in hand with geographical ineffability (“You can’t map a sense of humour,” he said)—but maps of Yoknapatawpha and Discworld did, in the end, exist. It is doubtful Priest would ever capitulate likewise; to map the archipelago would be to undermine its very ethos, the systematic mistiness that circles around a truth both invisible and presumably concrete. You know there is a common thread but you can never quite get a grip on it.
What is so refreshing about a book like The Islanders is where it stands in relation to the culture of popular fiction in which it was released—an environment of encroaching seriality, consolidation of intellectual property, and “canons” tracked on wikis, where genre tropes have been shackled to a fetish for continuity, for definiteness, in the public imagination. When you witness the purely contractual achievement of Marvel Studios’ dugout of Hollywood stars diving into each other’s pictures in post-credit bit parts to prepare an exercise quite as tepid and banal as Marvel Avengers Assemble (which I refuse to call by its title outside the United Kingdom as a matter of principle, for if ever there was a time when Mrs Peel was needed, it is now), the giddiness of recognition is all there is; sameness is the name of the game, and the point is expressly not for the recurrence of a character to add some truly unexpected dimensionality or generate a mystery of growth and change, but for the audience to see the figures they already know. There is a goon squad here, but it sure isn’t Jennifer Egan’s.
Now, continuity has its uses; in a detective story we call it fair play, and I could hardly claim it detracts from a series like Harry Potter, perhaps more triumphant as a cascading whodunit than as anything to do with magic. A game must have its rules. But the pleasure of reading Priest is in his open revolt against the notion that the monotonic accumulation of data makes a world more real, a generic assumption in the reigning conceptions of the allegedly fantastic that M John Harrison memorably dubbed “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. Priest sees the continued vibrancy of harnessing the instability of oral tradition, the innocence, as one way back into the folkloric quality of the really mythic.
The same instability lies at the heart of the love of storytelling so pervasive in David Mitchell, and it is what elevates the best of his intertextual webwork above the cynical business of avenging and assembling. Consider his sophomore novel number9dream, which conditions us from the first chapter to regard its protagonist, Eiji Miyake, as a compulsive fantasist prone to disappear into his cyberpunk virtualizations of life (flagged by precisely the allusion you would expect: “In lieu of a fantasy Walther PK […] a box of courtesy matches from a bar called Mitty’s”). In the fourth chapter, “Reclaimed Land”, Eiji finds himself stuck in a blood-soaked yakuza thriller where gangsters execute their captives by lopping off their heads with bowling balls, and his first regret as he thinks he is about to die is that he never finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—fitting, if a tad obvious, for a book that never bothers to conceal its true purpose as an effort to stamp every square on the Haruki Murakami bingo card. It is all a little too garish to be taken any more seriously than the Phildickian replicant hit job that fades to white in chapter one, and here the coda is another vanishing. A leather-jacketed mercenary, the last man standing, leans over the huddled Eiji and considers sparing his life.
“Fear is not necessarily a weakness. I disdain weakness, but I disdain waste. To survive, you must persuade yourself that tonight was another man’s nightmare into which you accidentally strayed. Find a place to hide by daybreak, and stay hidden for many days. If you assist the police in any way, you will be killed immediately. Do you understand?”
I nod, and sneeze. When I look up, smoke swallows up the night.
It was all a dream, you might say—if you have never read Ghostwritten. For what gives the mercenary substance in the eyes of the reader, what makes him impossible to dismiss as a figure out of reverie, is his previous appearance in the Mongolia and Saint Petersburg chapters of Mitchell’s earlier novel. We cannot contain him as a figment of Eiji’s subjectivity, bottle him up in a story within a story. Suhbataar, angel of death, is not so easily locked away.
Memory leaks and segmentation faults
Metalepsis is a word Kathryn Schulz correctly glosses as “the transgression of the boundaries of a fictional world by an object, idea, or character”, although she explains it within a limited conception of what those boundaries are, restricting her examples to intrusions on presumptive genre conventions or natural laws. Certainly this perspective applies to Mitchell, but it understates the form and extent of metalepsis distinguishing him from the countless other practitioners of surrealism or genre evaporation. For the operative expectations are not merely those conditioned by forces outside the text, assumptions we bring in with us about the rules of a history as opposed to a fairy tale. It is not the case that Mitchell is simply stitching heterogeneous materials into the quilt of a neat and linear universe, and indeed his penchant for connecting dots would be as insubstantial as his detractors charge if this were so. (Besides, remember who we are talking about. Read any novel of his, read half a novel of his, and in no time at all it should be clear pastiche is the expectation.)
The conventions are as much a product of how the texts themselves are internally organized. The fanciful episodes in number9dream pass for neatly embedded stories within a story, easy to shut and forget about with little to no causal consequence after the fact, not because they feature bioborgs and manned torpedoes but because they follow a pattern of disappearance. We are led to believe they are self-contained, and when the assassin Suhbataar steps in—a figure Eiji could not have come up with himself, though only the returning Mitchell reader knows it—it is a disruption of the established form.
No account of Mitchell’s technique would be adequate without a proper grasp of how his stories are contained—how his characters break containment—and this is no truer for anything than his magnum opus, Cloud Atlas. A dystopia wrapped in a caper inside a voyage, Cloud Atlas is commonly described as a Matryoshka doll. Less commonly does anyone follow the analogy to its conclusion and consider how Mitchell sets up his sequence of nested figures for the purpose of knocking them down.
It is illuminating to compare his strategy to another recent entry in the annals of Matryoshka fiction, Christopher Nolan’s heist film Inception, where the heroes excavate successive layers of dreams within dreams. Nolan, who once outbid the more established Sam Mendes to direct the adaptation of The Prestige by sending Christopher Priest a motorcycle bearing a videocassette of his debut Following, is a popular target for the same calibre of detraction typically fired at Mitchell; his reputation is that of an audacious cerebral gamesman who cannot seem to strike a balance between coming off as crafty to the inexperienced and thunderously obvious to the literate, landing squarely in the realm of the middlebrow where his cleverness drops off sharply in its capacity to pose a challenge.
In Nolan’s case, lacking as he does the technical virtuosity in his own medium that Mitchell brandishes everywhere in his, the criticism sticks: his narrative construction is motivated by an obsessive neatness and attention to cause and effect befitting the mechanisms of a mystery plot, with the unfortunate repercussion that the lapses in logic (and there are many) stand out as failures of puzzle design and not, as one might allow of Gilliam or Fellini, a playful departure into the oneiric. (It speaks volumes that Nolan’s greatest creation, Heath Ledger’s Joker, is an agent of chaos whose agenda is to blow up the coherence of the film he is in. The Dark Knight is so replete with disruptions of perspective and space that as Scott Eric Kaufman has shown, whatever the director’s precision or control, the disorientation of the form suits the content to such great effect that the intrusion of nonsense is not only welcome but thematically responsible.)
Inception, a film purportedly about dreaming, is conspicuous for its fealty to mystery logic over dream logic. There is a storied lineage of cinema devoted to the problem of emulsifying the two—think Vertigo or Mulholland Drive—but Nolan has no such conciliatory ambitions. The dolls in their Matryoshka sequence are very neatly nested; causality only flows one way and there is never any confusion which layer you are in. Nor is there any room for subjective discrepancy or anything else to impede communication between minds, as the participants in a given dream share a common perceptual reality without any trouble. Every layer of Inception is a common physical space in a rigid box; you are in when you are in, you are out when you are out. This is a requirement for the foundational premise of the film, that environments postulated by a solitary mind are open to visitors. The entire scenario hangs on a presumption of accessible objectivity. Nolan’s is a world of maps.
Cloud Atlas, meanwhile, revolves around a pervasive consciousness of texts as artefacts, stories as undependable testimony. When Robert Frobisher peruses Adam Ewing’s diary, the second chapter consuming the first, he remarks, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity—seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true—but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The prime suspect must surely be David Mitchell, who offers here a winking apology for any deficiencies of style as are inevitable when spanning a range of idiom from the age of sail to the distant future, while concurrently underlining the provisionality of recorded truths. Ewing is as much a fiction to Frobisher as Frobisher is to Luisa Rey, and so on all the way up the crescendo to the apex of the sextet, where the narrator, Zachry, simply instructs, “Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands. Look.”
Mitchell is a collagist here as everywhere, and the manoeuvre of tugging on the spyglass until it breaks apart is not unique to him. One precursor can be found in the closing words of Toni Morrison’s Jazz:
[…] I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on, lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing you answer—that’s the kick.
But I can’t say that aloud; I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are now.
Reader, look who’s talking.
But let us not forget about the metalepsis. For the Prophetess finds its way from Adam Ewing in the Chatham Islands to Luisa Rey in California a century later, a ghost ship out of a diary out of a letter. (In the lingo of programmers trained to think in stacks and function calls, for whom all of this should be intuitive to the point of self-evidence, we might describe the novel’s central mechanic as the violation of variable scope.) And just as the shadows of stories hang over the successive realities of the novel’s ensemble, Cloud Atlas hangs over ours. Follow the trail of induction and the characters, genre devices as they may be, seem to walk among us.
Whether this amounts to anything more than a game for its own sake is a separate matter. James Wood:
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?
Wood at least concedes the novel’s ebullience. Others quick to slap Mitchell with the charge of superficiality are not so kind: his readers, for Richard Cooper, are “the enemies of good fiction—those for whom the main object of a work of literature should be for it to feel literary, for whom difficulty and scattergun idiosyncrasy are desirable in themselves rather than as a way of achieving something else, for whom good books are instantly recognisable rather than confounding or shocking, and for whom the delight in narrative is a vulgar concern.”
This would be a good place to reflect on the attitude whence any pleasure in the formal or ludic is excluded from the palette of human experience, were the prejudice against the sentimental qualities of symbol manipulation not already so familiar, so washed out. No, it is self-defeating to pretend a book as arresting as Cloud Atlas demands a surrender to shallow formalism as a condition for dispensing its treasures. Cooper is right to suggest that Mitchell’s games are ultimately easy; their delights unfold with an immediacy uncharacteristic of fiction that would rather plant its greatness unannounced as a parasite that slowly envelops the mind. But where the vectors of greatness are concerned we can afford to be pluralists, and in any case, Mitchell’s apparent simplicity performs the entertaining function of deterring his critics from giving their own questions serious thought. He looks simple, they say, so we must read him simply.
Alternatively, if we permit ourselves the simple delectations of structural elegance—should we think our way into the novel musically—we can listen for the exquisite chromatic ripples of content recapitulating form. We can search for harmony, not just melody, and discern how when a message from one island in the archipelago floats in its bottle to another, it is something more than point-to-point communication. For every story in Cloud Atlas is a prison story, a tale of escape from captivity, and as the senders inscribe their testaments, they are, like the nemeses of Myst, preparing a jailbreak to an outside world.
And what of the receivers, who ever so briefly escape the other way? The fictive personas they read about or watch are not quite real; many of them are expressions of types in the way that frustrates readers like Wood who prize the simulation of natural psychology. Nevertheless, the receivers find themselves absorbed. They are all David Mitchell characters and they are all David Mitchell readers. In his interview with The Paris Review, Mitchell pins the impetus for writing Cloud Atlas on a desire to resolve the incomplete trajectory of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller; that same desire for closure, for consummating a narrative seduction, is a drive his characters inherit as a central passion. Like Eiji Miyake in number9dream, who frets about dying before he is through with Murakami, what the protagonists of Cloud Atlas want most of all is to find out how a story ends.
It almost seems calculated to flatter people who read, particularly those who read the likes of Mitchell and see in his finest yarns a profound expression of the love of stories, the very romance circumnavigated by his progenitor Calvino and so many others before him in the heritage of parsing the repentance of Quixote as tragedy, not as triumph. Cloud Atlas is a book for worms, and nobody should be surprised it plays as trite to critics suspicious of the pleasures in which the characters indulge along with the reader.
Yet the powder of metalepsis that blasts the novel’s hierarchies into adjacencies makes a case for the potency of literature as something more than escape. Dualism, as we know, is intractably hamstrung by its inability to account for how mind acts on matter. For Mitchell, a composer of dualistic fictions involving the transfer of souls, it is a matter of considerable interest to track how figments of imagination exert causal power on the corporeal domain. Narrative is his way in. As a story breaks out of its containing prison of words and slithers into our minds, so it works its way into our actions, our systems of guidance by which we understand the world and the self. Stories from a universe safely bounded by the terms and conditions of fiction possess a certain agency in our own. (Nowhere will you find this more vividly portrayed than in the Mongolia chapter of Ghostwritten, where the narrator is a story—an anthropomorphism of thought distinctly in the spirit of 1999, when memetics was at the peak of its ascendancy as a seriously considered hypothesis and not just the reigning monster in the swamp of Internet pop psychology we know today.)
And perhaps the infectious desire to discover what happens next, see how it all goes down, is merely empathy. We need not believe the self-styled Darwinian critics, for whom literature reduces to a survival adaptation, to think of stories as catalysts for empathy; and what distinguishes the reader-protagonists of Cloud Atlas is their openness to foreign subjectivities alien to their home tribes, their willingness to treat with others as they would with textual entities. Mitchell’s broad thematic strokes of savagery or civilization look platitudinous, yes, so long as one does not attend to form. But the aspect of civilized being he renders with the utmost joy is the humanity of literary experience. What, if not this, is metafiction’s calling, the humanistic promise of jeux d’esprit?
Clocks right twice a day
Crucially, stories that leak into the world offer guidance but never exert domination. We are free-willed agents who synthesize our sensory experiences into perceptions uniquely our own, not passive carriers of viral meme-complexes. We do with our cultural influences what we will. The six realities of Cloud Atlas bleed into each other in pinpricks, not in gushes, and ultimately its players are responsible for their own decisions. That their actions are consequential in spite of their naked fictitiousness in the eyes of external observers is why the novel on the whole remains compelling. Past the halfway mark, the reader knows precisely how the chips are going to fall, but the inertia of structural collapse as we zip backwards in time (there is our friend Nolan again, with Memento) in no way undercuts the lingering curiosity in whatever there is left for the characters to do. The foreknowledge of Zachry’s distant century does not leave Timothy Cavendish impotent in ours.
It is in forgetting this essential predicate of human agency that The Bone Clocks goes awry. On the surface it replicates all the furnishings that made Atlas so perceptive as a book about the place of literature (and frankly, so downright fun). But it ascribes so much of its internal causality to the machinations of the Secret Wizard War that the purportedly fantastic elements are just explanatory, and from over the horizon you can hear the ominous sound of clomping feet. It almost looks as though Mitchell finally wrote the novel his admirers and detractors alike were convinced he had written several times already, an unsystematic cyclone of global connectedness indifferently whipping up every ramshackle genre in its path and dumping them on an unlucky estate in Oz.
Others have already danced around the diagnosis. James Wood is at his most astute regarding the symptom, if not the cause:
[…] these happenings, which occur over hundreds of pages, feel a bit empty, because they are not humanly significant. What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle. Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, and just as certain kinds of theology threaten to rob human life of intrinsic significance—since theology exists to convert worldly meaning into transcendent meaning—so Mitchell’s peculiar cosmology turns his characters into time-travelling groundlings, Horology’s dwarves.
Wood’s application of humanism and his concomitant aesthetic blinkers are well known to his readers, and one might initially suppose the behaviour of novelists who work in other modes will never make a dent in his otherworldly battle. To Nina Allan this was so clearly the latest provocation in a pattern of disparaging the fantastic that she penned an excoriating riposte before she read the novel and discovered that whatever her differences with Wood on values, he was right on the facts. The passivity of the characters is suffocating indeed: “Far from being a brilliantly realised creation,” writes Allan, “Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own.” Other protagonists with sections of the novel to themselves like Hugo Lamb and the writer Crispin Hershey (instantly recognizable as an analogue to Martin Amis, as vigorously as Mitchell protests this is a coincidence) fare better in Allan’s estimation as well as mine; they are full of the magnetism peculiar to those who make judgements, answer temptations, act on principles, and live with consequences, even as they are locked in systems beyond their control.
Not that this is a hard requirement for fiction; there is plenty of interest to be found in representing the truly powerless who live reactively and, in trying to express their individual nature under the thumb of communal forces, only flounder. But the trouble with Holly Sykes, who from pole to pole is the wire upon which the novel is suspended, is that her route through the novel is not even comprehensible without reference to the abrupt intrusions of supernatural forces. They lurk in the background as an absent cause, shoving her this way and that, making her who she is without giving her much of a chance to make anything of herself. In sheer abundance of longitudinal data points she is the David Mitchell character we would expect to know the most about, the only one we have ever seen grow in a life completely lived, but the sense of mysterious discrepancy that graces his recurring players with the illusion of depth is missing. For as often as Holly finds her way back into the story, it is rarely compelling to ask how she got from A to B, since we always have a fallback answer: magic.
The Bone Clocks conjures like nothing else a Muggle’s-eye-view of the Potterdämmerung, a sequence of befuddling calamities punctuated by disappearances and memory wipes. Mitchell presents this in a gambit liable to amuse the loyal reader with its irreverence: his most audacious feat of narrative acrobatics is to walk straight ahead in time. One minute you see Holly caught in the crossfire of duel between meddling immortals with too much time on their hands; the next she is going about her carefree way, picking strawberries, with no recollection of the scene she just recounted—a first-person omniscience of sorts that renders her account suspect while paradoxically convincing the audience it is privy to everything.
To the extent Holly manages to wrest a sliver of control from the forces propelling her life, she does so in keeping with Mitchell’s predominant motif of literature as a conduit for self-actualization, a concern as pervasive in his most conventional novels as in his atlases of clouds. Jacob de Zoet finds his footing in Dejima with the aid of a smuggled psalter; Jason Taylor of Black Swan Green, like Mitchell in his youth, nurtures a mastery of poetic language to circumvent a stammer. True to form, Holly Sykes shows up in middle age at a literary festival as one of those bestselling purveyors of confessional schlock that ambitious thinking men look down upon (a sympathetic gesture from a perennial Booker contender towards the real lowbrow, not fantastical escape but the ersatz reality of coffee-table inspiration). In the absence of any insight into the fate of her brother Jacko, all she can do is broadcast her distress and pray someone is listening.
One of the listeners is Marinus, and it is in her section of the novel that the reader’s access to the perspective of immortals cements itself as a liability. Chief among the problems with Mitchell’s new cosmology of Anchorites and Horologists is its urge to literalize and explain, as when we learn that Magistrate Shiroyama and Abbot Enomoto, the main political players in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, were all along in thrall to the interventions of the Horologist Xi Lo. What should be a cute cameo sets a disenchanting precedent, for this is not the same manner of intertextual tribute as what we have seen from Mitchell before: far from adding a new dimension to familiar names and faces, it overrides them with a retroactive motivation. The stories are no longer adjacent; one dominates the truth of another. We know this because The Bone Clocks concertedly posits the actions of immortals as the final word on cause and effect within its own pages, and while we remain free to read The Thousand Autumns however we wish, one dreads the implications for Mitchell’s future work should he continue to pursue the course of flattening the complexities of his audacious early novels into a single pancaked chronology.
By the end of The Bone Clocks, this commitment to total unification is already so burdensome that as soon as we learn the final section is set in Ireland, the experienced reader expects to see Mo Muntervary return from Ghostwritten and number9dream and her appearance right on schedule, while welcome, looks forced. When finally, a certain vessel sails into view and draws the distant apocalypse of Cloud Atlas into uncomfortable proximity, there is no denying that Mitchell has placed his chips on a wiki-friendly consistent universe that threatens to diminish the best of his work.
Much of this despair, it must be said, hails from the observation that his Secret Wizard War is well beneath the standard of execution displayed not only in his earlier works but elsewhere in the same book. If JK Rowling had one conspicuous lapse of technique she never managed to correct, it was the incoherence of the magical combat she habitually described in trailing ellipses and vague jets of light (action choreography being perhaps the only respect in which the later Potter films by David Yates, which consistently mistook the grim for the wholly joyless, improved on their source). In the course of evoking Rowling’s work, Mitchell inherits her worst deficiencies, and Nina Allan finds herself baffled at the consequent smattering of tropes “so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy.”
Brian Finney addresses this complaint in a sustained defence of The Bone Clocks that exhorts us to read “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” as a deliberate burlesque. Mitchell, he contends, is “parodying the genre he is simultaneously employing to thrill the reader. While offering the excitement of a well-told piece of science fiction, he is distancing himself from the genre’s overstatement, cliché, and escapism.” The verbs of the Wizard War (“superkinetic”, “superlasso”) are so unabashedly preposterous they can only be a jab at the commercial fantasist’s resort to neologism. That this is the optimal reading, Finney argues, is only reinforced by Mitchell’s lifelong immersion in fantasy and science fiction that we have already seen him put to use elsewhere.
I sympathize with Finney’s exasperation at the duty of spelling out the obvious while everybody else seems intent on missing it; that is precisely the exercise I am here to conduct myself. In fact, there is much we can add to his body of evidence. We may note, for instance, that Mitchell has a demonstrated record of tongue-in-cheek hyper-fantasy most visible in the unrestrained splatter of number9dream; that as Holly learns about the Anchorites she compares them to Sauron and Lord Voldemort by name, and when she bellows in capital letters at a melodramatic climax where she settles a bloody score (“NOBODY THREATENS MY FAMILY!”) it is impossible for a Potterhead not to see Molly Weasley; that for Ed Brubeck, a reporter for Luisa Rey’s old magazine more at home in the outskirts of Fallujah than in Kent, the most delirious war zone of all is a Brighton comic-con of “Supermen, Batmen, Watchmen; Doctor Spocks, Doctor Whos, Doctor Evils”—parodies stacked on parodies.
Unfortunately, it does not follow that reading the Marinus section in the style of Tarantino, as a screwball rehabilitation of B-list tropes with A-list production values and ironic loquacity, makes it seem any less out of place in the novel; nor does it deflect the charge from Ron Charles that it amounts to a “knock-off version of Harry Potter”.
Let us transpose Finney’s argument to where it belongs. If there is one thing that is reliably overlooked by critics who use Harry Potter as a convenient punching bag for the vogue in adolescent heroics that has conquered the literary market and spun off into a self-sustaining ecosystem of its own, it is the fact that Potter parody is inherently second-order; Rowling was already engaged in conscious pastiche, self-aware of tropes and arbitrary rules governing the use of magic. The magnetism of the series was never in the clichés of broom-riding witches and wand-waving wizards but in what manner of institutions they might construct to find a place in their own society—the schools, the banks, the cryptofascist cults—and how, in navigating a world of stifling typologies, children might acquire the proportion to distinguish structural inconvenience or mild bullying from real evil.
Rowling imports the crudest archetypes and always takes care to push them one step further: a werewolf on medication, a servant elf in want of a sock, a revolving door of Monty Python bureaucrats. Moreover, by the time Rowling sets off her battle royale, she has six-and-a-half hefty volumes behind her to prepare a modicum of sympathetic interest in all but the most incidental redshirt thugs. Mitchell does not have this luxury; in contrast to his recurring characters, the villains of The Bone Clocks appear for the first time, and scarcely at that. The irony is that at first glance this looks like a problem best solved by more intertextual connectivity, not less. One would be a lot more receptive to the climactic firefight at the Dusk Chapel, and to the novel’s grand initiative to unify the Mitchellverse, if any of the soul-sucking Anchorites had a fraction of the development lavished on Hugo Lamb. (Then again, the Anchorites are by deliberate selection sociopaths; there is only so much in them to humanize.)
There lies the crux of the novel’s predicament: to mimic the captivating qualities of Wizard Wars at their best, it must jam the archipelago back into a Pangaea. The true discordance is not between fantasy and reality, a distinction Mitchell has never observed; it emerges instead from the struggle of the plural against the monolithic. Here what works for Rowling is not so suitable. The Potter saga, for all its Gilliamite devices, is more Inception than Brazil—a detective plot, not a dream plot. It makes sense for it to take place in a world of encyclopaedic detail and totalizing explanation, and its intricacy actively benefits from the scrupulous touch of an author who, if asked to specify the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, would recall exactly where she filed them. (This is a lesson lost on the clomping footmen who think it suffices to design an encyclopaedia and neglect to repurpose the data within towards a well constructed mystery.) For Mitchell, a specialist in dream plots to rival his idol Murakami, a reversion to the neat linear causality of encyclopaedic worlds (however ironic) presents a contradiction of purpose. The trifling inconsistencies that to a detective story are flaws are the lifeblood of Mitchell’s work. In Cloud Atlas it is implied that the characters in each era who bear a comet-shaped birthmark are a single soul perpetually reborn—but only implied, and undermined by the circumstance that two of them, Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish, must have been concurrently alive. Yet these minutely peppered dissonances, intentional or not, support the air of indeterminacy so critical to the spirit of the book.
To be fair, The Bone Clocks beats a hasty retreat from its misguided conventional war in its final section, which depicts an ecological collapse indifferent to the Manichaean skirmishes of immortals who have ceased to matter. The Anchorites and Horologists are few in number and theirs is a petty war. But as Laura Miller notes, this admission of inadequacy only detracts from all of the events, natural and supernatural, that have come before. One sphere of the novel’s cosmology, pick your poison, must be inconsequential for the other to have meaning.
Perhaps it is advisable to read The Bone Clocks on its own terms, not those imported from previous experience with its author. However, this undercuts Finney’s interpretation, which largely depends on situating the book in the context of everything else we know about David Mitchell. To knowingly take it in isolation is also not very tenable given the unprecedented density of its ties with the earlier novels. Yet to passively capitulate to the cohering solidity of a contiguous übernovel, as we may be obliged to do to follow it any further, betrays the delicate balance of Mitchell’s most vivid stories, where the events of dreams or fictions may have limited causal force but, whatever their impotence in the palpable currents of history, never feel any less significant in human terms. These are neighbourly stories, their collisions more enriching than mere connective trivia, their conflicts synthetic and far from zero-sum. They defy any clean divisions between the surface world and the master explanation. They are best in symbiosis, in adjacency.
Slipping out of mirrors
No contrivance of the Anchorites, however, is about to take credit for the war in Iraq. David Mitchell may have a reputation for an unbounded conception of reality, but he has a carefully considered respect for the historical novelist’s challenge of carving out a space for invention. “Writer’s motives are as varied as criminals’,” he wrote in 2010 while promoting The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, “but I suspect that the historical novelist’s genetic code contains the geeky genes of the model-maker—there is pleasure to be had in the painstaking reconstruction of a lost world.” Mitchell embraces the complexity implicit in rendering a time or place beyond recall, which in turn demands a subtle appreciation of political dynamics. Inasmuch as The Thousand Autumns is a samurai romance that foreshadows the Anchorites, it is equally a measured study in the particulars of eighteenth-century diplomatic translation, and no supernatural motives ascribed to its action by The Bone Clocks can take that away.
The conflict in Iraq is still in close proximity and within living memory; there is less to reconstruct while the standards of accuracy are more stringent or at least easier to enforce. Nevertheless, the demands on a writer’s delicacy towards the complexity of historical causation remain in place, and the crass reduction of global conflict to the shadowy manoeuvres of a few big players is the signature of a Dan Brown, a trap that a novelist with a capacious perspective on genre tropes knows well enough to avoid. This is not to say Ed Brubeck’s chapter of The Bone Clocks, “The Wedding Bash”, provides any stunning insight on the siege of Fallujah or the particulars of the conduct of the war; as a character study it is a reprise of the war-zone addiction examined in Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker, only transplanted from a combatant to a journalist. Mitchell’s strengths are what we would expect: his ear for idioms of speech among soldiers and displaced civilians alike—stylized past the point of naturalism but not at the expense of the ring of truth—and, recalling Jacob de Zoet’s travails in Japan, his perspicacity for the negotiation of language barriers. History and current affairs, with which the novelist has never been more openly engaged, are mainly a serviceable buffer against romantic simplicities best kept in moderation.
As is so often true of the median Mitchell fragment (if not his best), the significance of the Iraqi episode is less invested in any self-contained ingenuity of its own than in its place among all the others. I defer to Paul Kincaid:
[…] I have seen comments to the effect that the scenes in Iraq during Ed’s chapter are an irrelevance, an excuse for Mitchell to express his opposition to the war but really play no significant part in the overall novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Iraq scenes are there because they provide a necessary mirror to the overall war that is going on behind and underneath everything else in the book. Without Iraq, all the book would present is the ongoing, ahistorical war of the immortals that is vague and at best esoteric; with Iraq we see all war as cruel and dehumanizing to both sides in the conflict. So we see that what the immortals do is not detached from what we know, and we get a way of measuring the human cost.
Elsewhere in his response, Kincaid rejoins the main line of Mitchell enthusiasts who assume the contraction of connections within the pattern is purely additive and not, as I would have it, a potential reversal of philosophy; but here he is on the mark. To revisit a scene where Ed’s photographer Aziz recounts his struggle to make a future for his daughters amidst the chaos and incompetence left by Saddam and America alike is to notice a reflection of mortals like Holly who, in a world of open cosmic strife between combatants who are not their concern, just want their families to get by. It may not be very subtle, but it does lead one to think the powerlessness of mortals in the novel has a point.
Further to this, the hyperreality of war as a conduit for escape is a motif that calls attention to the place of The Bone Clocks in the emerging pattern of literary response to twenty-first century geopolitics, and specifically to the interminable psychological trauma of its origin myth, the 11 September terrorist attacks.
The spark of recognition Mitchell ignites when he invokes recurring signs and symbols is a momentary pleasure with a dark antithesis. It brings with it the threat of misrecognition, of mistaken identity. If you could be anyone, anyone could be you. We are only able to see Yu Leon Marinus in Iris Marinus if we equally open ourselves to believing Jacko isn’t Jacko, and indeed this is the very crisis that presents itself to Holly. As a family matter, it is a crisis of recognition in its purest social form. A coherent sense of family, and from it the higher-order kinships—tribes, nations, ideologies—relies on a dependable apparatus for threat assessment, for knowing when to let down your guard. In an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion threat assessment goes haywire; our capacity for distinguishing friend from foe resorts to the indiscriminate profiling of potential enemies, and we no longer trust our fight-or-flight response.
Mitchell is no stranger to the dramatic possibilities. It bears remembering that one of his foundational texts, as pervasive a presence in his thematic architecture as Calvino, Murakami, and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock’s sublime meditation on reincarnation and recurrence as echoes of trauma is an expressive distillation of the psychological rudiments that inform Mitchell’s fantastical iterations on the same ideas, and the novelist acknowledges the debt in the third story of Cloud Atlas, Luisa Rey’s. (I am sorry to report these connections fall short of a closed loop; Wilder’s contribution to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt has no great bearing on Atlas.) The entire chapter is a Hitchcock tribute, as it flags early on when Luisa recalls an interview with the director for her magazine:
I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that’s… the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe… but only our toes.
But it is Vertigo, more than Psycho or Charade (not a Hitchcock thriller but a Stanley Donen picture designed to look like one, mentioned in keeping with Mitchell’s love of mimicry), that courses through the coastal Californian setting of Luisa’s partition and beyond. The most overt allusion to it comes later, when Luisa meets a contact in an art gallery and finds her sitting on a low bench, gazing at a portrait of a lady.
It is actually a little disappointing that Mitchell’s cinematic tribute does not survive into the film of Cloud Atlas by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. Tykwer, a director who put his name on the map with another exercise in recurrence, Run Lola Run (and who, like Sunken Garden’s creator Michel van der Aa, doubles as a composer), shoots Luisa’s segment in a fluid contemporary style with little resemblance to Hitchcock’s meticulous configurations. Nevertheless, the essence of Vertigo survives in the adaptation through the latter’s notorious theatrical conceit, in my view a successful one, of iterating a single cast over multiple identities, slathering on everyone a garish layer of makeup that looks contrived to draw attention to the players, not disguise them. The delight in spotting the actors comes packaged with a necessary attitude of suspicion towards the characters they are portraying, who, the film conditions us to presume, are never who they say they are. And there is question at the heart of paranoia: who are you, really?
Misrecognition is a mythic device and not by a long shot anything new to fiction. The frictionless reassignment of names, the slipperiness of the signifier and signified as their bonds dissolve in sleep, has always been a defining element of dream logic. Prior to The Bone Clocks Mitchell drew on it extensively with minimal reference to any crisis of the recent past more proximate than the Falklands War, with the telling exception of the first chapter of his very first novel, Ghostwritten, which opens with an incident based on the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. On his first page of published fiction he announced himself as a correspondent from the demilitarized border of dream and terror.
What is new for the logic of misrecognition, in our present century, is its subject matter: warfare in the age of ubiquitous spectacle. Not for no reason does 9/11 fit so snugly into the pattern of what David Auerbach, in his taxonomy of Thomas Pynchon’s moral universe, calls a “decoherence event”—a catastrophic detonation of our models for comprehending the world that drives us to scramble for any reassurance that reality is coherent. “That gaping void of anti-paranoia—the loss of all sense in the world—is not only what drives conspiracy theories, but also the conspiracies themselves,” writes Auerbach. “Both are attempts to exert control over the world and provide linear explanation where none exists.” The cunning of Pynchon’s contribution to the literature of 9/11, Bleeding Edge, is simply in behaving as a Pynchon novel. Life imitates art.
One detects a shadow of Pynchon’s scheme in the final third of The Bone Clocks, where the conspirators on all sides do exactly as Auerbach says: they impose an unwelcome linearity upon the Mitchellverse, and in this very pursuit of coherence they stare over the abyss that separates life from death and unravel into incoherence. Finally, they subside into inadequacy and leave a new void to be filled.
The juxtaposition of genre spectacle with terror, a twinning that led so many to see the first footage of plane-struck towers and immediately think of Tom Clancy or Michael Bay, occurs in The Bone Clocks as the latest incarnation of a wider trend. Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, published a year earlier, follows a similar tack: a fractured novel that begins in a near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain (it is treated more delicately than it sounds) where incomprehensible forces thought to be superweapons carve triangular slices out of space itself, it too is a quest to recover someone beloved who was snatched away into a phantasmagoria of names dissolved from faces. Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, a reformulation of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle where the alternate-historical Osama bin Laden is a figure out of pulp paperbacks, wraps its illusions around the nucleus of a dissociation from personal bonds, the trigger for a loss of self.
Central to all of these novels is a disorienting sense of prosopagnosia, face-blindness. In searching to recover a coherent reality, detective plots yield to dream plots. Faces come unanchored from identities, and the ensuing failures of recognition compound an atmosphere of mistrust. (From this perspective Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, released in 1985 in a climate punctuated by the bombings of the Provisional IRA, is an outstandingly prescient urtext.)
The most literal presentation of prosopagnosia as the operative metaphor for post-9/11 dissonance, and also the best, is in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. The novel, set in 2002, concerns a man who suffers a brain injury that leaves him with the unshakeable conviction that his sister is an impostor. As it progresses, however, a picture emerges of an America that is itself the victim of cognitive dislocation. A science writer buckles under a backlash to his lack of empathy with his subjects and the fictive licence he takes with stringing their stories into a narrative; young men in Nebraska enlist to exact vengeance on an unseen enemy that struck a side of the country they have never known; a reporter collapses under the weight of desensitization to violence and fear. Misrecognition, the novel tells us, is the organizing crisis of our times.
The Echo Maker securely resides in our quotidian reality, but it provides us with a robust vocabulary for grasping the political insight of writers who work in dream-space. Together they have a strange synergy: Margaret Atwood makes a persuasive case that the archetypal mythology of Powers’ novel is a text we encountered here at the start, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I would go further and submit that it gives us the master key to what we might call the prosopagnosic novel. We can see developing before us a specific and consistent approach to blending science, fantasy, and conspiracy into a concerted response to the new paranoia of the twenty-first century. It is something too exact to be reductively described in terms of simple genre-mashing or complex systems transcending human control, although its players are, in their own way, heroes of a thousand faces.
As for David Mitchell, as a long admirer of his work I remain optimistic. No petty theoretical discomforts with his growing tendency to linearize what is better left a labyrinth make me any less curious about what he will do next, or leave me any less watchful for the next appearance of Toby Kramer (if in the guise of Zenna Briggs). It would be so like him to rewrite what The Bone Clocks has just rewritten. If the totality of his work is to form a single saga, then at least there will always be more room for ecstatic contradiction. We would do well to remember the epilogue of The Thousand Autumns, when Jacob visits the dying Marinus. “The doctor joked that he was a grass-snake, shedding one skin.”
(Images from Michel van der Aa’s film-opera Sunken Garden are sourced from trailers, publicity photographs by Mike Hoban, and Lucas van Woerkum’s documentary The Making of Sunken Garden.)
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