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.