27 October, 2014Issue 26.2FictionLiterature

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A Finite Infinity

Emma Simpson

The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks
Scepter, 2014
£20.00
608 pages
ISBN: 9780340921609


You and I are bone clocks. Our bodies are ticking time bombs of mortality: temporal, ever-ageing, constant reminders that our time in this world is short. For us, the concepts of immortality, reincarnation, disembodied souls, and atemporal beings are the stuff of stories. In the words of Mitchell’s own bone clock, Hugo Lamb, they are “plausible, if you live in a fantasy novel. Here in the real world, souls stay inside the body. The paranormal is always, always a hoax.”

Is David Mitchell’s new novel a fantasy novel? At first it is hard to be sure, especially since Mitchell is well known for his promiscuous genre-hopping. The semi-autobiographical bildungsroman Black Swan Green took us inside the mind of 13-year-old Jason in 1980s England; the magnificent work of surreal historical fiction that is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet detailed the life of a Dutch bookkeeper stationed at the East India Trading Post in 18th century Dejima; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten hopped through the interlinking stories of a variety of characters whose stories spanned time, place, genre, and style, all within a tightly-controlled structure. Mitchell realises these different worlds with the ease of a natural storyteller, ensuring that the reader rarely looses track of even the most obscure of sub-plots.

The first chapter of The Bone Clocks places us in the familiar world of Black Swan Green: a working-class English suburb in the 1980s. Holly Sykes’s first chapter is, at first, a reasonably convincing attempt to mirror the voice of a 15-year-old girl struggling through a familiar minefield of adolescent angst and heartache. Mitchell is a master of voice, and his creations are compelling precisely because even the most everyday characters often have a hidden, existential depth. Holly’s narrative is a typically Mitchellian work of unpretentious philosophy: “I think about pinball, and how being a kid’s like being shot up the firing lane and there’s no veering left or right: you’re just sort of propelled.”

Gradually, and so subtly that it is hard to be sure it is happening, Holly’s story progresses from the everyday territory of Black Swan Green to a world more reminiscent of Mitchell’s earlier novel Number9Dream—a sprawling, semi-structured work of imaginative experimentation which at times runs away with itself. Holly has visions, hears voices, encounters a woman on the road who tells her she might need “asylum” if “the first mission fails”, and witnesses the brutal murder of two people which is then erased from her memory and left unexplained, before her precocious younger brother Jacko goes mysteriously missing. In the space of a few pages the book progresses from what at first seems a simple coming-of age novel, to a complex, fast-paced science fiction fantasy; the shrewd reader begins to store away clues.

In the second narrative we meet amoral Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, who falls in love with Holly when she works at a ski resort in her mid-twenties. Following this there is a thought-provoking, highly political section narrated by Holly’s childhood friend Ed, now her husband and a war journalist in Bush-era Iraq. We then encounter some clever meta-fiction in the narrative of Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist whose story takes us from 2015 to 2025; a quote from a review of one of Crispin’s books tells us that “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look… what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer character?” Mitchell, it seems, is all too aware of his undertaking in creating such a novel.

The Bone Clocks lacks the controlled structure we are accustomed to in a Mitchell novel of such scope. It quickly becomes apparent that Holly’s life is the thread—at times, the only thread—that links together the various voices of the novel. Her life is often referred to by other characters as “the script”, playing with ideas of fate, and what is “written” into the narrative of time—a theme to which the novel continuously returns. However, each of the separate narratives is so well-realised that rarely is the reader bored or confused by the postmodern structure or the genre-hopping plot: this is a messy, experimental novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

As in all of Mitchell’s books, familiar characters from other books nod knowingly from between a stream of new voices: Jason from Black Swan Green is Hugo Lamb’s cousin; in the last section, Holly’s friend Mo is a character who we met in her younger incarnation at the end of Ghostwritten. All the while, internal plot lines also intersect and collide in a complex tapestry of voices and references. Whether it is a sense of coincidence or a sense of the inevitable that Mitchell is trying to bring to his long-time readers, the result is incredibly satisfying: something like returning home to a house of familiar faces after a very unpredictable day.

The penultimate story is told by Dr Marinus, an atemporal soul who also appears under the same name in Jacob De Zoet. His narrative ties together the supernatural sub-plot which runs alongside Holly’s life: an underground battle between “atemporals” and the “horologists”: two separate groups of eternal beings whose war invites us to question the morals behind immortality. The sub-plot is at times incongruous, confusing, and far-fetched. And yet, it is brilliant because of the way it brings up unanswered questions from previous Mitchell books. Ghostwritten, for instance, contains a chapter written by a “noncorpum”, a disembodied, eternal soul who flits between bodies, co-inhabiting the consciousness of its hosts. In Cloud Atlas, each character is a reincarnated form of the same, eternal soul. If Mitchell’s books are all set in the same topsy-turvy universe, can we conclude that noncorpums and reincarnated souls relate in some way to atemporals and horologists? The fact that such beings exist alongside the bone clocks dissolves the line between Mitchell’s world and our own.

The Bone Clocks is Mitchell’s most ambitious and experimental novel to date. It move both chronologically, socially and geographically: working-class 1980s Gravesend; an upper-class view of casinos and cocaine in the 1990s; a vividly realised picture of the Iraq war in the noughties; a frighteningly plausible vision of the post-apocalyptic future. However, each section of the story gives us only a snippet of a life and time: we are then left to work out the fates of the various protagonists by piecing together bits from stories told by others. Elements of the fantasy sub-plot occur in each story—the battle between good and evil is timeless—and it is Holly’s life, rather than the structure of the novel, which ties together all of these disparate pieces. At the end, in a Cloud Atlas-like recapitulation, we return to Holly, now an old woman living in Ireland in 2043, as the world, now nearly devoid of fossil fuels, collapses around her and her family.

David Mitchell admits to being “a map nerd”, and, in his novels, he is obsessed not only with mapping place, but with mapping time and mapping lives. The Bone Clocks is no exception. Its title sums up the book’s focus on both temporality and mortality, with humankind and our fleeting time on this earth. As a deeply and self-professedly experimental work (it was never likely to win the Man Booker Prize for this reason), it is gloriously ambitious, surprising, moving, and a ridiculously fun read.

Emma Simpson is reading for a BA in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.