Adding to the Übernovel: Why David Mitchell Does What He Does

By Brian FinneySeptember 28, 2014

Adding to the Übernovel: Why David Mitchell Does What He Does

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


EVER SINCE 2007, when Time magazine placed Mitchell 16th on its list of 100 individuals “whose talent, power and moral example is transforming the world,” David Mitchell has received accolades from every quarter for “having created the 21st-century novel” (Time again). He’s been called “newer than new” (A. S. Byatt), “the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction” (Washington Post), “the most impressive fictional mind of his generation” (The Observer) — I could go on. Reviewers’ reactions to his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks, have been more guarded, but still largely adulatory, possibly influenced by the fact that this novel was the fifth out of his six novels to date to be long-listed for the Booker Prize. (Two of them reached the short list.)

Reviews have a limited and transitory purpose — to give readers enough information to decide whether they want to read the book, while withholding any information that might spoil a reader’s experience by revealing crucial elements of the plot in particular. This is why my response to Mitchell’s novel does not qualify as a review. Warning! It does contain spoilers. But the plot is so complex that even those who have read the book cannot get their summaries right. One reviewer/interviewer thinks that this novel, divided clearly into six sections, has a seventh section (Steven Poole in The Guardian [this has since been corrected in the online version, ed.]). Another reviewer calls the fourth and fifth sections the third and fourth, leaving the reader to assume that there are only five sections (John Freeman, The Boston Globe). So I am confidant that I am not likely to spoil anyone’s reading experience.

Being an online publication, the Los Angeles Review of Books offers its reviewers and essayists what print publications rarely can afford to do — the opportunity to write at whatever length is needed to do justice to the subject while retaining the interest of its readers. And this book is clearly important enough to warrant a full exploration. There is something absurd about a review that claims to be discussing “one of the most electric writers alive” in under a thousand words, which is what most of the reviews published to date do. This convention invites reviewers to adopt speed-reading and make correspondingly superficial judgments. In the case of The Bone Clocks,most of the reviewers have genuflected to the cult status of Mitchell while criticizing its fifth section, in which the supernatural element becomes overt. As I will argue below, this common criticism shows, in my opinion, a lack of attention to the tone Mitchell employs for section 5, a tone that gives a completely different complexion to it.


Mitchell is known for the originality with which he structures his novels. The Bone Clocks is no exception. The publisher calls it “Cloud Atlas-y,” and it is the closest of his last three novels to the structural complexity of Cloud Atlas (2004). For the sake of readers who have not read The Bone Clocks, in this section I am offering an overview of both its structure and plot. As Mitchell has explained, structure is “a kind of plot in its own right, running parallel to the narrative-plot.” Structurally speaking the narrative spans 59 years, from 1984 to 2043 (although at the supernatural level it stretches back seven millennia). Geographically it spans the world, starting in England, and moving through Switzerland, Iraq, Wales, Colombia, Western Australia, China, Iceland, New England, Canada, New York City, Russia, and southwest Ireland (while at the supernatural level it takes the reader to an alternative universe occupied by souls). Each of the book’s six sections has a different narrator with the exception of the first and last, which are narrated by its principal protagonist, Holly Sykes. Each section is told in the first person, the voice Mitchell uses in four of his five earlier novels. Each section, as in Cloud Atlas, employs a different genre, from a kind of chick lit in the first section to futuristic dystopia in the last.

As for what Mitchell calls the “narrative-plot,” this is split into six sections (and this is where I should provide a spoiler alert, if I believed in one):

Section 1 takes place over three days in the summer of 1984. Its narrator and protagonist is what Mitchell has called “a rebellious teenage punkette,” age 15 (the same age Mitchell was that year). After leaving her home (over her father’s pub in Gravesend on the Thames Estuary) Holly discovers her boyfriend in bed with her best friend. Too proud to return home she walks toward the Kent marshes where she has a number of adventures, including meeting an old woman called Esther Little who asks her for asylum, something Holly doesn’t understand but agrees to. Esther is a founding member of the Horologists, a benevolent group of souls who transmigrate from one body to another over the ages. This is one of many strange incidents that dot Holly’s life, incidents such as hearing voices (she calls them Radio People), going to a doctor called Marinus (another Horologist) who makes the voices disappear with the touch of a finger, being visited by a spectral woman called Constantin, and seeing her brother Jacko under a bridge, even though she knows he’s back home 20 miles away. After she starts working on a fruit farm, a geekish school friend called Ed Brubeck finds her there and tells her that her brother Jacko has mysteriously gone missing.

Section 2 takes place between December 13, 1991, and January 1, 1992. It is narrated by Hugo Lamb, who is an egotistic young Cambridge undergraduate who goes with friends to spend the New Year in a Swiss chalet. There he meets Holly working at the resort as a barmaid. They become lovers, only for Hugo to be lured to another time and space zone by two “Anchorites,” pseudo-immortals who remain young by decanting the souls of the living, and who offer the same status to Hugo. He chooses to leave Holly for them.

Section 3 takes place on April 17, 2003, in Brighton on the southeast coast of England, where Holly’s family is gathered for the wedding of her sister Sharon. Holly is now living with Ed Brubeck, this section’s narrator, who has become her live-in partner, and their six-year-old daughter Aoife. The narrative alternates between the wedding and flashbacks to Iraq where Ed is a war correspondent covering the first battle of Fallujah. At the wedding an old Irish great-aunt of Holly’s warns him to believe Holly even if he considers her precognition so much mumbo jumbo. When Ed accepts a six-month renewal of his assignment in the Middle East, Holly is furious. Aoife goes missing and Holly has a fit in which she mutters “1015.” Ed eventually realizes that this is a hotel room number, where he eventually discovers their daughter. (We learn in the next section that he dies on his next assignment.)

Section 4 moves into the immediate future, taking place between May 2015 and December 2020. It is narrated by Crispin Hershey, a well-known author whose latest book is poorly received. This initiates his decline in reputation, and to repay Richard Cheeseman, the critic who trashed the novel, Hershey plants cocaine in Cheeseman’s suitcase, leading to his imprisonment for three and a half years. A satire of the literary and publishing world, the narrative moves from one international book festival to another and ends with Hershey teaching a creative writing class in a New England liberal arts college. At the first Hay Festival he learns that the hot new author is Holly Sykes, her book titled The Radio People. Meeting at a succession of festivals, they become friends. After she has shown her capacity to assume the voice of an Australian Aborigine, Holly warns Hershey that she has had a prescient message about him. This turns out to refer to his final moments — a female writer wanting him to endorse her book of poetry turns out to be a member of the warring pseudo-immortals who kills him as a way to promote her book of poems exposing the Anchorites’ predatory practices.

Section 5 takes place over five days in April 2024, and is told by Marinus, now inhabiting the body of a female psychiatrist. This is the one section in which the supernatural element occupies the foreground of the narrative. Marinus is approached by a leading Anchorite, who claims that he wants to defect and help destroy the Anchorites’ headquarters, the Chapel of the Dusk. Marinus meets up in New York with his five fellow Horologists, who decide, despite suspecting that the defection is a trap, to conduct a second mission against the Chapel. (In the first mission in 1984 they were tricked, and only Esther Little survived by taking refuge in Holly’s body.) There is a 26-page flashback to one of Marinus’s previous lives as an impoverished Russian female peasant. Marinus manages to extract Esther’s soul from Holly’s head, and it enters one of the Horologists. They plan their second mission to enter the Chapel of the Dusk. They know Esther needs time to detonate her soul and destroy the Chapel and the Anchorites in it. Once inside a psychic battle ensues that lasts long enough for Esther to explode her soul. To escape from the Chapel, Holly uses the diagram of a maze Jacko gave her to memorize before he disappeared.

Section 6 takes place over three days in October 2043 and is narrated by Holly, now 74 years old. She is living in a small village in southwest Ireland (close to where Mitchell lives), where she is caring for her two grandchildren, Lorelei and Rafiq (adopted). Her daughter Aoife and son-in-law Örvar had died five years earlier in a “Gigastorm” that destroyed the plane in which they were crossing the Pacific (and 200 other planes). The world has entered the “Endarkenment,” having virtually run out of oil. Since “Netcrash One,” the internet rarely works, and news is almost unobtainable. A Chinese company that has provided security for the Cordon, a portion of Ireland where Holly lives, withdraws its services and militiamen invade the area, remove solar panels from the houses, and end up fighting one another in the village square. In the finale, a ship from Iceland brings Marinus to Holly’s house, where he offers to repay Holly’s help in navigating the maze out of the Chapel by taking Lorelei and Rafiq back to Iceland, which is exempt from the Endarkenment because it has geothermal sources of energy. Holly is left behind facing her imminent death.


Phew! Now that that’s over, I can turn to some of the book’s radical and innovative features. Mitchell is the preeminent novelist of globalism, not because his books take readers across the world, but because he creates characters that are simultaneously unique and yet interchangeable, just as his locations are specific yet share features — like spaces in airports and hotels — that are indistinguishable across the world. Mitchell has called himself an “innate maximalist,” with a desire to comprehend everything he can within his fictional universe. Just as he builds this 620-page novel out of six novellas, so he is simultaneously creating what he calls an “überbook” out of all his hyperlinked novels and stories. Characters, events, and motifs spill over from one book to the next, even as he takes care to make each book stand on its own. As he explains, he returns to characters in previous novels because it “makes one world more real when you introduce a character from another world.” Recurring figures like Marinus (born 640 AD) make his fictional world bigger. In fact he told one interviewer that he keeps a notebook in which he tracks Marinus’s lives. In section 5 of The Bone Clocks Marinus refers to his previous existence as a surgeon-scholar that actually constituted his 28th lifetime, recounted in Mitchell’s fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). His first appearance in The Bone Clocks is his 32nd fictional incarnation.

Far the most informative profile to coincide with the publication of The Bone Clocks, by Kathryn Schulz, appeared in New York magazine. Schulz includes a diagram charting which characters appear in which of his books. Twenty-three characters appear in two or three of his six novels. Luisa Rey, for instance, who called in to a radio station in Ghostwritten (1999) and who was a reporter for Spyglass in Cloud Atlas, reappears as Ed Brubeck’s editor at Spyglass in The Bone Clocks. Hugo Lamb, who was the cool, mean-spirited cousin of Jason Taylor in Mitchell’s fourth novel, Black Swan Green (2006), reappears as the sociopathic narrator of section 2 of The Bone Clocks. Other characters in this novel that have already appeared in earlier books include Nurse Noakes, Timothy Cavendish, de Zoet, and Mo Muntervary.

But there are other passing references to things appearing in earlier work such as the Chatham Isles (where Cloud Atlas opens), HMS Phoebus (the British naval ship in The Thousand Autumns that blasted Nagasaki harbor to matchwood), even Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time in the National Gallery (first alluded to in Ghostwritten). What Mitchell has to say about this enigmatic painting offers an insight into how he uses these linked motifs. The painting is an analogue to the novel: “It hides its impossibilities in full view. The perspective, the sizes, the body parts: It’s all wrong, yet there it is in the same canvas.” Similarly he argues, “The Bone Clocks is all wrong” with its incompatible ingredients. “It shouldn’t work, but hopefully it does.” And the same can be said of his evolving macronovel. Like globalism, it attempts to encompass everything. Just as later chapters of The Bone Clocks throw light on earlier ones (we only understand what caused the disappearance of Jacko in section 1 in section 5), so later books change our perception of earlier ones. One example: in The Thousand Autumns the Japanese monks of a secret shrine, who believe that eating children will grant them immortality (it won’t), in the light of The Bone Clocks turn out to be Anchorites. Each new novel of his causes all its predecessors to shape-change.


Mitchell makes use of juxtaposition not just in structuring the plot of his novel but in the different personalities and voices he employs to narrate each section, and in the literary genres he employs. He has said that he thinks of literary genres as “an underused set of colors in a writer’s paint box.” Set against one another, two genres tend to produce something different. For instance the last two sections of The Bone Clocks offer respectively a fantasy victory of benevolent over malevolent forces and the reverse, in a dystopian portrait of a world running out of oil. Pitting a metaphysical fantasy thriller against an apocalyptic futurist dystopia allows Mitchell to leave readers to work out for themselves that third color — what actually awaits our world. Similarly, juxtaposing what Mitchell calls the “hard-baked social realism” of Holly’s working-class teenage years in section 1 with the privileged undergraduate exposé of section 2 leaves readers with a better understanding of how class still affects the future and the moral stance of such contrasting figures as Holly and the sociopath Hugo Lamb. Section 3 actually contains two genres — the hard-boiled war narrative of reporter Ed Brubeck in Iraq within the “hopefully well-written soap opera” (Mitchell again) of Holly’s sister’s wedding. The war episodes undermine the security of the wedding episodes, while the wedding episodes expose the de-creative and antisocial nature of war.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” in Cloud Atlas offered a brilliant example of Mitchell’s manipulation of literary satire, used to describe a vanity publisher. Section 4 of The Bone Clocks, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet,” employs the same genre with equal success, exposing the follies and pretensions of writers and the book world. Mitchell confessed that he accepted some far-flung invitations to book festivals simply to obtain copy for this section of the novel. A number of reviewers noted that Crispin Hershey, the famous author in decline who ricochets from one book festival to another, bears some resemblance to Martin Amis. Not only does he resent his father’s apparent disregard for his writing, but his first successful novel, Desiccated Embryos, is a pastiche of Amis’s Dead Babies, just as Hershey’s Red Monkey calls to mind Amis’s Yellow Dog. Even Hershey’s agent, Hal the Hyena, sounds like Amis’s agent, Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie. Mitchell also uses Cheeseman, the critic who lambasted Hershey’s current novel, Echo Must Die — “infantile, flatulent, ghastly drivel” — to anticipate the criticism now being directed at Mitchell for his use of supernatural material: “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.” Cheeseman goes on to criticize Hershey for resorting to “a writer creating a writer-character” — just what Hershey is to Mitchell. Mitchell directly addresses the resistance to his use of multiple genres when Hershey defends his inability to switch to writing children’s stories: “In publishing it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.” And Hershey scorns an author working on a novel that sounds remarkably like The Thousand Autumns. Mitchell uses the genre of literary pastiche to make fun of the entire book-publishing world — including his part in it.

Mitchell deploys his five very different narrators to offer a wide variety of responses to the fictional world he constructs. In his largely negative review of The Bone Clocks for The New Yorker, James Wood notes Mitchell’s penchant for narrating in the first person, “a mode whose natural volubility does Mitchell few favors.” This is a rather strange dismissal of a device favored by a majority of writers since Henry James. Wood then attacks Mitchell for making his characters sound too alike, because they are all involved in the use of “figurative exaggeration.” The examples he offers of each narrator’s language fails to convince — how can one claim that Holly’s teen working-class jargon (“Stella says me and Vin are soul mates”) is anything like Hugo’s upper-class supercilious English (“When my friend’s father passed away, he left his family one ungodly financial mess and a humongous bill for inheritance tax”)? When Holly (now 22) and Hugo become lovers she even comments on their different vocabularies after he has asked, “You wouldn’t have any ciggies left, perchance?” She replies, “Use a word like ‘perchance’ in Gravesend, you’d get crucified.”

The other voices are equally distinct. Hershey’s use of diatribe calls upon all his expertise as a writer: “Who, on God’s festering Earth, does that six-foot wide, corduroy-clad, pubic-bearded, rectal probe Richard Cheeseman think he is?” Neither Holly nor Hugo would speak like this. His use of figurative language is equally inventive: he describes a Newfoundland poetess as having “the eyes of a seal gazing out of a Greenpeace poster.” Once we enter the psychic world at war of section 5, its narrator, Marinus, introduces us to its special vocabulary with an inventive number of neologisms: “subspeech,” “metalife,” “animacide,” “suasion,” and so on. In the final section, the much older Holly’s description of a near-end-of-the-world scenario employs its own appropriate jargon with references to “prebroadband speed,” “Ratflu,” “the Endarkenment,” “Stability,” “Technotopia,” et cetera. His neologisms are inventive and self-explanatory. In addition Mitchell uses the present tense for each narrator. As Ursula K. Le Guin (one of Mitchell’s earliest influences) remarked in her Guardian review of this novel, “The present tense is a narrowbeam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step — now, now, now.” So this choice contributes to what most reviewers including Wood agree is one of Mitchell’s great strengths — his powers as a superb storyteller.


Here we come to the crux of the criticisms widely (and imitatively) leveled at this book. In Britain the Sunday Times and in the States The New York Times and Washington Post led the pack in denouncing the foregrounding of the supernatural battle in section 5:

“In order to get through this section [5], you have to disable your disbelief — along with many of your other critical faculties” (Sunday Times, 8/24).

“New Age blather” … “hodgepodge” … “paranormal hooey” (The New York Times, 8/27).

“this knock-off version of ‘Harry Potter’” (Washington Post, 8/27).

A number of subsequent reviewers followed suit (although many others continued to lavish praise on Mitchell as a uniquely talented writer of his time and considered this novel his best). Depending on readers’ tastes they will either be thrilled or alienated by section 5.

So why is this criticism a misreading of the novel? From his first novel Mitchell has treated the border between fantasy and reality as entirely permeable. At the same time he has said (in an interview last year) that he is “a reasonably content[ed] agnostic” (like Holly), and doubts whether we have souls while hoping that he is wrong. He has also repeatedly stated that the first books to make an impact on him were such works of fantasy and science fiction as those by Ursula K. Le Guin, John Wyndham, Tolkien, Ballard, Asimov, and similar writers. In his eyes fiction should offer a parallel world that can embody the stuff of dreams, fantasies, and nightmares. In fact the mistake may be in considering sections 1-4 as realist, especially as the fantasy elements crop up in all four sections. But what is one to make of his remark to another interviewer concerning this novel: “The fantasy material is ‘volatile.’ […] It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air.”

The answer lies in the tone he uses for this material, something his critics appear to have overlooked altogether. Of all the reviewers, only one, Jerome Maunsell in the London Evening Standard, mentions in passing the “risky, almost parodically over-the-top way” Mitchell foregrounds the fantastic element in section 5. Yes! It is glaringly obvious that Mitchell is burlesquing the supernatural material even as he makes use of it. Early in section 1 Holly spends her first night on the run in a small Saxon church in the Kent marshes. Once Ed has picked the lock, “The church door swings open with the perfect Transylvanian hinge-creak.” You are warned from the start not to take this stuff too seriously. This is the world of fiction, fear, and fantasy. When you get to the war between the Anchorists and the Horologists in section 5, the language is so filled with hyperbole that it should be impossible for a reader to treat its subject matter in a realist manner. Anchorites are described as “carnivorous psychodecanters,” “a syndicate of soul thieves” who perform “animacides.” Their full title is “the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass.” Does anyone seriously believe that a writer who says he gets a “throb of pleasure from a bloody perfect sentence” would employ five ofs in one sentence? The same holds for the psychic battle to the death fought in the Chapel by the two groups of pseudo-immortals. A Horologist “superkinetics” another across the Chapel, and “superlassos” a traitor, then “hand-symbols an Act of Violence” that leaves his head “twisted through 360 degrees.” When another Horologist targets the Blind Cathar, he “pours Deep Stream voltage from his own glowing chakra straight at the black pupil on the icon’s forehead.” Seriously, would an experienced writer use all those capitalizations unintentionally?

So Mitchell 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. He is also using it to address a concern he says he has recently experienced with the limitations of the human life span. As Ed expresses it in the novel, “People ache to believe there’s more than …” And Hugo is so oppressed by the thought that “life is a terminal illness” that he opts to join the Anchorites. As Mitchell explained Hugo’s choice to an interviewer, “You get to cheat aging, you get to cheat death, and all you have to do is amputate your conscience.” Mitchell is simply living out fictionally a common human fantasy concerning prolonging one’s life, even if it involves some Faustian pact.

Similarly, Mitchell’s differentiation between the Anchorites and the Horologists has a moral point to it. The Anchorites can stop aging by decanting the soul of another human, preferably that of a child, about every three years. The Horologists (only a few humans are born as “Atemporals”) experience a different form of pseudo-immortality. After they die, their souls, after an interval of 49 days, reenter the body of another human being whose soul has just left him or her. So in effect the Anchorites want to remain unchanged forever, even at the expense of their fellow beings. By contrast the Horologists are willing to live with change and the uncertainty that accompanies it. And this openness to change makes them capable of compassion for their fellow beings. Marinus transmigrates from his privileged status as Lucas Marina, a surgeon-scholar (in The Thousand Autumns), to that of eight-year-old Klara, an impoverished Russian serf girl. As such she sets out to improve her life and that of her adopted parents.

There is a distinction between Mitchell’s supernatural characters and his “Temporals.” Anchorites are painted black and Horologists white, whereas all his normal characters have flaws or redeeming features — Ed Brubeck is hooked on the adrenaline of reporting from war zones to such an extent that he leaves his family to risk and lose his life; Holly leaves home to join a lover who is two-timing her; Hershey, having gotten his critic Cheeseman jailed for drug possession, spends the next few years working for his release. Here’s additional proof that Mitchell does not want readers to see his supernatural figures in a realist light. They are grotesques, fictional embodiments of wishes and fantasies.

The Anchorites dismissively refer to normal humans as “bone clocks,” because they can read on the faces of mortals how much they have already lived, whereas the Anchorites remain looking youthful. The predatory instinct of the Anchorites is a failing they share with modern civilization. When Mo accusingly asks a militiaman who is stealing her solar, “So you’re reinstating the law of the jungle?” he replies tellingly, “You were bringing it back, every time you filled your tank.” Holly accepts her generation’s responsibility for the disintegration of society all around her. She feels “grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded […] all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.” There you have it. Everyone shares with the Anchorites a desire to resist change. The Anchorites turn out to be not that different from everyone else in the final section of this brilliantly executed novel.

To promote The Bone Clocks Mitchell was asked by his publisher to tweet something about it. Instead he produced “The Right Sort,” a short story in 280 tweets about a boy getting high on his mum’s valium. Although he has said that he already has five future novels lined up in his mind, he found that a sixth was “growing out of the stump of [his] twitter story.” Clearly we are going to hear a lot more from this uniquely talented writer, one who can brilliantly combine the popular with the intellectual. Let us hope reviewers in the future will drop their elitist prejudices and accept Mitchell’s mix of genres and styles as a genuinely innovative contribution to the contemporary world of fiction.


Brian Finney is the author of seven books, most recently Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society.

LARB Contributor

Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach. He has published seven books, including a critical biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for nonfiction. Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published in 2011. His latest book published 2019 is Money Matters: A Novel.


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