David Mitchell, Unplugged

By Michael MagrasOctober 22, 2014

I LIKE TO AMUSE myself by imagining novelist David Mitchell, confident from the well-deserved success of Cloud Atlas (and its predecessors, Ghostwritten and Number9Dream), and thinking: in which weird direction can I take the reading public next? In Cloud Atlas he spanned 1,000 years and more literary styles — science fiction, English comedy, thriller, epistolary novel, dystopian fiction — than most writers attempt in a lifetime. He next wrote a coming-of-age tale, Black Swan Green, and then a full-blown historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Places and time periods cannot contain Mitchell. In The Bone Clocks, his most ambitious novel yet, we follow 15-year-old Holly Sykes as her brother gives her a hand-drawn maze and tells her she must learn this diabolical labyrinth. Before you know it, The Bone Clocks shifts from a realistic coming-of-age tale to a paranormal novel in which two groups of quasi-immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, vie against one another and use Holly as a weapon in their power struggle. Characters from his other novels show up in the narrative, making it apparent that, read together, his books make up one large book that Mitchell is in the middle of writing. Like much of Mitchell’s work, The Bone Clocks is clever rather than profound, but, boy, is it clever. This is one of the more entertaining novels I’ve read this year.


Michael Magras: There’s a significant paranormal component to your new novel. What fascinates you about the paranormal? Do you have any favorite examples of that genre that you used as guides or inspirations as you were writing The Bone Clocks?

David Mitchell: I’m interested in mortality because I’m going to die at some point, and I wanted to think about this from the point of view of immortals, whose relationship with death is a lot less final than ours. As far as is widely known, immortals exist only in the realm of the fantastic, so the novel got shunted toward the paranormal by default. Not so much guides or inspirations, but the fact that Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Robert Louis Stevenson or most of Atwood or chunks of Dostoevsky or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books successfully deploy the paranormal to explore the “real world” we live in reassured me that while it’s not easy to break the laws of physics and still retain literary credibility, it can’t be altogether impossible.

In Cloud Atlas, the composer Robert Frobisher says at one point, "How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false." Now, in The Bone Clocks, we have two groups of quasi-immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, vying against one another and using the protagonist, Holly Sykes, as a weapon in their power struggle. Is it vulgar to hanker after immortality? Are the Horologists and Anchorites versions of vulgarians?

No, it’s not vulgar to hanker after immortality — we’re genetically driven toward survival, and we only reach the middle stages of our lifespans because of this drive. The thing is, then what? We evolved during historical periods when there was no “then what?” because our ancestors would have died in their 30s of infections or illness easily curable in the modern age. Nowadays we feel kind of shortchanged if we don’t reach our 80s. In this context, our wish to survive becomes less a practical reflex to do with the maintenance of our species, and more a ball-and-chain: we don’t want to die, but we’re going to, and as we age and age into our fifth, sixth, and seventh decades, we have less and less to do but contemplate the decay of the bodies that used to serve us so much better. Who wouldn’t want to opt out of this, given the chance? The devil, however, is where he and lawyers can reliably be found, in the details. Whereas the Horologists are harmless souls who get reincarnated in new bodies whether they want this or not, the Anchorites’ immortality has to be paid for by other people. The Horologists are vegetarians, the Anchorites carnivores. My novelist character Crispin Hershey hankers after immortality of a literary kind, of course — I would view that as a vulgar aspiration, as well as misguided. Writing for future generations rather than your own is probably the best way of guaranteeing your own eternal oblivion.

Another recurring theme in your work is interconnectedness. There is the nested dolls aspect of Cloud Atlas — the structure of the story, as well as smaller details, such as the fact that one of the pieces by the composer Vyvyan Ayrs is Matryoshka Doll Variations. You bring back characters and character names from one book to the next: Marinus appears in Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, Felix Finch in Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, and so on. And The Bone Clocks is about quasi-immortals who ingress and egress and transfer souls into other bodies, some for benign reasons and others for more rapacious reasons. Why do you think you’re drawn to stories about interconnectedness?

It’s not so much that I’m drawn to interconnectedness as a theme — in fact I’m not even sure if it qualifies as a theme — so much as the causal structure that the world exists in. When interconnectedness occurs in my books, I don’t feel that I’ve implanted it: I just feel that I’m representing the world as it is, that it’s more an exercise in mimesis than thematic turf I’m staking out and cleverly exploring. Isn’t reality itself nothing more than causes triggering effects which trigger causes which trigger effects which trigger fresh causes and so on and so on until the end of time? Isn’t the world a vast, ceaseless, unplottable loom of connectedness? Perhaps a newspaper resembles one of those screens that shadow puppet shows are enacted upon, displaying just a fraction of all the causes and effects kicked up by war, diseases, economics, politics, mouse-clicks, drone-strikes, committee decisions, committee indecisions, and the whole domino-toppling hurly burly of existence. Blimey, I’ve gone all new-agey-self-helpy on you. On to the next question.

There are a number of timely references to class and inequality in The Bone Clocks. At one point, Chetwynd-Pitt says, "Blue blood’s a serious curse in this day and age." Earlier, Heidi tells Holly, "The working classes are kept in a state of repression by a mixture of force and lies." You have sly references to corporations in much of your work. Can you share your thoughts on class and inequality and the power of corporations in modern society?

How many thousands of words do I have? I suspect most of us would agree that social class exists in every society on Earth, including (especially?) those that profess to be classless. Most of us would agree that Utopian experiments to banish class end up creating places where none of us would want to live, and so class divisions are a sort of inevitable evil. We would also agree that class generates — class is — inequality. Where consensus splinters into left, right, and a libertarian offshoot is over what, if anything, do we do about the inequalities generated by class. Should government make it its business to narrow inequalities by, for example, taxation? A left-wing government tried it in the 1970s in the UK, with disastrous results — yet it appears to work well in Scandinavian countries. How come? Should a government do exactly nothing about class inequalities, like many on the right would argue? What about a minimum wage? Should we subscribe to the cozy belief that by allowing corporations to dictate the terms by which they do business and permitting them a headlong rush to profit at any cost, we will all be floated upwards to a richer future? Would employees of Walmart or McDonalds also subscribe to this viewpoint? Providing opportunities (a.k.a. ladders) up the class structure worked well in the 20th century, which is why — for many of us in the world’s richer countries — our lives are less grueling than they were for our great-grandparents, but is there a limit to these ladders in a globally interconnected world, or in a mature society? Is class a zero-sum game? If my child becomes the highly paid lawyer, does that mean that yours has to be the garbage-collector? Or can they both be lawyers? Then who’s collecting the garbage, because it’s starting to stink the place out? What do you do when class divisions correspond neatly with racial or ethnic divisions? Do you want to spend your life clobbering your conscience into a bloodied pulp when it objects that it’s wrong for the children of the poor to have worse lives than your kids will have because of their skin’s melanin content, or caste, or ethnicity? Can you really vilify illegal immigrants and bang them up for doing precisely what you would do if you’d been born inside their skin, and not your skin? But hang on, Bleeding Heart — are you sure you want a world without policed borders? How would your nice middle-class or rich country neighborhood look 10 years from now if anyone from anywhere on Earth was free to put up a shanty house in the field next door?

These are simple enough questions to type out, but they are hugely complex questions to propose well-thought-out answers for, and beware the ranting simplifiers who tell you otherwise. I haven’t studied economics, and I haven’t read Thomas Piketty’s book, but I don’t think you have to be a Marxist to gag at the thought of the 85 richest people on Earth owning as much as the poorest half of the Homo sapiens species — because that’s the situation we’re in. I also hope it’s not too outlandish to subscribe to the viewpoint that if a corporation is making $29 billion by paying its employees like serfs, then $19 billion might suffice if it meant the employees could have decent lives and sustain their local communities.

I don’t believe that corporations are intrinsically unethical, and to consider all of them to be the devil incarnate shows a paucity of imagination and understanding. Maybe they get a negative slant in my books because fiction needs villains and some corporations behave with novelistically convenient viciousness. But I’m typing this on an Apple; I drive a Subaru; I buy electricity from Airtricity (owned by God knows who); I often fly to London on Aer Lingus; my wife and I feed our family in large part thanks to Supervalu; I’m paid thanks to large publishing corporations in the UK and the US, who are in turn paid by interacting with other large corporations who produce, distribute, promote, and sell my books; and the list goes on and on. The notion that this could all be achieved by small equitable sustainable cooperatives has no credibility at all. I suppose the trouble starts when corporations move into law-making and indirect governance via the lobbying industry, and begin dictating the terms by which we live, and stifling any opposition by forcing it into bankruptcy. For the populace at large this leads to taxation without representation, which your Founding Fathers considered to be iniquitous in the 1770s, and it still is. So let corporations exist and prosper, by all means, but for humanity’s sake can we please keep them out of our senates and our parliaments.

For some of the characters in The Bone Clocks (Immaculée Constantin and Pfenninger and Esther Little and Oshima, etc.), you invented a new, or perhaps it’s better to say enhanced, vocabulary: psychosoterics and dreamseeding and Suasion and so forth. Your inventiveness with language reminded me of other books that did a similar thing, such as A Clockwork Orange and Jabberwocky. How did you go about constructing the vocabulary and the world of The Bone Clocks? And were you thinking of works like Burgess’s and Carroll’s as you constructed them?

Thank you for the compliment you smuggled in there. Jabberwocky hadn’t occurred to me: there, alliteration and onomatopoeia (a word I can never spell) and blurry, slurry semi-meaning get the job done, while the invented vocab in The Bone Clocks has to be more precise and convey its meaning without obliging the reader to stop and guess too much, too often. So either I used existing words in a new format or else I made two-part compound neologisms out of existing parts, like “psychosoterica.” Clockwork Orange uses its Soviet-injected dialect to set up and partition off a sort of anthropologically discrete group — a tribe, in essence. Up to a point, the Anchorites and Horologists are also tribes, who also have vocabulary of their own, but linguistically they are less hard-core than many fictional tribes; it’s only vocabulary, and not a full dialect, so it was just a matter of co-opting or building a word as and when it didn’t already exist in Standard English. (British Standard English, anyway.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your Twitter story, "The Right Sort." What modifications did you make, if any, to write a story for Twitter as opposed to a more traditional story?

The sentences in Twitter fiction can’t hold hands with their predecessors and successors — they can only point, or maybe knuckle-punch like kids do these days. So they need to stand on their own two feet (or 140 feet?) as well-crafted items in their own right, as well as cross-refer more; for example I’d often (re)refer to people by name, as opposed to tagging them with a pronoun. You also can’t have long names like “Benedict Cumberbatch” or you use up 15 percent of your tweet on a single mention of a character.

If you’ll indulge me, my seven-year-old son would love to know: which of your six novels was your favorite to write, and why? (I’d love to know, too, but he deserves the credit for coming up with the question.)

What a literate son you have. Then this reply is just for him, and he can tell his friends I said so: I liked writing each of my novels, but if I had to choose one, it has to be The Bone Clocks. Literary writers aren’t strictly allowed to use the word “magic” — we need to mumble the word “fantasy” or “supernatural” or “paranormal” into our sleeves — but The Bone Clocks has more magic in it than anything else I’ve written. Magic is very hard to get right, magic is highly flammable (which means the same as inflammable), and I’m told that people who disliked my book disliked it because of its magic. But if you get the magic right — and I hope I did, and certainly I did my best — then you get the joy of a double illusion. Writing stories is already an illusion: you make what does not exist, exist. See?


Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine.

LARB Contributor

Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine. His fiction has appeared in Inkwell, and his essays have appeared on bookreporter.com and in Down East Magazine, Vermont Magazine, and other publications. He is the recipient of a partial fellowship in fiction writing from the Vermont Studio Center and is at work on his first novel.


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