Of Clouds and Clocks: The Fiction of David Mitchell

All fiction plays with the tension between freedom and necessity—that is part of what it means to be fiction—but David Mitchell’s fiction plays with it more ostentatiously than most. To what degree ...

All fiction plays with the tension between freedom and necessity—that is part of what it means to be fiction—but David Mitchell’s fiction plays with it more ostentatiously than most. To what degree do we act of our own volition, to what degree are we just characters in someone else’s story? That is one of the major questions of 2004’s Cloud Atlas, a novel whose six hierarchical, interlocked tales launched Mitchell into the world literary stratosphere. Dancing across genres, showcasing Mitchell’s vast capacity for stylistic ventriloquism, Cloud Atlas was an imaginative tour de force, a work whose vague internal magic—the main character in each story, the novel suggests, is somehow connected to each of the others—testified to the capacity for personal or communal transmutation that is always a possible effect of the true work of art. I read Cloud Atlas and felt myself a different person.

Mitchell’s tendency to make the boundaries of his imaginative worlds so permeable, allowing characters to cross from one plot or work to another, is the signal and most pressing feature of his work. We can find in the work of other authors the mild magical realism of Mitchell’s number9dream (2001), or the kind of historical research that informs his The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). But nowhere else in contemporary writing do we find someone who, by making his characters jump from story to story inside novels, and also from novel to novel, so suggestively opens the possibility of seeing his entire work as occupying a single, intertwining world.

One could compare Mitchell’s world-making to what goes on in Balzac’s Human Comedy, or in Updike’s oeuvre, though Balzac and Updike were describing single historical and geographic frames (Paris; American suburbia). Mitchell’s characters, by contrast, belong to wildly different spaces and times. Their crossing—the appearance of characters from Cloud Atlas in Mitchell’s 2006 Black Swan Green, for instance—hints both at the lived complexity of actors in a socially networked communal geography, and at something much more enchanting, something much more enchanted. It suggests the idea that the cloudy, nondeterministic qualities that seem so central to human freedom, the randomness and coincidences (two people having, say, exactly the same birthmark), might in fact be motivated by a higher determinism. It suggests that everything is in fact connected, and that with enough imagination or luck we might glimpse, for a moment, something of the universe’s higher order.

We are, for Mitchell, masks of time, pendulums of flesh; we are for Mitchell ramifications of bone.

Enter Mitchell’s newest novel, The Bone Clocks. Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks straddles several distinct sections, here separated by years rather than the lines of fiction. We jump from 1984, in the first unit, to 1991, in the second, and then to 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043. And though, of course, it is not surprising to see a character from the 1984 section reappear in 1991 or 2004 or 2015, reading The Bone Clocks while knowing anything about David Mitchell makes those reappearances, and the temporal shifts that motivate them, feel like transitions between worlds. This only highlights the fact that they feel that way in real life, too. Many among today’s 40-year-old set have felt that our childhood pasts belong now not only to a different time but to a different country, that the 1980s, which Mitchell characterizes in all their sweet pop-cultural glory in The Bone Clocks first section, have come to seem part of a wholly other life, one whose uncanny echoes in the present arrive like radio messages from a distant and undiscoverable planet, for which the first notes of Boy George’s “Karma Chameleon” might serve as a kind of stellar annunciation.

The Bone Clocks exacerbates the eerie intensities of time by detailing in lovely intensity the commercial, historical, and pop-cultural vagaries of the moments we know, and by projecting those same imaginaries into three progressively receding futures. A teenage Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the first section as she runs away from, then returns, home, packs in her getaway bag Talking Heads’s Fear of Music LP. Along the way she runs into a couple of bourgeois Marxists, whose discourse the novel plays for historical irony and affectionate satire:

 “Even if Thatcher doesn’t trigger the revolution this year,” Heidi turns to say, strands of her raspberry-red hair blowing in the wind, “it’s coming. In our lifetimes. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.… Sure, the bosses, the liberals, the Fascists, they’ll all squeal, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. And speaking of eggs,” she looks at Ian, who nods, “fancy breakfast at our place? Ian cooks a five-star full English.”

Later the already-ancient lexicon of 2004 Iraq (from the days when everyone had heard of Baghdad’s Green Zone) scaffolds the unhappy musings of the journalist Ed Brubeck. Later still, in the section devoted to the novelist Crispin Hershey, from 2015 to 2020, we inhabit the ridiculous social regime governing book fairs and author signings, modified not at all by a few years’ distance from our present. And so on into the future, which ends up, in 2043—and here, dear reader, I must announce a significant Spoiler Alert—in a postapocalyptic, post-global, and largely post-technological landscape that belongs to the same temporal universe as the Hawaiian tribal lifeworld that occupies the last historical moments of Cloud Atlas.

The changes to that larger 2043 world are sketched, as they so often are in speculative fiction’s anthropological mode, by the language of the new normal. Holly Sykes, listening to the radio in rural Ireland:

I know the next song, too: “Memories Can’t Wait” by Talking Heads, but it reminds me of Vinny Costello so I try our third station, Pearl Island Radio. Pearl Island Radio is broadcast from the Chinese Concession at Ringaskiddy, outside Cork. It’s mostly in Mandarin, but sometimes there’s an international news bulletin in English, and if the Net’s unthreaded this is the only way to get news unfiltered by Stability.

Mitchell’s avoidance of stylistic pyrotechnics stems, I think, from the necessities of his story-worlds, whose narrators are never the kind of highly literate stand-ins for the author that populate the work of, say, Ben Lerner. As a result Mitchell’s work is rarely impressive at the level of the sentence, or, if it is, it is so because he is an impressive ventriloquist, able to capture the voices of a wide variety of characters. Consider the delightfully obnoxious Hugo Lamb, who narrates The Bone Clocks second section in the voice of someone who conceives of euphemism as the height of storytelling style:

The cubicles in the Gents are as commodious as Le Bog du Croc is not, and seemingly designed for the insufflation of cocaine: frequently cleaned, spacious, and sans that incriminating gap between the top of the door and the ceiling so common in British clubs. I seat myself upon the throne and produce my compact mirror—borrowed from an elfin Filipina who was angling for a spouse’s visa—and Foo Foo Dust, won from Chetwynd-Pitt at blackjack this very night and stored in a little plastic wrapper inside a bag of menthol Fisherman’s Friends to confuse any canine investigators in the unlikely event …

In this way Mitchell’s character voices are proxies for the worlds they live in. And in this way his virtuoso world-building represents a tremendous achievement of imaginary space, and of the human capacity to populate it.

In Cloud Atlas that world-building was powerful partly because the collocation of worlds hinted at some mysterious deeper continuity among vastly different times and spaces of human life. Of course there are more and less interesting versions of that continuity: Mitchell has said in an interview with the BBC that the main characters in Cloud Atlas were meant to be reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies.1 This is a bit disappointing, in retrospect, since it turns much of Cloud Atlas’ suggestive weirdness into New Age-ism—but, well, maybe that’s what you get for listening to an author interview in the first place.

Since I can’t quite unlisten to it, however, it echoed heavily through The Bone Clocks, where the whole question of the resurrection of souls has moved center stage and reveals itself—though only in the novel’s fifth section—as the reason and ground for the novel’s entire plot. We ordinary humans live amid a centuries-long battle between a group of people whose souls reincarnate in new bodies through no fault of their own and a group of people who steal the souls of other humans in order to live immortally. Holly Sykes encounters both types in the 1984 opening section, though much about these groups is initially incomprehensible both to her and to the reader; the fun of the novel is the gradual laying out of the entire order of battle that divides the unwittingly reincarnated good guys from the soul-sipping bad ones, and our eventual understanding of Holly’s role in it.

There is something sad, something full of loss here—a loss of security, but also of all that human culture and knowledge, all those things we used to know.

In that elaboration the entire mechanism underlying the mysteries of the universe is revealed. The Bone Clocks’ first four sections give us the slow unfolding of a battle encompassing (and sometimes fought through the bodies of) Holly Sykes, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey, and the novel’s other major characters, including Hugo Lamb, first seen in Black Swan Green. In the fifth section, set in 2025, the entire transtemporal soul-war emerges in all its animating glory, and the fundamental mystery of the novel resolves itself into a fairly standard thriller plot. That plot strand also releases the book’s title into the overarching story: “bone clocks,” it turns out, are what the cannibalistic bad guys call ordinary humans, whose skeletons articulate, in full ignorance of the soul-world that shadows them, the bleak tick-tock of mortal, sunless time.

The resolution of these mysteries gives way, by the end of The Bone Clocks, to a dystopian future that recalls the last moments of Cloud Atlas. In 2025 the war between the Horologists and the Atemporals is over, and Holly Sykes returns safely home to an England that more or less resembles the one of our present. By 2043, however, the world has fallen apart. Some combination of disasters—ecological, political, military—sings the swan song of the Anthropocene. Holly is raising two grandchildren in Ireland. Then, crisis: the temporary Chinese-corporate masters who guarantee a modicum of safety for her fragile community suddenly decamp. The world descends into violence. Holly acts; an ancient horologist descends from Iceland, a deus ex machina who comes to save the children. They leave with him for Iceland’s safe haven. This is an opening to another story, but The Bone Clocks stays, at its close, with Holly, age 74, for whom no future is close to hand.

What to make of this situation, in which the resolution of the novel’s various mysteries is undone by the new uncertainties of a dystopian future? There is something sad, something full of loss here—a loss of security, but also of all that human culture and knowledge, all those things we used to know, now either entirely forgotten or, if remembered, essentially useless; who needs to know how to operate a computer in a world without electricity? In The Bone Clocks’ final pages, Holly, like the novel’s readers, is split between whole worlds, between a now and a then whose historical divide is sharper than that of any era or any age we know.

Between Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks the entire cosmology of Mitchell’s oeuvre becomes, I think, newly clear. The titles themselves echo in a slightly uncanny way the title of a talk given by the philosopher Karl Popper in 1965 at Washington University in Saint Louis: “Of Clocks and Clouds.” Popper had lectured on a major problem in modern philosophy: how abstract meaning (in the form, say, of a promise to write an essay on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for an online review, made in August 2014) produces behavior (the writing of that essay, a bit late), and how—to extend the problem a bit further—such abstract meaning might fit into the more general possibility of its maker’s having any kind of free will. Are we clocks, Popper asks, simply ticking out in entirely predictable ways the predetermined patterns of a physical universe, in which case our promises are just the meaningless babble of a series of self-deluded automata? Or are we clouds, complex organized systems, organized but open, within which (and at the edges of which) some room exists for the possibility of freedom or unpredictable change, for the chance that conversation, culture, or ideas might alter not only the self but larger systems as well, like the patterns of human or planetary history?

I’ll spare you the lengthy exposition: we are clouds, Popper concludes, free and neo-Darwinian in our freedom, open, apertures to the new. Culture too is a cloud, like each and every one of us; every organism too, every inanimate thing in the universe is, he says, a “system of clouds controlled by clouds.” Even the clocks are clouds; even The Bone Clocks is, from a certain perspective, a cloudy atlas.

If all these phenomena—people, culture, clocks—are clouds, so too is fiction, where the possibility that things might have been otherwise is always baked into the story’s cake, a warrant for suspense and multiple forms of reading. Mitchell’s work plays with the magic of the clock, with the idea that behind the cloudy incomprehensibilities and forms of pain of ordinary life some other story grants us our paltry freedoms. His work does more than gambol in the playground of the determined and the undetermined: it is the playground. He is engaged in a decades-long experiment in the relatedness of things, in the measurement by fiction of the difference between clocks and clouds, necessity and freedom.

We are, for Mitchell, masks of time, pendulums of flesh; we are for Mitchell ramifications of bone. As we tick our tocks, we shape, too, the histories of our pasts, the understandings of our presents. Reformed by the progressive unfolding of the reader’s time, moments form kaleidoscopic new configurations, just as we relearn what happens to Holly in 1985 from the perspective of 2014, or what happens to Adam Ewing in 1850 (in Cloud Atlas) from the speculative future of the orison of Sonmi-451. In this way the work reminds us, as Walter Benjamin did in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” that the past’s debris is never quite what it seems, that we always have a chance to remake who we were, where we’ve been, from the perspective of a new present, in the grip of some new information delivered to us by the eternal slide backward into the future.

The price we pay for that radical and beautiful diversity seems somehow related to the bleakness of the futures that close both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. In Mitchell’s work, it is as though the cost of a variegated and changeable past—of a freedom from the endless indeterminate drama, and therefore of an openness to a genuinely true and unfettered future, a future cloudy in Karl Popper’s sense—is, paradoxically, the foreclosure of that same future in and as dystopia. As though Mitchell’s novels were saying, “It is never too late to change the future; it is always too late.” icon

  1. BBC Radio 4 Bookclub, interview with David Mitchell, June 3, 2007.
Featured image: Karl Popper (c. 1980s). Photograph by LSE Library / Flickr