David Mitchell is a career-long genre-bender. Only with his fourth book, Black Swan Green (2006), did he raid his own store of experience to write a first-novelish novel, a charming if low-key coming-of-age story, set in Worcestershire in 1982, full of references to Findus Crispy Pancakes, the Falklands War and playground slang. The rest of his work occupies the realm of pure story, with postmodern spectaculars in the manner of Calvino or Murakami; there is also one historical novel in the approved modern style (much densely researched, gruesome detail and ‘period’ dialogue; love affairs across ethnic boundaries). Philip Hensher amusingly panned that book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), which was set on a Dutch trading post in Nagasaki Bay in 1799, as ‘an exotically situated romance of astounding vulgarity’. Hensher took issue with its mysterious, beautiful Japanese maidens and its inscrutable, silk-robed, mind-reading villain, but it would probably be more accurate to say that it was either a little too vulgar, or not quite vulgar enough. The Thousand Autumns would have done better as either a serious exploration of a fascinating historical scenario – a tiny foreign outpost on an artificial island just off the coast of an empire closed entirely to outsiders – or as a cheerful romp in the tradition of Dumas and Stevenson. In the event, it was both and neither.
And this, I think, is Mitchell’s basic weakness. When Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, in which the reader picks up ten novels in turn, each written in a different style, it was a playful, almost solipsistic exploration of storytelling conventions without much reference to the world outside (Calvino had rejected realistic, politically engaged fiction after his first novel). But when Mitchell emulated Calvino with Cloud Atlas (2004) – still his most famous work, written in six different pastiched styles, from Victorian travelogue to 1970s airport novel, industrial dystopia to post-apocalyptic tale – he also wanted the right to sound off in an earnest, New Agey way about the human soul and the progress of civilisation. The book has a weighty message about greed, man’s inhumanity to man, rapacious corporations, and ecological catastrophe: ‘The weak are meat the strong do eat,’ one character says.
While Mitchell’s dexterity, stylistic range and ability to build fictional worlds are very impressive, Cloud Atlas has two fundamental weaknesses. First, that in these portmanteau novels, which he has done much to make fashionable, the themes often become so generalised as to be entirely uninteresting: Mitchell essentially tells us that everything is interconnected, and that eating people is wrong. The second problem is that pastiche is a distancing technique; all the action takes place inside huge inverted commas. Everything in Cloud Atlas seems nicked: the post-apocalyptic world from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the political ideas from Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. As a result it’s far too cartoonish and second-hand to have any real bite: it’s like looking into a snowglobe for a deep moral message.
Like Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s sixth novel is a globe-trotting, time-travelling extravaganza, divided into six sections, each linked to a period in the life of Holly Sykes. It kicks off in 1984, in Kent, when Holly is a teenager, running away from home after an argument with her mother about her unsuitable boyfriend. In a pattern repeated throughout the book, an efficiently established and engaging realistic world is invaded at a certain point by fantastical elements: an old lady fishing by the Thames seems to know Holly’s name and her future; in an underpass Holly hallucinates her little brother Jacko; worse follows when two strangers who have taken her in are found slumped on the ground, their eyes open and their pupils erased.
In the second section, set in 1991, a cad and a bounder called Hugo Lamb – Mitchell likes writing about cads – shags and cheats his way through his Cambridge days, before encountering first Holly Sykes and then a shadowy group of immortals. In the third, set in 2004, a war reporter – the father of Holly’s child – returns from Iraq to a Sykes family wedding. The fourth, set in 2015, features a Martin Amis-esque writer called Crispin Hershey, ‘a short, unfit novelist in his late forties’, with a famous dad, a talent for mindless provocation and a first novel called Desiccated Embryos. He attends various literary festivals around the world, before things once again take a turn for the woowoo.
Eventually, in the penultimate section, the book’s cosmology is revealed when two groups of immortals, or ‘atemporals’, face each other in a climactic battle. The goodies are the Horologists, who are reborn into new bodies after they die. The baddies are the Anchorites. In order to maintain their immortality, they must regularly abduct and kill unfortunate civilians so that they can turn their souls into ‘the Black Wine’, which they then drink; they are ‘animacides’, a ‘syndicate of soul thieves’. In the sixth section, we return to the world of the ‘bone clocks’ – Anchorite hate speech for us ordinary mortals (as in ‘a veined, scrawny, dribbling … bone clock’). It is 2043, Holly is living in southern Ireland, and civilisation is crumbling in a none too surprising fashion: the oil is running out, the ice caps have melted, the machines are breaking down, the Mad Max-style gangs are gathering.
Various thoughts occur. First, that the novel’s supernatural underpinnings are a load of awful bollocks. The problem is not the fact that this is, essentially, a fantasy novel, but that the fantasy is leaden and utterly unoriginal. There are moments early on where it seems as if Mitchell will pull off the Murakami-like trick of making the wacky stuff compelling, and somehow realistic – an extension of our odd, dreamy thoughts about everyday life. Mitchell’s vision of souls being extinguished is memorable: pale lights moving across the dunes through the twilight to the ‘Last Sea’. But as it goes on the book’s cosmology starts to look like a cargo cult stitched together out of old bits of pop culture: the 1980s film Highlander; The Matrix; the Twilight and Anne Rice vampire stories; The Da Vinci Code. It’s depressingly inevitable that the Cathars crop up. (Why, in reincarnation dramas, is it always the Cathars? Why not Hindus or Anabaptists or Zoroastrians or Rastafarians?)
Where the immortals are concerned, the bogusness infects practically every line. The clichés of fantasy are strewn everywhere. They complain about ‘this never-ending, accursed War’ and say things like ‘Give me a minute … I need to revoke my Act of Immunity, so we can merge our psychovoltage.’ As in the superhero films, the good guys are a racially mixed bunch – aboriginals, Inuit, Chinese herbalists – each with their own special psychic skill-set (the baddies are sinister, money-grubbing Caucasians). The Horologists are given to spunky, wry one-liners. After throwing, or should I say ‘suckerkineticing’, one of the Anchorites along a table, a Horologist says: ‘It’s an obvious play: long, smooth table; annoying person. Who could resist?’ The bad guys, for their part, are so unspeakably evil that they say things like ‘You … will smoulder and shrivel in the heat!’ and even ‘Crush them like ants!’ And all this hokum lies at the centre of the book, exactly where you would expect its explanatory apparatus to be.
Mitchell is aware of the problem. The Bone Clocks doubts itself, regularly and convincingly. ‘Oh, Christ,’ Holly says at one point, ‘I can’t avoid the terminology, however crappy it sounds: I was channelling some sentience that was lingering in the fabric of that place.’ Or: ‘Whatever! Post the whole story at bullshitparanoia.com.’ As Cheeseman, a fat, obnoxious critic, writes of one of Crispin Hershey’s books, ‘the fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.’
And the State of the World stuff, though respectable enough, seems to have been written on autopilot. The novel tells us in a dull editorialising tone, via Holly’s journalist boyfriend, that the Iraq War was a Bad Thing: ‘They expected to find a unified state like Japan in 1945. Instead, they found a perpetual civil war between majority Shia Arabs, minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – had imposed a brutal peace on the country, but with him gone, the civil war reheated, and now it’s … erupted.’ Mitchell’s Iraqis, sounding less like Arabs than like the Russians in a Rambo film, add their own well-worn observations: ‘Bush father, he hate Saddam, then Twin Towers, so Bush want revenge. America need many oil, Iraq has oil, so Bush get oil.’ As for the apocalypse in the final section, it turns out that ‘we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through … leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.’ Who would have guessed it might turn out like that?
As in every Mitchell novel, there is much to be impressed by. The intricate, labyrinthine plot is satisfying in its way. For the Mitchell trainspotters, there are the correspondences between this and his other novels (his whole oeuvre, he says, represents an ‘über-novel’). Marinus, the narrator of the fifth section, featured in The Thousand Autumns as a grumpy but enlightened Dutch physician. Hugo Lamb, the entitled sociopath, was first seen as a teenager in Black Swan Green. As in all his novels, a ‘moon-grey cat’ crosses our path at a significant moment. And Mitchell moves it all along with great charm. His style is lively – chronically lively, one might say. He has Crispin Hershey advise his creative writing students to ‘grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below’. And The Bone Clocks duly pelts us with sprightly figure of speech after sprightly figure of speech: ‘his Gorgonzola-and-paint-thinner breath makes me gag’; ‘the Corolla was moving at the speed of an obese jogger’; the sentences were ‘as tortured as an American whistleblower’.
The fact that Mitchell so efficiently inhabits various styles and settings is remarkable. But it doesn’t stop each section from being intrinsically generic. In the first section, Mitchell seems to be ‘doing’ Young Adult writing. In the second, Hugo Lamb seems to be romping his way through a Richard Curtis film (the word ‘sodding’ comes up a lot). Any kind of reality effect is harder to create, and more easily destroyed, than Mitchell seems to realise. The result is what John Updike called a ‘million dollar penny dreadful’, a work that is admirable only if you think that ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue.