David Mitchell’s Final Turtle

This review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell appeared, in slightly different form, in the Sunday Business Post in 2014.

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There’s a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Bertrand Russell that goes like this. After giving a public lecture, Russell was approached by a woman who said, “Mr. Russell, I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken about the nature of reality. I have it on good authority that the world rests upon the back of an enormous turtle.” Russell, who almost certainly recognised this common aboriginal creation myth, had his counter-argument at the ready. “But madam,” he said, “what does the turtle rest upon?” “Oh,” said the woman airily, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

I thought of this when I read David Mitchell’s million-selling epic Cloud Atlas (2004), which takes the form of six distinct but interlocking narratives and moves through time from the eighteenth century to an imagined post-literate future. The six strands of Cloud Atlas are nested inside one another in a feat of structural daring – and Mitchell’s ability to summon a range of voices and styles is heavily impressive. But when you put all six strands of Cloud Atlas together, the point of the whole elaborate picture becomes rather difficult to see. More troublingly, there seems to be no clear ground upon which this marvellous tiered confection might stand: if the stories are all stories within other stories, then what, as Russell might have put it, do the turtles rest upon? Is Mitchell making some sort of grand point about the essentially recursive nature of late capitalism/postmodernity/The Way We Live Now? Scrutinised closely, Cloud Atlas seems, after all, to boil down to a vast self-referential toy, a game of stories with nothing too urgent at stake. So what is the ultimate import of Mitchell’s undeniable storytelling gift? Is it just turtles all the way down?

In The Bone Clocks we arrive, as it were, at David Mitchell’s final turtle. Here Mitchell’s prodigious prose gifts are put at the service of a story about two groups of near-immortals, the evil Anchorites and the good Horologists, engaged in a centuries-long psychic war for the souls of ordinary, mortal human beings (i.e. us: the “bone clocks” of the title). This, it turns out, is what has been giving a secret shape to Mitchell’s novels all along.

The Bone Clocks is composed of six novella-length chapters. Almost every chapter is blindingly well-realised: furnished with convincing characters and scrupulously rendered settings. We begin in Gravesend in 1984 with Holly Sykes, who as a child, once upon a time, heard transmissions from mysterious voices whom she called the “Radio People.” Now 15, Holly runs away from home, and encounters – almost fatally – the evil Anchorites. Skip forward – next novella – to 1991, and we’re in the louche company of Cambridge rake Hugo Young, who finds himself – after a spree of nastiness reminiscent of the sort of shenanigans Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley used to get up to – willingly recruited to the Anchorite cause. Then – next! – it’s 2004, and Holly’s husband, war journalist Ed Brubeck, has his own mysterious run-in with the immortal predators. A pattern is forming.

The book’s fourth (and best and longest) section follows English novelist Crispin Hershey, readily identifiable as a parody of Martin Amis (he wrote a novel called Dessicated Embryos, ho ho). Crispin – embittered, saddled with writer’s block – befriends the now grown-up Holly at a series of literary festivals, as the Anchorites loom. The book’s final two sections take us forward in time, to the final showdown between Horology and the Anchorites, and onward, to the “Endarkenment” of the 2040s, when Holly, now an old woman, lives in an environmentally ravaged Ireland.

Endarkenment indeed. There is some superb writing in this book. Mitchell can apparently make English prose do anything he wants. He can tell you what it’s like to snort cocaine: “Tiny lights I can’t quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone.” He can describe a postindustrial city at night: “Shanghai by night is a mind of a million lights: of orange dot-to-dot along expressways… animated ad-screens for Omega, Burberry, Iron Man 5, gigawatt-bright, flyposted onto night’s undarkness.”

But in the book’s climactic pages, as the Horologists confront the Anchorites in a bullshit-storm of plot-coupons, Mitchell’s style undergoes its own Endarkenment. “He enters the female officer’s chakra-eye and I now have access to her sensory input.” “As a parting gift, Oshima redacts a broad swathe of Nancy’s present perfect and induces unconsciousness before egressing her and ingressing the traumatised Holly.” “Sadaquat flees for the exit but Pfenninger psycholassos him, reeling him in with mighty pulls, then kinetics him twenty feet high.” “Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.”

The penultimate chapter, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” is crammed full of this guff – and guff it is, since for most of the length of his book Mitchell has sensibly lavished his gifts on constructing realistic interior lives for his human characters, instead of using them to bolster his tortured and (let’s be honest) horribly clichéd fantasy-novel superstructure. As a result, the book feels stupefyingly unbalanced: the realistic parts, nourished and fattened by Mitchell’s flawless prose, gobble up the thinly-realised fantasy elements, like an Anchorite gobbling up a Bone Clock (or should that be the other way round?). More seriously, it comes as a terrible disappointment to find that under all those turtles, holding up David Mitchell’s entire fictional edifice, is a half-baked pulp story about “apex predators” “fueling their atemporality by feeding on souls.”

Mitchell is – no denying it – one of the most talented novelists alive. Time spent reading his pages is never entirely wasted. But you can’t show us the good stuff up front and then reward us with nothing but “The psychodum-dum semi-inverts my colleague’s body,” and all the other clangers that make up the climax of this glittering folly of a book.

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