‘Life is a terminal illness’, says the character of Hugo Lamb in David Mitchell’s latest work The Bone Clocks that was also recently long listed for the Man Booker Prize. A few pages later,Lamb is drafted into a club of immortals with a stolen and perverse ability to drink the soul of another human being.
What is a soul and what is it used for in literary works? David Mitchell’s impressive literary works of fiction straddling non-fictional worlds are often elaborate commentaries on human evolution, human nature and the temporal worlds that bind souls. However, for Mitchell, souls are atemporal, morphable and easily transplanted across time and space, race and religion into different human beings.
In what is perhaps considered his most influential work, Cloud Atlas (2004), a soul discerned only by a distinctive tattoo of a comet and a few stars adorning the skin of the soul-bearer, evolves over a period of many centuries from a petty murderer on board a ship in the late 1700s, to a gallant semi-warrior trying to save what is left of the world after a nuclear holocaust. Cloud Atlas was the perfection of a theme that Mitchell had been working on for years. An earlier work Ghostwritten (1999) draws primarily from the time Mitchell spent teaching in Japan. In this book of interconnected stories, a noncorpum (a soul without a host) tries to discover why it exists, in the process inhabiting different people stuck in different times and caught up in historical incidents. Similarly in Number9dream (2001), a young 19-year-old, Eiji Miyake, searches for his father in Japan and the story follows his mind’s journey where several possible alternative ‘realities’ are almost indistinguishable from the actual reality of his situation and his search. The last chapter of the book is empty.
Perhaps the themes that make Mitchell’s work so distinctive are the focus on atemporality as a befitting answer to linear conceptions of time and how they tend to inhabit literary spaces, and a writer’s desire to capture the essence of a human character not by focusing on her emotions alone, but also by placing an individual human being in opposition to or in consonance with a broad immortal world where the significance of time is irrelevant. At this point, Mitchell can direct the existential confusion of a human to another level, where an individual may be able to glimpse immortality without ever ascending to it.
The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s most recent work. In this book, he once again places human characters in the midst of an evolving world, but also, as is his strength, places them in the context of a war, which, unseen to the human eye, has been going on for centuries. The central character of the book is an Irish woman, Holly Sykes, who, in the throes of teenage rebellion, runs away from home. The rest of the book follows her journey from rebel teen, to barmaid at a Swiss ski resort, to the partner of a war correspondent (and a mother) who covers the Iraq war in 2003, to a wildly successful writer (who also battles cancer) talking about the possibility of the spiritual world based on her life, to a grandmother in a post-apocalyptic world where the internet has collapsed, waiting for her time to die.
However, The Bone Clocks isn’t really about Holly Sykes. Holly Sykes is a mortal, who has unwittingly been sucked into a silent war between two groups of immortals. The two groups of immortals gain mortality through different means. One set of immortals are naturally so. When they die, they are after a point of drifting on a beach filled with dead souls drawn back into life and into another human body, often one on the verge of death. In doing so, these immortals—called horologists—often retain spectacularly sharp memories of their other lives and their origins (a reward which Mitchell denies to the drifting noncorpus of Ghostwritten). Obviously, this ability is discovered by a group of people called the Anchorites, led by one Dr. Marinus (who also makes an appearance in The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet). The Anchorites cannot have the same ability in the same manner as the Horologists do, so they devise a method called ‘soul-decanting’, which is somewhat vampiric in description and involves ‘drinking’ the souls of young people, including that of Holly’s younger brother Jacko, who disappears one day without warning.
All of this is important to the plot because as Mitchell suggests, humans are ‘bone clocks’—ticking away towards a condition of permanent absence from this world. The moment one is born the countdown starts. These bone clocks are supposed to be defined by ‘consciences’, while immortals (Anchorites at least) are above petty moral dilemmas. Immortality bequeaths on the wearer a type of freedom from the enslavement of bourgeois codes and pithy human morality. As is quite obvious, the good people are the Horologists, who would rather all die permanently, than see another innocent human being murdered by the Anchorites for immortality.
Reading a Mitchell book requires a certain kind of mental and visual openness. A reader has to be ready to flip a page and find an empty chapter, like in Number9dream, or, have a story temporarily end in mid-sentence, like in Cloud Atlas. The reader has to have the gift of hindsight and sometimes perfect recall to make connections between characters that are born on page 20 and never mentioned again until the end by a grandson or granddaughter or some other blood relative a century later. Like in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell code switches fast between six stories, from a colonial time to a futuristic world of super-capitalism. In The Bone Clocks, we code switch quickly between Holly’s world and the metaphysical war hinted at in a fantasy universe, then we switch between narrators of different plotlines, we switch between real historical events, we leapfrog within 600 pages sixty years into the future where there is no Internet and almost no electricity and anarchy is preeminent.
However, whatever it is that Mitchell does with his novels and his characters, the end result is a glorious warm tumbling in a temporal dryer where facts, characters, historical time are mixed with atemporal events and immortal people with hard to pronounce superpowers. Mitchell is undoubtedly a child of our times. His realist drive is linked with an audience for the digital age where dabbling in fantasy novels has fast become an adolescent and adult norm. His skill is to combine the fantasy genre with actual, taken-seriously, literary work. So alongside decent and otherwise compelling prose, there are phrases and words like ‘chakra-latent’, ‘scansion’, ‘psychosoterics of the Deep Stream’, and so on, which gather much legitimacy as actual understandable concepts in a Mitchellesque world. Like I say before, one has to be very open in the head to understand Mitchell and enjoy his work.
Mitchell is someone who as a writer is not shy of exploring what is humanly (and inhumanly) possible. He possesses a keen insight into the mechanism of human imagination and sometimes his work sounds like the fantasies of an individual, where the person is not restricted by biology or social norms or human abilities, but can, in theory, possess far greater understanding and powers than is humanly possible. However, his heroes and heroines are unassuming and for most of the book, Holly Sykes, for instance, only catches glimpses of another world but is for the most part clueless about her own role in a metaphysical war taking place on another plain. Her role in the Plan is to be that of asylum provider to a really old Horologist who ‘predates Rome, Troy and Nineveh’ called Esther Little.
David Mitchell flirts with different styles and genres of writing, but has over the years, developed a very distinctive style. His books are often told by several narrators that recount in extremely distinctive styles and from different class positions, different parts of his story, and, Mitchell often returns characters from his other works into newer ones.The Bone Clocks, for instance, is narrated alternatively by Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb (a Cambridge educated playboy), Ed Brubeck (Holly’s partner and a war correspondent). He is also very careful about story-bleeding. So, when the book deals with real world events and his own human characters, the atemporal world and the undead characters don’t often appear in the first 300 pages, for instance. In the rest of the pages, they do appear with abandon and the book is no longer about human travail and triumphs, but turns into something else. And of course, there is the war and the wizardry and the Harry Potterish use of power between the Anchorites and the Horologists, leading to a decisive victory for one group.
So, what is the book about? Is it really about Holly Sykes and her very human world? Or is it about the other-worldly war? While reading, it often seems as if the focus on the first part of the book (literally the first 300 pages) is unnecessary and obsessive, because in any case the book is really about souls and people who steal souls through murder. Technically, in Mitchell’s cosmology these people would gain the status of godhood simply because they possess immortality or rebirth or both. In some way then, Mitchell is not really giving his human (non-immortal) characters a lot of freedom. They remain chained to their bone-clock bodies and are swept up without choice to either be pawns in a battle of immortals (gods perhaps), to live, die or be ‘decanted’ at their behest.
Vasundhara Sirnate is with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai.