Archives » Cloud Atlas

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologists’ attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Virago, 2012, 342 p

A young girl brought up in a 14th century foundling hospital in Siena is asked to be the model for the Virgin Mary in a painting of the Annunciation. A mute Dutch serving maid accidentally inspires her master to paint her in the act of reading. The completion of a portrait of her dead lesbian lover reconciles a reclusive countess to her loss. One of a pair of identical twin women, a medium, comes to the other, a photographer’s widow now running the business, for a set of cartes de visite. A fifteen year old girl who fancies she is in love with an unmarried artist ten years her senior tries to impress him by painting a picture of her hostess. An MP’s assistant whose personal life has just become uncertain allows her photograph to be taken in a wine bar. A career woman in 2060 misses her family.

Apart from being within the covers of the one book what do all these seven different novella length stories whose settings are spread in time over 600 years have in common? This is presented as a novel so we are presumably being invited to make connections in a way that a book set out as a story collection would not invite. Yet, stylistically, thematically and in plot terms, there is no overt connection between them – except that they all feature images of female literacy. The potted précis given above are, by the way, the least of what each novella conveys.

Each is a slice of life, fully imagined. Every character in them is sympathetically portrayed, feels real. Ward’s control is impressive, she rarely puts a word wrong. (I did wonder however if the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” was really in use in 14th century Italy.)

The last – which was the least convincing in its setting (being a reader of SF I would say that) – tries to force the issue as it features a device known as Sibil (Sensory Immersion Bioscript Interface Locus) which can make its users feel the stories behind the genesis of six images. Those six happen to be the ones we have just read about.

There are, of course, similarities here not only to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that within the book there is more than one tale with settings in eras spread from the past to the future but also, in its referencing of paintings, to John Banville’s Athena.

Ward’s seven tales have a stylistic quirk in that all of the dialogue is rendered in plain text, not in quotation marks, and is only distinguishable from its surroundings by context and tone. This could be a disaster in the wrong hands – even when conventionally rendered, back and forth dialogue can be tricky for some authors to set down clearly enough – but is never a problem here. Another commonality is that the meat of a tale is sometimes prefaced by an earlier incident in its subjects’ lives.

There could, of course, have been a practical reason for the book’s unusual structure. The conventional wisdom is that short story collections don’t sell. Well if you dress them up as a single novel that problem evaporates.

Such a cynical view would be less than kind. Girl Reading is excellent stuff. It serves as a warning “hard formats are the only ones that survive in the long run,” and a reminder of the importance of physical objects, especially the book. Well, all bibliophiles will agree to that.

Addendum:- A note on the paintings which inspired Ward is here along with links to the images.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2004. 529p

Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure consisting of six separate narratives all in different styles – journal, epistolary, thriller, realist (for want of a better term,) interrogation transcript and memoir, wrapped round each other in a way which the author compares at one point to a matrioshka (what in my youth was called a Russian) doll and another as a successive series of interrupted musical phrases which are recapitulated and developed – in order – later. The second is a more accurate comparison as the tales are not truly enveloped one within the other. I would rather say they are ensleeved. (Or even enleaved: as in a book.)

While each section is perfectly fine on its own the connections Mitchell makes between them can be a touch tenuous; even a little forced. The breaks between the sections sometimes, disconcertingly at first, occur in mid-sentence; which admittedly is a brave move.

In order the stories concern a nineteenth century American heading back across the Pacific to the Californian gold rush; a post-Great War English musician acting as an amanuensis to a better known ex-patriate composer; a 1970s female reporter getting herself in too deep in a conspiracy involving a nuclear power company; a small time (contemporary?) English publisher, who is fleeing from gangster-like creditors, being trapped in a care home for the elderly; a fabricant (cloned) slave in a Future Korea who is “transcended” for revolutionary purposes; and an apologia pro vita sua from a man in an even further future post-lapsarian Hawaii.

The latter two segments employ distorted language. The Korean set one has “x” where we have “ex” (for example “xample” and “inxistent”) and stripped down spelling (“brite”) while the Hawaiian section is written in a more extremely evolved language – reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – which is strange to read at first but soon becomes familiar. The inclusion of these two narratives allows the novel as a whole to be considered Science Fiction, and categorised by me as such, though Mitchell may disclaim the description.

Each of the six sections is totally self-consistent and does not depend on any of the others for its individual resolution and each is as engaging as the next. Mitchell’s ability to portray character and deliver plot is unquestionable.

The over-arching structure could be viewed as an excuse to cobble together six novellas which might have been unremarkable if kept separate; but that would be a little harsh. While it certainly demonstrates Mitchell’s mastery of various writing styles, whether it constitutes a coherent whole is another matter.

Cloud Atlas is an impressive enterprise, though, whichever way you consider it. A true novel if you will, worth anyone’s reading time.

free hit counter script