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Stitches in time: Olivia Laing on “The Bone Clocks” by David Mitchell

The pleasure for the reader of David Mitchell’s novels lies in the comforting sense that there might after all be a pattern to the random data of the everyday.

The novelist David Mitchell. Photo: Mary Andrews/Guardian/IDS
The novelist David Mitchell. Photo: Mary Andrews/Guardian/IDS

The Bone Clocks 
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 608pp, £20

What is a “bone clock”? You are – tick-tocking your way into obsolescence. But not all human beings suffer the irritations of mortality, at least not in the topsy-turvy, not-quite-familiar world of David Mitchell’s sixth novel. Some seemingly ordinary people are eternal beings, destined to return to life in perpetuity, while other jealous but genuine mortals have worked out a knack of cheating death, securing eternal youth by draining children of their essence as casually as you or I might sink a glass of wine.

The blueprint of a David Mitchell novel is by now distinct: slick exercises in pastiche, mystical or paranormal elements, a polyphonic, complex structure that hinges on junction and coincidence. In short, a highly sophisticated narrative machine. What’s more, the books are interlinked. Characters recur and plots intersect, producing the illusion that one has entered not so much the usual closed house of fiction as an alternate universe, an enormously ambitious exercise in world-building.

This novel begins in Gravesend, an appropriate location both for a work so obsessed with mortality and for a writer so bent on finding the strange in the irredeemably pedestrian. In her bedroom in the Captain Marlow pub (flickers of Heart of Darkness), Holly Sykes is waking up. It’s a baking morning in the summer of 1984 and she has just told a boy that she loves him. Over the next 24 hours, she will run away with not much more than a Talking Heads record in her duffel bag – walking into the Kent marshes and encountering the elements from which her future will be formed.

Frustrated, dogged, furious, naive, Holly is an ideal teenage heroine. Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous. Holly’s life is a slippery montage of the 1980s. “It’s a scientific fact that virgins can’t get pregnant,” she says; she smokes £1.40 packets of Rothmans and slips out of Chatham Roller Disco to shoplift a No 7 lippy.

These ordinary snippets of ordinary girlhood quickly become entangled with something far weirder: a science-fiction conspiracy, replete with capitalised neologisms and rents in the fabric of time. Control of the narrative passes on to other characters, in whose lives Holly is sometimes glimpsed, each time a little older, a little more careworn. Among the revolving cast are a sociopathic undergrad, a war reporter in Iraq and a former wild-child novelist in perpetual migration through the literary festivals of the world.

Each of these segments is a pastiche of some established form, or rather pastiches of pastiches. Take the handsome Hugo Lamb, a clever, amoral social climber who was previously encountered in Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A slippery parasite preying off his moronically titled and entitled friends, Hugo isn’t so much a riff on Waugh as on Waugh passed through the digestive tract of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

Sometimes, Mitchell does the process in reverse, taking existing caricatures and adding depth and shading. Thus Crispin Hershey, the author of Desiccated Embryos, toiling though the dwindling signing queues at the Hay and Cartagena festivals, begins as a fairly tedious cartoon of a novelist in the Amis mould (his agent, natch, is Hal the Hyena, a dead ringer for Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie). But slowly – and largely as a result of his encounters with Holly Sykes – Hershey gains in emotional weight, stepping beyond the confines of satire.

There’s something very satisfying about spotting familiar people through the lens of a strange consciousness, in recognising characters who have strayed in from a previous novel, in seeing how lives interconnect. Mitchell’s work is obsessed with coincidence and with producing a perspective that is never available to a mortal, stitched into time, but only to the roving, lofty eye of a novelist or God.

The pleasure for the reader lies in the comforting sense that there might after all be a pattern to the random data of the everyday. The risk, however, is of feeling manipulated, the novel’s formal slickness and dexterity undermining effect even as it strives to generate it.

The final section of the book, occurring as a coda to an absurd and hurried denouement of the immortals storyline, returns to Holly, now an old woman living on the west coast of Ireland in 2043. Oil has almost run out, mass extinctions are under way and the world has returned to a medieval nightmare of violence and struggle. Reliable electricity, tissue paper, air travel: all these are painful memories, replaced by the looming threats of starvation, radiation, “Ratflu” and a raider’s bullet.

This sequence is terrifying and feels as if it could also be genuinely prophetic. I can well believe that in 2043, I will have cause to remember it ruefully, to experience exactly the sort of telescoping of one’s position in time that Mitchell so loves to describe. Yet it has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot. That’s the problem with making everything connected. In the end, there’s no freedom to roam, no room to move. 

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” (Canongate, £10.99)