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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle