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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder