The Ever-Expanding World of David Mitchell
One Novel Out of Many, Filled With Eternally Recurring Characters
David Mitchell, even to his few detractors, is impressive. Cloud Atlas impresses with the scope of its imagination and ambition. Black Swan Green, at the opposite end of the spectrum, impresses with its intimacy and focus; its main character, Jason, is one of my very favorite coming-of-age narrators, revealing a Mitchell who can also write tender, true character studies. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet impresses at first for its seemingly radical departure from Mitchell’s other work, and then because it is so fantastic and romantic.
But as I read The Bone Clocks, and his latest novel Slade House, I realized that Mitchell now was after something grander and even more ambitious than any of his individual novels: this guy is going to connect all his books. For real. All of his books. And, it seems to me, he’s doing it unlike any other author before him. In his review of Slade House in the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes that, “Mr. Mitchell’s intertextual gamesmanship—the recurring characters and so on—began to seem, as a friend said to me, ‘less like Yoknapatawpha and more like Marvel.’” Garner invokes the comic book publisher pejoratively but I think it’s the reason Mitchell’s enterprise is so unique and captivating. Rather than creating a tapestry of a particular geography, Mitchell is telling one gigantic story, so that with each book the meaning and even the plot of his previous books are amended as he goes.
I am going to attempt to put some of these connections in context, and show the way Mitchell’s interconnected fiction isn’t some gimmick to arbitrarily elevate his work but a deliberate and effective way to reinforce the ideas his fiction plays with and expounds upon. My approach will be improvisatory: start with one character from one book and see where that takes me.
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I’ll begin with Black Swan Green, since it’s the most straightforward (though, since it’s Mitchell we’re talking about here, that doesn’t mean much). The story of a year in the life of Jason Taylor, an earnest 13-year-old with a stutter, Black Swan Green functions, like many of Mitchell’s novels, episodically, one chapter for each month of 1982. In one section, an older cousin, Hugo Lamb, comes to visit Jason, who thinks, “Hugo fits his body like a glove.” He comes from a more “posh” family, and Jason idolizes his cool, confident manner, but Hugo’s really just a pretentious little shit, a dishonest, manipulative con artist. Taking Jason under his wing, Hugo tries to shark his young cousin in a game of darts, and then convinces Jason to try smoking (which doesn’t go well: Jason pukes). Hugo’s function here is as a social and economic foil for the stammering, wannabe poet Jason, who has such difficulty with his own identity and whose speech impediment renders him less able to express himself to others. With Hugo, on the other hand, his mere presence “has a way of affecting other peoples’ luck.”
Cut to The Bone Clocks, which, in many ways, is the opposite of Black Swan Green: a huge, sprawling narrative spanning 60 years and multiple dimensions. The central conflict of The Bone Clocks consists of two cabals of immortals—one group made up of those who are naturally deathless, referred to as Horologists; and another of villainous sorts, the Anchorites, who “fuel their atemporality by feeding on souls… of the Engifted,” that is, those born with psychic abilities—who’ve been at war for centuries. Holly Sykes, an Engifted girl who at a young age begins hearing what she calls “the radio people,” serves as, if not a protagonist, then at least the planet around which the rest of the narratives orbit. While working at a ski resort in Switzerland Holly meets Hugo Lamb, who has, since the pages of Black Swan Green, perfected his fraudulent ways into a lucrative (though lonely) existence, and although Hugo’s as slimy as ever, he and Holly share an intimate time together, but before Hugo can return to her, he’s suckered into joining the Anchorites (the bad guys).
But many years later, near the end of the novel, as Holly and her guiding Horologist Marinus try to escape the clutches of the Anchorites through a labyrinth, Hugo betrays his fellow villains by helping them escape. When Marinus asks why a “predator… who has thought of nothing but himself for so many years… should now nobly lay down his artificially suspended life for a common bone clock,” Hugo tells him that it was for Holly, then asks:
Did she love me too, Marinus? I don’t mean after she found out about my little…dalliance with a paranormal cult that scarred her family and attempted to animacide her brother. I mean, that night. In Switzerland. When we were young. Properly young. When Holly and I were snowed in.
And suddenly this contemptible cad redeems himself somewhat. He is willing to forsake eternal life for the memory of one beautiful night, years ago, when he fell in love for the only time in his life. Just as Jason remarked in Black Swan Green, Hugo’s presence changed Holly’s luck. So Hugo, who began as basically one-note character in one book, becomes a more complex character in another, even managing an act of self-sacrifice.
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Now let’s take Marinus, the eternally body-hopping Horologist. We have met him before too, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set in late 18th-century Japan, where he is Dr. Lucas Marinus, a curmudgeonly but brilliant physician who condones the medicinal “quackery” common at the time. Dr. Marinus acts as instructor to Orito, a young midwife with whom Jacob falls in love. Due to events too complex to summarize here, Jacob fails to save Orito from imprisonment in a temple in which, each month, monks choose two captive nuns for “engiftment,” a fucked-up euphemism for rape. Ostensibly these “engifted” children (which gives a totally new meaning to the Engifted characters in The Bone Clocks) are sent off to deserving families, and even write letters back to their birth mothers extolling their new lives, but Orito discovers that the truth is far more sinister: the babies are killed and eaten so that the monks can live forever. Sound familiar? These are the Anchorites, eating souls to feed their immortality, and there’s Marinus right there with them, way back then.
At the end of the novel, when Lucas Marinus is long dead, Jacob is on “an aging Yankee clipper” called The Prophetess, on his way to Europe, when suddenly he “hears Dr. Marinus, clear as a harpsichord’s spindly refrain, remark upon the brevity of life,” but dismisses it as “a trick of the mind.” Of course we now know that it was no such trick, and in The Bone Clocks we get actual confirmation, when Marinus describes his former life as Pablo Antay Marinus aboard The Prophetess. What was a moment of nostalgia for Jacob becomes literal reality in The Bone Clocks.
Marinus, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, in an important but secondary character, but the revelation of Marinus’s immortality makes his presence in the novel altogether more meaningful. Mitchell’s latest novel Slade House adds an even further dimension by providing us with some side adventures in the life of a Horologist. The title domicile—situated just off an ominous thin lane called Slade Alley—appears to abduct a new victim every nine years, so the novel, beginning in 1979, describes the fate of these unsuspecting visitors (including a journalist for the fictional magazine Spyglass, the very same outfit for which Luisa Rey wrote in Cloud Atlas) until 2015 when the person entering Slade House is none other than Dr. Iris Marinus-Levy, the Horologist’s latest body-house. Knowing who Marinus is—and what he’s capable of—makes the finale of Slade House incredibly exciting, delivering on that rarely fulfilled potential of sequels to both give you what you want and add something new. To put it in starker terms, we get to see Marinus be a badass, which I’d always suspected he could be and was thrilled to witness.
I could go on with examples of interconnections (for instance, the composer Robert Frobisher’s sextet “Cloud Atlas” is played for Jason in Black Swan Green; or that Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten contains no less than seven characters who recur later), but we’d be here for a long time. The point is that these recurrences are more than mere “Easter eggs,” as some critics have described them—they are, in fact, deliberate additions to a unifying theme. In Cloud Atlas, Frobisher’s eponymous composition is, as he describes it, a “sextet for overlapping soloists” in which “each solo is interrupted by its successor.” This structure, of course, also describes Cloud Atlas, but the larger implications of his music are what interest me here. Frobisher is originally supposed to help a rich man compose his own piece inspired by Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence,” the notion that all things in life will repeat over and over again for all eternity. But Frobisher doesn’t comply (he does, though, sleep with the rich man’s wife and daughter) but instead creates his own variation on the idea. As Frobisher becomes obsessed with completing his masterpiece, he begins to see that “all boundaries are conventions” and that “one may transcend” them if one can “first conceive of doing so.” Shortly after, as he lies dying of a self-inflicted gunshot, he writes, “We do not stay dead long” and imagines doing it all again.
Like Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell’s novels are like his own variation on eternal recurrence. Of course, Mitchell isn’t interested in the literal truth of reincarnation—rather, he’s concerned with the ways in which human beings are at their core all the same, connected in pursuit of love and beauty and power and strength. It is not people who are reincarnated but life itself, the stories and situations of human beings, and the fact that each person isn’t actually possessed by an ageless, transient soul doesn’t matter in the least. That our desires and dreams unite us is enough.
And Mitchell is doing more than simply winking at his fans with these reappearing characters—he’s working to change the way we think of previous novels. Marinus in The Bone Clocks shatters our view of Marinus in The Thousand Autumns. (Why, after all, set up, at the end of that novel, Marinus’s appearance on The Prophetess if not to actualize the event later on? To call this kind of thing an “Easter egg” does a huge disservice to Mitchell’s skill and foresight.) Frobisher’s sextet takes on much grander significance once we realize the piece survived him and even exists outside the confines of the covers. The entire mythology of the Horologists, in particular, has given Mitchell not only a means to connect characters over thousands of years but also endless possibilities for future additions to his ever-expanding world. It takes great vision and imagination to pull off what Mitchell has, but, even more, it takes an almost brazen courage to expect readers to go along with you.
“People’s lives don’t end at climaxes,” Mitchell said in an interview with The Guardian. “The minutiae of life go on, in a banal way.” Rather than reflecting any beliefs in a world with souls and reincarnation and the supernatural, I think Mitchell’s ambitious fictions seem to stand as reactions to a world without those things. Not an angry reaction, though, not a screed, but a bittersweet and melancholy eulogy, the kind that tries valiantly to capture the essence of the dead but also hopes to inspire and warn in equal measure those who are listening. His is the imagination of someone fundamentally dissatisfied with existence but who still sees the myriad qualities that make living not just worthwhile but grandly beautiful and meaningful.
In some way, Mitchell’s artistic project could be said to resemble that of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, insofar as both have explored most of the literary genres on offer. Tarantino’s got his heist movie, his kung-fu movie, his war movie, his horror movie, his western—and so too does Mitchell have his Bildungsroman in Black Swan Green, his romantic epic in Thousand Autumns, sci-fi/fantasy in The Bone Clocks, and now a horror story (hell, it’s even a haunted house story) with Slade House. Tarantino’s films even have some interconnections (like Red Apple Cigarettes or the Vega brothers), but while Tarantino’s world (like Faulkner’s or, to stay with film, Kevin Smith’s “Askewniverse”) speaks to itself lightly so as to never significantly redefine another work. Mitchell wants his novels to be like clouds, ever changing and shifting and intimating different moods, to function like a twist (once again) on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: the words will always be there, the novels will always tell the exact same stories, but after reading all of them and going back over from the beginning, they will all have completely changed.
Tarantino has said he plans on making just ten films, maybe because there is simply a limit to the number of genres he can take on. But with Mitchell, it won’t matter if it’s his tenth book or his fifteenth or his hundredth, because all of his novels, each beautiful, brilliant and unexpected effort of Mitchell’s, his whole oeuvre is really only one novel, and, in a rare feat, its parts are as rich as its sum.