By Dylan Schoenmakers
This past Saturday, David Mitchell spoke to a packed audience at the Harbourfront Centre about “the monster [he’s] unleashed on the world”: his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks. Though published only weeks ago, the room was filled with fans well acquainted with the novel, eager to hear from the author himself about a work that redefines the context of his entire oeuvre.
Mitchell chose a selection from the third section of The Bone Clocks, set in 2004. On waking from a nap, Ed Brubeck, a war reporter recently home from Iraq, realizes his only daughter has gone missing. In a novel that delves into the occult and fantastic, it was a smart choice for those not yet initiated into The Bone Clocks: it is an eventful, realist passage that does not approach the fascinating and complex realm of Horology that Mitchell has created, and which dominates the end of the novel. Mitchell is a phenomenal reader of his own fiction: his voice registers Ed’s grief, his premature relief when he mistakenly identifies his lost daughter, and effectively captures the panicked pace of Mitchell’s own writing. Mitchell’s hands press and knead his forehead, channeling Ed’s anxious disbelief.
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While faithful to his own writing and the performance of reading, and despite the emotionally frantic passage he chose, Mitchell’s reading was peppered with lighthearted comments and asides: “you do have Blu Tack here, don’t you?” – “apologies to Yorkshire, it’s the only accent I can do” – “anyone who gets that last reference watches far too much Doctor Who.” The genuine charm and generosity I felt when meeting him backstage, secluded before the reading, extended naturally to the entire room while he was reading and answering Jared Bland’s thoughtful and provocative questions. Mitchell is quick to poke fun at his own legacy and status, as he does in The Bone Clocks through the novelist character Crispin Hershey: “you can apply the G word to [Kafka], not me,” he says, before clarifying, “that’s genius, not git.” He laughs alongside the audience. Toronto was clearly taken with Mitchell.
Aside from a charismatic speaker, one of the most enjoyable aspects of attending readings and interviews is the insight into the novelistic process, the actualization from germ to completed work. “I always spend the first 6 months looking for the book among the gas cloud of ideas,” he admits. The Bone Clocks, in Mitchell’s initial conception, was meant to collect 70 short stories about Holly Sykes’ life from age zero to 70. Though Holly remains the centerpiece of the novel, the sections that make up The Bone Clocks are voiced by various narrators, Holly’s story intersecting with theirs both obliquely and directly. Part of Mitchell’s decision to change the book’s format (sections of a novel versus connected short stories) was the way Mitchell says we attend to reading various forms: “we read short stories differently than novels, like a poem, more attentively.” We have, as Mitchell says, different “gears of attentiveness.”
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The Bone Clocks is stuffed full of details, important and ornamental, and careful readers of Mitchell will notice recurring characters from his other novels in what seems to be one of the most-discussed aspects of The Bone Clocks: its “macronovel” form. The Bone Clocks widens Mitchell’s novelistic scope to include a fantastic and centuries-long battle between Horologists, whose souls or consciousnesses maintain throughout time while occupying different bodies, and Anchorites, a dark sect who remain ageless by sacrificing victims. This enlarged universe and temporal scale accommodates and links Mitchell’s characters from various realms. Most notably, the consciousness of Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet returns, though in another corporal form. On reusing characters, Mitchell jokes of Hugo Lamb, who first appeared peripherally in Black Swan Green: “he’s a hungry actor; he needs the work.” Reusing characters, says Mitchell, solves the problem of saying goodbye to characters, novels and the themes they provoke. Mitchell compares this approach or conception of novels as akin to a box set of a television series, though not linked by plot arcs but by character arcs. On recognizing this novelistic connectivity, his publisher said to him, “You’re writing your very own Middle Earth.”
Despite its foray into supernatural territory, The Bone Clocks remains firmly in dialogue with Mitchell’s other novels. While acknowledging that he wants to diversify and invent, that he hopes his novels would remain unidentifiable if not for his name on the cover, Mitchell acknowledges archetypal themes that writers are drawn to. For Mitchell, this theme is causality: “Why do things happen? What does it mean that it happened?” Though set on a grander scale that incorporates his previous works into this newly expanded realm, The Bone Clocks concerns itself with very human questions: chance, chains of events, posterity and time, free will and predestination. Mitchell is quick to say that the point of the author is not to answer these questions, but to explore them. And as Mitchell explores, he creates, enriching and expanding his own fictional world and our own.
Dylan Schoenmakers is the Communications Intern at IFOA. He recently completed his MA in English Literature at the University of Western Ontario.