In reviewing The Bone Clocks, the newest novel from David Mitchell, Publisher’s Weekly asked, “is this the most complex novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” It’s easy to confuse the two, as Mitchell has made his career asking a lot out of readers. From the start, his books haven’t skimped on the tricksy techniques: multiple narrators, shifting timeframes, metafictional musings, mix-and-match genre tropes, and prose that shifts drastically in style from chapter to chapter.
Despite all the writerly showing off, though, his work feels confoundingly effortless, to the point that it’s kind of hard to imagine he’s just one guy, writing, arguably, masterpiece after masterpiece. Take The Bone Clocks, out today, which, over the course of six interconnected, decade-hopping short stories, reveals the strange life of Holly Sykes, an ordinary girl with an extraordinary destiny involving a in-the-shadows struggle between powerful immortal forces that shape all of society. The book is not only incredibly ambitious on its face, but also apparently a lynchpin in some kind of “David Mitchell Multiverse,” revealing connections and recurrent themes that inhabit all of his work. In particular, one key character previously popped up in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, you may recall, was set about 200 years before the start of The Bone Clocks.
If you’ve read Mitchell before, you’re used to this sort of thing. With each book, he reinvents the novel, or at least, the David Mitchell Novel, as is made clear by a quick review of 5 earlier works:
Right out of the gate, Mitchell’s debut bucked convention, trading a linear plot for a sequence of 9 shorter first-person narratives, each set in a different location with a different cast of characters, which are connected through events that could be called coincidence but might also hold a deeper meaning. More than that, it muddies the genre waters, incorporating elements of science fiction and the supernatural. It’s a ragged take on themes (and structural choices) that Mitchell would revisit again (and again), but an undeniably arresting debut; even when it doesn’t quite hold together, it proves he’s a master of pretty much any narrative voice he chooses.
Mitchell lived in Japan for a number of years, and to call his sophomore effort an homage to Japanese literary superstar Haruki Murakami would be an understatement. In both story (a young man’s search for a remote father figure) and structure (intertwining a linear narrative with chapters that illustrate a concurrent, imaginary metaphysical journey) it recalls The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (and even, somehow, Kafka on the Shore, which was published a year later). It also includes an example of the author being perhaps too cute for his own good—there are nine chapters (hence the title), but the last one is blank.
Cloud Atlas (2003)
Mitchell’s breakthrough work is so structurally complicated, you practically need a paper and pen to adequately map it out (a fact that caused raised eyebrows when the film adaptation was announced, though said eyebrows were quickly lowered when the movie wound up basically ignoring the blueprint of the novel). Short stories that break one another in half like a steppe pyramid tell more or less separate tales (with settings that range from hundreds of years in the past to the far future) that nevertheless resound with echoed narrative melodies—signs, symbols, and themes. It’s a book both beloved (for its genre-hopping ambition and gorgeous prose) and written off (often by people who see no point to all the hopping about in time), but it’s a definite must-read landmark of modern literary history.
Black Swan Green (2007)
Even when he’s penning a thinly veiled roman à clef about his own childhood struggle with stuttering, Mitchell manages to keep you on your toes. This story is set over 13 months in the life of 13-year-old Jason Taylor, a shy, emotional kid growing up in the titular working-class English town of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s. Each month is given its own chapter, and though a whole definitely emerges, the parts are beguilingly incomplete, reading like isolated short stories with indeterminate endings, anecdotes intentionally delivered without a punchline.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011)
This one is the outlier, an ambitious, deeply rewarding historical novel set within the confines of the only foreign trading post to Japan on the cusp of the 19th century. Despite a cast of characters so freewheeling I literally needed a cheat sheet to keep them straight and an intricate, carefully researched plot that pulls in elements of Japanese folklore, fate, and mysticism, it all unfolds in a surprisingly linear manner. Some might consider such straightforwardness a disappointment, but it’s still a book by David Mitchell (and, shhhh, I even prefer it to the narrative trickery of Cloud Atlas).
Do you have a favorite David Mitchell novel?