Magic Dirty Realism
The fantasy in David Mitchell's novels reveals the fact of their design
The Bone Clocks:
by David Mitchell
$30.00 List Price
Aristotle thought all stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the novels of David Mitchell begin and end so often they can seem like all middle. Critics have called Mitchell a stylist. In fact, he is a structuralist. His first novel has nine narrators. His second has three false starts, signposts for the maze to come. His third, Cloud Atlas (2004), is the most elaborate—six plots, four continents, eleven chapters. The plots interlock, and the chapters mirror each other. It is the apex, and possibly the ceiling, of the Mitchell method. People and problems recur, a chase scene is spun out across centuries, and motifs proliferate, too many to count. “We cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters,” thinks one character. Structures this complex can start to resemble the chaos they’re supposed to articulate (skate over the same patch of ice often enough and it will turn to slush), but to fault Mitchell for this would be like faulting Ulysses for poor grammar. Pushing form toward an imitation of formlessness is the point. In literary terms, the slush is gold.
David Mitchell has a theory of history. Roughly, this is it: Progress is neither bad nor good but circular and inescapable. It will lead humankind, inexorably, off the cliff, yet you can count on humankind (just as inexorably) to pick itself back up again. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize,” he writes in Cloud Atlas, “but human hunger killed it too.” Entropy is the technical term. His books are shaped like bell curves, as much rise as fall. Of the first five, two dramatize the apocalypse,