...takes greater formal and intellectual risks than most
August 25, 2014 8:11 AM   Subscribe

The New York Times calls David Mitchell's new novel, "The Bone Clocks," his most ambitious novel. This is significant because his other novels are fairly ambitious.

His work tends to inspire florid praise for unlikely but effective combinations of genres & narratives, and themes, characters, and motifs that span his novels.
  • Ghostwritten is narratted by a sentient, bodyless entity that jumps from one host to the next.
  • number9dream weaves several narratives
  • Cloud Atlas contains six different stories ranging from the diary of a 19th-century notary traveling through the South Pacific to dystopian sci-fi and a post-apocalyptic society. It was made into a unlikely movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. [previously]
  • In an abrupt turn, Black Swan Green tells a year in the life of an adolescent boy in a British town in the early 1980s navigating the intricacies of social status in schools, the Falklands War, and his parents unraveling marriage.
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is Mitchell's "bi-cultural novel," of a Dutch clerk working in Dejima, the only European trading post in Japan in the late 1700s; and intrigue around a few Japanese interpreters and medical students working at the post.
The Bone Clocks is said to unite these and his other works with one narrative that spans a considerable amount of space and time.

See also:
posted by entropone (24 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really looking forward to this.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'd like to avoid over anticipation. I eagerly purchased the new Murakami novel based on his previous work and ongoing hype, and it was, for me, a dud. Hope this one is all it's hyped up to be.
posted by Xurando at 8:38 AM on August 25, 2014


The Bone Clocks is said to unite these and his other works with one narrative that spans a considerable amount of space and time.

So does that mean we'd be best off having read all of his other stuff before starting on this one? Because I'd be okay with that.
posted by Chutzler at 8:40 AM on August 25, 2014


“This is why his work is so addictive — he’s creating his own universe,” said Sarah Dillon, a lecturer in literature and film at the University of Cambridge, who has edited a volume of scholarly essays on Mr. Mitchell’s work.

It's funny to see literary academics discovering something SF/Fantasy/comic nerds have loved and adored about their genres for decades: the epic world-building. And I'm really glad to see an SF nerd-kid grow up to be such a fantastic novelist, and to imbue his mature work with qualities he loved and learned from the more lowfalutin interests of his youth. ("He grew up in a middle-class British family, reading adventure novels and science fiction.")

His writing can be so incandescent. I'm excited to read his new novel.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:48 AM on August 25, 2014 [7 favorites]


That movie version of Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious failures I have ever seen. I mean, the failure was thinking they could make a film version of the novel in the first place. They tried really really hard, I think in good faith, and spent what looked like a massive amount of money on production, and there really are a lot of truly beautiful scenes and striking moments in it, but sadly it just didn't work in the end.

I say "sadly" because I fear some people will think the book is as much of a narrative mess as the movie -- which threw out the nested-story structure for somewhat random jumping back and forth between stories -- when in fact the book's structure and narrative is really quite successful on several levels. IMHO YMMV etc.

All that water under the Hollywood bridge aside, I am very much looking forward to The Bone Clocks.
posted by aught at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


I loved Cloud Atlas so much that I got a tattoo for it, so I'm vibrating out of my skin in anticipation for this book.
And Thousand Autumns, what a graceful, delicate novel.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:53 AM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's funny to see literary academics discovering something SF/Fantasy/comic nerds have loved and adored about their genres for decades: the epic world-building.

It's quite likely that any academic today with an interest in David Mitchell is also a nerd of some stripe. I wouldn't do what I do if I hadn't grown up with sci-fi, and it's always been thus. Dystopian and utopian stories start off as literary and philosophical genres, and really they still are a part of that tradition; Plato's Republic makes room for Snow Crash; Machiavelli and Gibbon make room for Game of Thones.

High brow and low brow were born together and belong together.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:59 AM on August 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


What's your Cloud Atlas tattoo, Lemmy Caution?
posted by entropone at 9:06 AM on August 25, 2014


It's "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" wrapped around my right arm.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 9:17 AM on August 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


I was hoping it was Timothy Cavendish
posted by thelonius at 9:29 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I thought really long and hard about getting SANDWICH on my knuckles because it's the greatest fake book in the history of fake books.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 9:43 AM on August 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


The New York Times is hyping the new book, just like entropone and this post.
posted by larry_darrell at 9:44 AM on August 25, 2014


I loved Thousand Autumns. Need to read Cloud Atlas. And, given that Bone Clocks incorporates the others, probably them too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2014


Isn't Mitchell one of those British SF writers I probably never heard of?
posted by MtDewd at 10:03 AM on August 25, 2014


Cloud Atlas is the only one of his books I've read, and I read it in anticipation of the movie. I much preferred the movie. I watched the film again just last week and it really is great.

There's a great 2012 article from David Mitchell about how the book was adapted to be a movie that explains why I preferred the movie. The novel has six stories split in half and nested like boxes, ABCDEFEDCBA. By the time you return back to story B it's 400 pages later and you've forgotten all about it. Also you're supposed to somehow keep track of all the connections between the stories, connecting the characters-through-lives. I frankly couldn't keep it all straight reading it 30 pages a day. The movie works way better. They cut the stories together, so it's a few minutes of one and a few minutes of the other. And they rather heavy-handedly reinforce the connections and similarities between the stories, not just the "same soul in a new body" thing but also more subtle thematic self-similarity. I think it works great on screen, and it works great as a story.

This NYT article waxes pretentious about metanarrative and the power of archetypical souls running through multiple characters in linked narratives and how literary genius it is.. I wonder if the snooty folks have read Michael Moorcock, who explored all these themes 40 years ago. Only instead of high prose the NYT can review it's trashy fantasy fiction, and very well written genre fiction at that. When I was 14 the Eternal Champion thing blew my mind. Elric is Corum is Ulysses, wow! Now it just seems like a gimmick, although a fun one.
posted by Nelson at 10:06 AM on August 25, 2014


This NYT article waxes pretentious about metanarrative and the power of archetypical souls running through multiple characters in linked narratives and how literary genius it is.. I wonder if the snooty folks have read Michael Moorcock, who explored all these themes 40 years ago.

I mean, Mitchell hasn't said anything mean about "genre" fiction, but I wonder why he doesn't get more of the Atwood treatment from the fans? Cloud Atlas certainly doesn't cover unknown territory if you read enough fantasy/SF...

Also, it's a shame they made a movie out of it. It's perfect for a HBO treatment. At least the Wachowskis/Hollywood messed up the endings of the story arcs so much that they wouldn't be spoiled.

speaking of which, I would love it if someone remade "The Postman" (no, not Il Postino) after getting a restraining order against Kevin Costner
posted by ennui.bz at 11:02 AM on August 25, 2014


FYI, if you're in DC, David Mitchell will be here on September 17, at 6th & I. 1 ticket + 1 book: $35.
posted by inigo2 at 12:56 PM on August 25, 2014


yea, i liked the cloud atlas movie but haven't read the book; the moorcock parallel is interesting (or joseph campbell's hero with a thousand faces more generally), but on reading the FP i was reminded of charlie kaufman's synecdoche (with perhaps godard's colliding worlds/mise-en-scènes/narratives as an antecedent?) and stephen king's attempt to weave together his 'multiverse' :P that is all!
posted by kliuless at 3:16 PM on August 25, 2014


So does that mean we'd be best off having read all of his other stuff before starting on this one?

Sounds like it, if characters from the other novels are going to appear in this. I guess I should finally get around to reading Ghostwritten and Thousand Autumns.
posted by mannequito at 4:35 PM on August 25, 2014


I thought Black Swan Green was great and his best that I read, and it's definitely not something I would describe as "ambitious." If anything it's exceedingly slice-of-life.
posted by threeants at 5:25 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I say "sadly" because I fear some people will think the book is as much of a narrative mess as the movie -- which threw out the nested-story structure for somewhat random jumping back and forth between stories -- when in fact the book's structure and narrative is really quite successful on several levels. IMHO YMMV etc.

Holy crap, I couldn't disagree more. I started seething with low-level anger at Mitchell about halfway through the book but stuck it out because everyone said it was so great. I want to say "I didn't get it," but I'm almost certain that I did and that there just wasn't as much to get as Mitchell thought there was. The movie, on the other hand, I found quite enjoyable.

I have actually had more than one friend ask me, out of a belief that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to science fiction, whether they should see the movie or read the book first. Each time I have told them to watch the movie and not bother with the book.
posted by 256 at 9:11 PM on August 25, 2014


For me too Cloud Atlas eventually felt like there wasn't quite as much to it as I'd thought, but it was probably the structure of the book (which I liked in its own right) giving me misleading expectations going through. When I read it again just taking it for what it was, I enjoyed the journey much more. It's a perfectly good book with a nice central idea that was marred a bit on first read by internal and external overhype.

As ever, the film adaptation came across as a puzzling montage of greatest hits, but everyone who hadn't read the book liked it, which is good enough for me. I'm just glad to be in a universe where things like this are able to join The Da Vinci Code and Twilight in the mainstream market.

I look forward to seeing how The Bone Clocks turns out.
posted by forgetful snow at 12:01 AM on August 26, 2014


I have read and loved all of Mitchell's books, and Cloud Atlas is probably my favorite book of all time. (And I loved the movie and thought it was perfect in its imperfections.)

BUT, I am one of those people who, with a few exceptions, forgets basically everything about a book as soon as I finish it, other than sort of a basic synopsis and whether I liked it or not. So I'm anxious about the idea of other characters turning up in this book. I enjoyed both Black Swan Green and Jacob Zoet, but I read them in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and don't remember much specifically about Hugo or Marinus. I'm concerned that I'm not going to get as much out of this book as Mitchell wants me to, because I won't catch the larger significance. Argh.

This is exactly why I never read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I got 20 pages in, saw a reference to Bobby Shaftoe, and realized that I couldn't remember a damn thing about Cryptonomicon.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:50 PM on August 26, 2014


This is exactly why I never read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

I recommend, very very much, that you change that. It is magnificent.

(Just remember that, like all of Stephenson's books, the first third or so is mostly exposition, which in this case means that most of Quicksilver is expository, so it feels pretty slow. But wow, is it all worth it once you hit The Confusion. And you don't really need to remember who the Shaftoes or the Waterhouses are for it all to work.)
posted by LooseFilter at 7:28 PM on August 26, 2014


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