Message in a Bottle
Counting Down to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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Sometimes I like to read fiction that features carefully created, fully rounded characters who respond convincingly to realistic situations. Sometimes I’m looking for plot-driven adventure set in exotic locales. Sometimes I want a historical setting that attends uncannily to detail and brings the past to vivid life. Sometimes I need a spectacular vision of the future that brings to mind possibilities I’ve never imagined before. Sometimes I just want to hear someone play with language and ideas in a way that makes beautiful music to my innner ear. And very rarely, I get all those things I want from a single author.

David Mitchell has made a career out of defying expectations and continually raising the literary bar, producing a series of novels that are nearly unmatched for their brilliance and complexity, yet are somehow accessible and thoroughly entertaining. He’s done all this while maintaining an engaging, humble public profile, as evidenced in this online interview.

On Tuesday, September 2nd, he’ll be releasing The Bone Clocks, which by all accounts is his best yet. It tells of Holly Sykes, first encountered as a fifteen-year-old runaway, whose long, eventful life is witnessed and narrated by several other characters, including a student, a journalist, and a psychiatrist. The action “takes place in Cambridge, Gravesend, Switzerland, Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, Toronto, Vancouver, Russia, Australia, Colombia, Shanghai, Iraq, Iceland, and several places you will look for in vain on a map. The central narrative begins 30 years ago, in 1984, and ends nearly 30 years hence, in 2043, but once you factor in various digressions and backstories, the time span of the book covers some 7,000 years.” Sounds like too much to handle, but Mitchell’s always had a remarkable ability to take the world in all its sprawling confusion and prove how interconnected it really is. I trust his talent implicitly.

How much have I been looking forward to The Bone Clocks? Well, the shop is closed on Monday for Labor Day, but if it weren’t, I’d convince the boss to stay open until midnight so we could start selling it the instant it’s legally possible to do so. As it is, I suggest you turn up first thing on Tuesday morning to claim a copy. Don’t look for me to ring you up, though. I’ll be in the back room reading mine.

—James

Head in the Clouds

Those who know me well know that in my world “not bad” is a high compliment, and that wild enthusiasm is expressed without fist pumps or shouting. So if I say that a book is really, really good, that’s the equivalent of a normal person jumping up and down and turning somersaults. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is really, really good. It came out in 2004 and became an immediate favorite, and I’ve held that opinion ever since. It might be the best novel of the last ten or fifteen years. Sez me, anyway.

Cloud Atlas takes the form of a matryoshka doll—it’s a series of nested stories, each varying in style, that only gradually reveal their links. A young doctor keeps a journal while sailing the Pacific in the mid-19th century, but halfway through his account, the story is interrupted and leaps forward to the 1930s. A penniless European composer reads the journal and begins writing letters to a friend; these are later discovered by a crusading Californian journalist in the 1970s. Her account comes to the attention of a British publisher in the present day, and his blackly comic misadventures in a nursing home later become cinematic entertainment for a Korean woman living under an oppressive near-future regime. Her tale eventually becomes a legendary recitation for the members of a subsistence-level society in a distant, post-apocalyptic era. That central story depicts the decay of civilization along with the hope for its rejuvenation, and Mitchell uses language itself to embody this theme, employing a degraded yet muscular pidgin of his own devising.

Resolution follows in an almost symphonic fashion, as first the core story and then the rest conclude one by one. The fates of the various heroes and heroines going back into the past are revealed, and a plot that seemed ever-expanding proves to have been tightly tied together all along. Mitchell’s global reach and mastery of disparate styles (Melvillean sweep, Noel Coward-ly archness, Le Carre-worthy tension, etc.) serve a simple vision in the end, and Cloud Atlas leaves you focusing not on the dissimilarities but the interconnections between people, places, and times. It’s a tremendous novel that’s tremendous fun to read.

And now it’s been made into a movie. I’d heard some time ago that the project was afoot, but I’d strenuously avoided learning anything about it until today, when a trailer was released that at least shares the ambition of the book. It’s almost six minutes long (!) and accompanied by an introduction from the film’s three (!) directors. I had to watch it, but having seen it, I still don’t know what to expect. Will this be the most colossal cinematic train wreck in history or a film for the ages? It must be one or the other, right? Given the source material, I can’t imagine the results would be merely humdrum.

On the plus side, the directors (Tom Twyker, who brought us Run Lola Run, and the Wachowski siblings, who helmed The Matrix) have a solid track record with epic action and they have the clout to see their vision realized. Their respect and affection for the book certainly come through in their preview of the preview. They’ve assembled a cast of actors that includes four, count ‘em, four Academy Award winners. Today’s special effects might actually do justice to the creativity of the science fictional elements, too.

On the down side, isn’t it a terrible idea to use those stars? Aren’t they too recognizable (and possibly overrated)? Jim Broadbent, OK. Susan Sarandon, maybe. Halle Berry, getting iffy. Tom Hanks? Nice guy and admittedly talented, but at this stage of his career I can’t watch him and think anything but “Hey, there’s Tom Hanks.” As for the direction, FX are fine as far as they go, but isn’t the human element the most important thing? Doesn’t this story need someone with a strong visual sense but also a flair for the quirks and foibles of the everyday? Wasn’t Wong Kar-Wai available?

I’m torn, in other words. While I know that regardless of how the movie turns out, the book will never be ruined for me, I’d still like to know what I’ll be getting when I walk into a theater on October 26th. Unfortunately, I’ve watched the trailer three times and I still can’t judge it. My love for the book and my fears for how it might be treated have apparently created a mental fog that’s completely obscured my critical faculties. Is this ridiculous or awesome? Take a look and tell me what you think.

—James

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