Inside author David Mitchell’s metaphysical mind

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

Outside the vista windows of the Hotel New Otani’s Garden Lounge cafe in Tokyo, it’s snowing, in March, and it suddenly feels like the spring flowers in the Japanese garden below may have popped too soon. David Mitchell wonders aloud what kind of flowers they are, before returning to our discussion.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell.
Sceptre, Fiction.

The British author of “Cloud Atlas” and “Number9dream” is in town for the Tokyo International Literary Festival, the first time he’s been back in the country for seven years, and he’s still somewhat jet-lagged.

“I was thinking on the plane, ‘What is it actually about?’” he says of his latest novel, “The Bone Clocks,” published in Britain on Sept. 2. “And I think it’s about limits. But what do I mean by that? Any theme is also about the limit of that theme. So, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about love, but also about the limits of love because it’s about love.

“So the first part (of ‘The Bone Clocks’) is possibly the limit of family; second is the limits of entitlement and its limits; third is duty and its limits; the fourth part, the character is a writer in that one, so it’s art and its limits, art and life, where they overlap,” he says before pausing. “Sorry, it’s either that or we get drunk and I give you the four-hour pitch,” he says, smiling.

Unfortunately we only have an hour and ginger ale to see us through. Earlier, however, the 45-year-old writer did explain more simply that his new book followed the life of someone about his age, in six parts, from the 1980s through to the 2040s.

“We meet the character when she’s a stroppy teenager,” he says, “then when she’s a young woman, when she’s a mother and slightly put-upon wife, when she’s a widow and a writer. Then in part five, things kind of erupt in that one, and she’s a sort of a chess piece on a esoteric chessboard in a game between two cults of conditional immortals.”

But Mitchell — whose first two novels were written when he was teaching English in Japan and contained surreal moments that drew comparisons to the work of Haruki Murakami — is careful to avoid labeling his latest work “fantasy.”

“I’m trying to use the word ‘paranormal’ to keep the ‘F’ word out of the novel,” he explains, “in case people read that and think, ‘Oh that’s not my cup of tea.’ But, yeah, in the sixth (and final) part she’s a grandmother in 2040 in the west of Ireland, just as the last drop of oil is running out and climate change has run havoc. It’s veering close to dystopian fiction. It’s sort of a realist novel but it has this paranormal heart, and in the fifth part it sort of blasts out of the rib cage, and it’s all there and then it closes in again.”

Mitchell, who now lives in Ireland with his Japanese wife, tends to write novels that explore the connections between people across time and space. The most grand example was in “Cloud Atlas” — made into an astounding film by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis — in which the characters’ souls traveled across time and were intertwined in different lives. “The Bone Clocks” is similar.

So what is Mitchell’s view of how we are all connected? Are we all driven by fate or do we have a choice?

“My answer will sound evasive, but it’s the only sane one: We don’t know. But it’s cool to speculate about the possibilities,” he says, pointing out that it’s a rather heavy topic for a Friday afternoon.

“I’m not sure it’s a novel’s job to give answers, really,” he says. “First you have to assume the answer’s there. But there’s no thesis without its antithesis. And there are times and places where proof can feel quite objective, I suppose. But with these great big philosophical questions, not really: They’re subjective. And they can vary throughout the course of a lifetime. You can be a fate bunny when you’re a teenager, but a hard-core free-will believer in your 60s, and even in the course of a single day.

“I love to think about these things,” Mitchell continues. “I read layman’s books on science. I think they’re rather fascinating. In the latest, I read that the universe is shaped like a doughnut,” he says, picking at one of the small cakes on the table before us. “Theoretically, if you had a powerful enough telescope, and time enough to allow the light to catch up, in any direction you looked you could see the back of your head. Isn’t that cool? Is that not beautiful?”

This sheer delight in learning what makes things tick was, tangentially, also one of the factors behind the influence of Japanese literature on Mitchell’s work. It was when he was a young English teacher in Japan in the mid-’90s that he first tried to work out the mechanics of writing.

“Around the time, I was really reading inquisitively, to work out how it was being done,” he says. “What’s the difference between a really great book where you forget the page numbers, one that you binge-read, a mediocre book and a pile of crap?

“There was a lot of Japanese literature in the diet. I think I would have been a writer anyway, if I hadn’t been here. But as it happens it was here, and as it happens many of my early role models were Japanese ones. (Shusaku) Endo’s ‘Silence,’ which is a heck of a novel; (Junichiro) Tanizaki’s ‘The Makioka Sisters’ — that’s the one, really, because he isn’t relying on sheepish gothicky tricks; it’s just really solid realist writing about women. It’s just great. Probably the best of the 20th century.”

And as for his feelings for Murakami: “I had a crush on him,” he admits. “The hidden joke is in the title (of ‘Number9dream’) as (it and Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’) are both songs by John Lennon.”

In “The Bone Clocks,” the influence of Murakami can still be felt, and perhaps Mitchell’s work will always have a hint of that. But it’s clear with this new novel that Mitchell’s writing has evolved beyond comparisons to the Japanese writers who first helped him work out his style, and it can now simply be labeled “Mitchell-esque.”