"I Know Where You're From": Reading David Mitchell

This week I read two of David Mitchell’s books, The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green. The Bone Clocks is an epic speculative fantasy covering about sixty years and the entire globe, plus at least one alternate dimension—so, closer to the experience of reading Cloud Atlas—while Black Swan Green is a subtle (for Mitchell) coming-of-age story set in a single village during a single year. (The jacket copy invokes The Catcher in the Rye.) I’d read Cloud Atlas previously, but now I’m able to have a much higher appreciation for Mitchell’s habit of reusing characters from book to book—having a major character from one novel make a cameo in another,  turning up older or younger or sadder or more triumphant than we’d seen them in their own story.

I found this technique enormously satisfying as a reader on a number of levels. For one thing, it just feels authentic—isn’t this the way we experience life, more and more as we age, running in to people we never expected to see again (or else their friends and relatives) in a diversity of contexts? It also makes reading Mitchell’s novels feel like trainspotting, a cumulative, gamified activity—how many repeat characters can you spot? It connects his novels in a kind of worldbuilding shorthand—it’s that much easier to accept the terms of a new novel when we have a familiar guide. Mitchell himself describes the experience of encountering Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after meeting him in Henry IV: “We have history, you and me. I know where you’re from.” 

My first thought after finishing The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green was that the conceit of recycled characters popping up in multiple works is in harmony with Mitchell’s speculative, semi-fantastical genre. He writes about immortality and reincarnation, about the secret magical bones of the unsuspecting world. His novels unfold slowly and reward rereading—indeed, I think some can only be fully understood by rereading. It makes a bedrock-level sense that an author who writes about an infinitely complex and infinitely connected world would write novels that infiltrate one another this way. This also lets him make every book magical—even Black Swan Green, which stands alone as a straightforward slice of bildungsroman realism, is tinged fantastic by the appearance of Hugo Lamb as the narrator’s cousin and Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck as his tutor. We know from Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks that these characters exist in literally magical worlds—that Lamb, now merely shoplifting cigarettes and beating the high score on a village arcade game, will eventually be decanting souls into Black Wine to maintain his ill-gotten immortality. By his very appearance in Black Swan Green, innocuous as it seems, Lamb declares its universe a shared one and thus utterly changes the world of the book.

It all seems very sci-fi, and very modern—it reminds me a bit of transmedia storytelling, like a literary version of a franchise begun in a comic book, continued in a movie series, and finished in a choose-your-own-ending video game. But, as Mitchell is the first to point out, he is far from the first to use this technique of character recycling. Mitchell tipped his hat to Shakespeare; I’m put most in mind of Faulkner and his parallel, self-referencing portraits of Yoknapatawpha County. I’m left pondering whether Mitchell is old-fashioned and/or Faulkner prescient; whether this means I’d call The Sound and the Fury a kind of science fiction. Maybe playing with genre and character is always fantastic; maybe every daring book is speculative fiction.