And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

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One of David Mitchell’s literary preoccupations is interconnectedness, the way that, as the theory goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the course of history (or at least the weather). Or, say, the way that a trapped and depressed FAA contract worker might set a fire that cancels your surprise trip to Chicago to see your dad who’s recovering from a hip replacement (still not over it!). Mitchell makes connections, so when I’m reading him I see connections.

Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's novel, The Bone Clocks, focuses on central themes of Yom Kippur. Credit: Melissa Weininger

As I was reading The Bone Clocks, his new novel, in which one of the peripheral characters rides a Norton motorcycle, I happened to see a guy wearing a Norton T-shirt at the diner near my house as I ate brunch with my family. As I re-read the review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, I noticed that the review underneath it (yes, I still get a hard copy of the paper) referred to events that took place in January 1967, the year my husband was born. And the world shrinks a little bit, everything stitched together a little tighter.
Perhaps that’s why I was tempted to see so many of the themes of the season in this book, even though there’s nothing remotely Jewish about it (and organized religion generally comes in for a beating – more on that later). Reading during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the Yamim Noraim, the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, I felt like the novel had something to say about so many of the central themes of the holidays: memory, death, rebirth, mortality, choice and free will, and second chances. These are Mitchell’s touchstones, the big questions he goes back to again and again in all of his novels, but The Bone Clocks brings them together both abstractly – in the form of recurring characters and names, places and events, both within the world of this novel and across his oeuvre – and concretely, as a largish subplot (more later on why it seems like the main plot but isn’t) focuses on a group of immortal souls and their fight against those who would induce immortality by artificial and predatory means.
There is a magical kind of rebirth and resurrection in this novel, but as always the actual magic is just a foil for a consideration of the kind of everyday wonder of life, in this case through the perhaps paradoxical lens of mortality and death. There are characters in this novel who are willing to fight to the death to live forever, unchanged physically, emotionally, or morally by time and experience, but the most powerful forces in the novel are not supernatural. Rather, they are the things we experience, and undervalue, every day: love, memory, friendship, community, family. Even for those who are not immortal, an aging character reflects at the end of the novel, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.” All of us are constantly reborn and resurrected in the memories (and DNA) of others, without recourse to magic.
Perhaps because it follows one character, more or less, from youth to old age, The Bone Clocks, more than other Mitchell novels, is able to concentrate on the way that death gives meaning to life. The immortals in this book have to find other ways to make meaning that mortal humans have access to by default. Leonard Cohen has a song, called “Who By Fire” after the words of a prayer central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that lists the many possible ways we might meet our end (or prosper) in the coming year. In it, he intones repeatedly, “And who shall I say is calling?” He doesn’t answer the question; we all know who’s calling: death. On Yom Kippur we rehearse for death by abstaining from life-sustaining activities and wearing our shrouds. Why? Because remembering that we are going to die is the only way to make sure that we are really living now. As the late, great rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “We are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment ‘malignant,’ because by then it might be too late. We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, and at least once a year, at least on this solemn day. What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life?” The down side of immortality is that there is no urgency to this question, and this question is what gives life its meaning.

The more I read him, the more I think that Mitchell’s novels are religious texts for atheists. At the very least, they offer a suggestion of supernatural order to those who doubt the efficacy and human benefit of traditional forms of organized religion. There’s usually some kind of higher power controlling things from behind the scenes, whether it’s a band of immortal souls or a renegade artificial intelligence. There’s usually a plan at work that is slightly mysterious, often misunderstood, and outside of regular human control or even awareness. Of course, in a body of work so invested in exploring the uses and boundaries of literature itself, this higher intelligence is an obvious metaphor for the writer himself, invisible but apparent in every line, omnipotent and omniscient but conscious of the need to preserve the illusion of choice and free will. In that sense the semi-divine powers in Mitchell’s work are an ironic commentary not only on the seductions and limitations of religious belief, but also on the ways that fiction – just a thin web of beautiful untruths – can move us, change us, bring us to our knees with nothing more than words.
Ultimately, the story is the magic. Despite the supernatural elements, they prove to be only a small, insignificant moment in the larger story of life on earth, and the life of the main character, Holly Sykes. For a significant portion of the narrative, it seems that the plot centers on an epic battle between good and evil, and Holly and many of the people she knows and loves are caught up in this war in one way or another. Finally, she ends up playing a big role in its resolution, and it seems that good has prevailed. But the war that seems to be the main plot ends before the last section of the book, and that’s when we realize that this focus on one battle has been a feint, a purposeful distraction from the real evil, which is human and familiar. It turns out that the most malevolent forces in the book, and in our universe, are not the self-proclaimed bad guys but all of us, with our petty greed and ignorant complacency, our consumerism and consumption, our disregard for the big picture in favor of distraction, our dislike of discomfort.
This brings me back again to the season of teshuvah, or repentance, whose literal meaning is “return.” On Yom Kippur we are to return to those things that make us most uncomfortable: our misdeeds, our errors, our greed and hatred and jealousy. In The Bone Clocks, these are the things that destroy the world, and our souls, on a far greater scale than any immortality-seeking “soul carnivore.” This is the moment – of the year, and of history – to discomfit ourselves, to force the encounter with those unpleasant facts of our own humanity in order to make ourselves, and our world, whole again. We must be healed in order to heal, we must look through the darkness to see the light. As the poet Gerald Stern writes in “Lucky Life,”

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.