English novelist David Mitchell has been called a magician, a conjurer, a virtuoso of the fictional realm. This 45-year-old Ireland-based author of such genre-bending, globe-trotting works as Number9Dream, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is also regarded as the finest, the most audacious and ambitious novelist of his generation. Many believe too, he's also the most thrilling.
Mitchell's latest novel, The Bone Clocks, is arguably one of the most hungrily awaited titles of the year and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize even before its release. Some critics are already declaring it the most ambitious novel ever written, while others are likening it to his 2004 Booker short-listed novel Cloud Atlas. The author describes the book as the novel of his midlife crisis.
"It's even more Cloud Atlas-y than Cloud Atlas in a way," he concedes. "I won't run for office, I don't want a sports car and I don't have the stamina for an inappropriate mistress. It's this book instead. This is where I've played it out."
Indeed, the notion of mortality is not just an accidental minor theme in what he mischievously calls a "multi-tasking book," but one he sheets home with unnerving power. Yet this 600-page 'multi-tasking' novel begins conventionally enough, in the youthful, slangy, voice of rebellious teenager Holly Sykes, who runs away from her Gravesend home in the British summer of 1984.
Holly's raging row with her Irish "Ma" sends her off into the Kent Marshes and into some picaresque encounters in Thatcherite Britain. By the time you take leave of Holly as an old woman living in the oil-depleted world of 2043, you'll have witnessed a battle between two bands of immortals in a chapel in the Swiss Alps and the end of civilisation as we know it. You'll also have gleaned some tantalising titbits about Icelandic lore and the seven millennia-old Whadjuk Nyoongar culture of WA.
Mitchell's preternatural ability to teleport his readers across time, geography, cultures and genres is just one of a battalion of reasons why his fiction commands such a devoted following around the globe. Another is that he never repeats himself. Yes, you'll find familiar characters, structures and references to his previous novels cleverly seamed into the fabric of The Bone Clocks, like a separate puzzle within an already vast ornate Chinese puzzle. For, as Mitchell has often declared, his novels are themselves chapters in a larger novel.
"It's become quite conscious now, that while my novels are in no way prequels or sequels, they are nonetheless chapters in an uber-book that's larger than all of them. I love doing that, and I have enough faith in the people who are good enough to read my books that what pleases me will please a sizeable proportion of them," he says.
His fans call this — along with his penchant for revisiting themes of reincarnation, transmigration, privilege, power and predation — inter-connectedness. Mitchell dubs it intra-connectedness and in some senses The Bone Clocks is his most intra-connected novel yet, with characters such as Marinus, the wise physician from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and caddish teenager Hugo Lamb from Black Swan Green reappearing in pivotal roles. Lamb's rap-like riffs on life in the 90s are one of the highlights of the novel and his fear of ageing plays into several of the core themes of the novel — as well as into a Faustian pact with a group of conditional immortals.
"I was interested in having a bargain that would give us all pause for thought: 'Join us, you'll have to do some things your conscience won't be happy with but you get to stay young and healthy forever'. I'd like to think I wouldn't go the Hugo Lamb way," Mitchell laughs. "But I'd have to have a good long think about it, I tell you."
He'll happily own up to his enduring fascination with the nature of evil and with predation, which he says "seem to be there in everything I write even when I try and keep it out". He'll also talk at length about "the scaffolding" of the failed novel on which The Bone Clocks is built, along with the single question he wanted to answer in the writing of both that novel and The Bone Clocks.
"What might the world look like in 2040? I think about it a lot," Mitchell says. "What we, as a species, are doing to this planet obliges any sane person to think about it a lot, especially if you have kids. We will be leaving a far more impoverished ecosystem than the one we inherited. And if the climate science underpinning the novel is in any degree correct, I think in the 2040s what we're doing now will seem rather quaint and irrelevant — the headlines, the internet and the way we occupy our minds, even our politics."
As for his famous ability to dissolve genre borders and defy conventions in his fiction, Mitchell says "I get impatient with the urge to categorise into pigeonholes, into highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow. As Duke Ellington apocryphally said when asked what good jazz is, 'If it sounds good, it is good'. There is, for example, some excellent imperishable high-calibre thoughtful literature around that happens to be science fiction. The Bone Clocks may have a socially realist sort of news-watching ribcage, but inside that, its pulsing heart is basically fantasy. I mean we're talking immortals here, but why can't you do that? Why should that not be allowed? Why should a fantastical element invalidate a novel and mean that it's not for grown-ups? Why?"
He laughs too at the notion of his so-called ambition, but sheets his outsized imagination back to his childhood, growing up in a house full of books.
"From an early age I learnt that books were portals into other worlds, and pretty soon I began to ache not to just go to these other worlds but build them myself," Mitchell says.
His artist parents would mount an A1 sheet of white cartridge paper on a drawing board for him, and he'd cover it with a map of imaginary continents, such as those in The Lord of the Rings or in Ursula le Guin's Earthsea novels.
"I view those in a way as my first exercises in world-building and I still do that now because the moment you're drawing a map, you're compelled to think about the people who live there. I get excited by large scale. I just feel this "whooosh", with three "Os" not two, that I felt when confronted with this big sheet of A1 cartridge paper. So it's not that I was conscious of having a big Incredible Hulk-sized ambition, it's more true that to get that triple-O "whooosh" I need, I have to think big," Mitchell says.
He finds the idea of having the large readership he now commands as "somewhat unnerving. I never get over the fact that people are willing to part with their hard-earned money and give me 10 or 20 hours of their finite number of hours to read the books.
"That's an honour."
For Mitchell, who already has a new three-book deal, writing is nothing less than an obsession, as well as a deep pleasure.
"It's like an itch that I can't scratch," he laughs. "It's all about that triple-O 'whooosh'."
The Bone Clocks is published by Sceptre ($30, ebook $17).