“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’ve been a geeky fanboy of David Mitchell since the start of his career and have loved everything he’s ever written, from his debut novel Ghostwritten to the poignant coming of age story Black Swan Green, his breakthrough classic Cloud Atlas to the historical thriller The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and his infamous Twitter story, The Right Sort. Well, everything, except his recent novel, The Bone Clocks.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Bone Clocks. I did, a lot. One of David Mitchell’s greatest talents – and he has so many – is that he’s able to make his novels so enjoyable. He has a knack for creating characters you care about, nailing speech patterns and getting a story up and running very quickly. So that within a few pages of picking up one of his books you’re hopelessly hooked to the point of missing bus stops and turning up for work bleary eyed because you couldn’t stop reading the night before. I’d go so far as to say he’s the greatest living contemporary English writer (or at least head-to-head with Edward St Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst for that title).

Sadly, the new novel was, for me, the first time David Mitchell has ever dropped a bollock. In his work up to this point, he’s created worlds and characters so rich and diverse that I started to believe there was no limit to what he could pull off with his writing. But while The Bone Clocks is as addictive and brilliantly written as anything else he’s ever done, as full of startling epigrams (“Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul”), unforgettable characters (Holly Sykes, Crispin Hershey) and perfectly realised worlds (the dystopian Sheep’s Head chapter, particularly, is outstanding), it includes a science fiction theme and sub plot which IMHO simply doesn’t work. And by that I don’t mean it couldn’t work, I mean it doesn’t. Mitchell has used sci-fi/supernatural themes in many of his novels, most notably in Ghostwritten where one of the characters is a disembodied voice that wanders the planet as a parasite on human hosts, filtering their consciousnesses for clues to its own origin, soaking up their knowledge then moving on; and in Cloud Atlas where the central theme is a kind of mystical reincarnation. But in the new one, rather than using supernatural themes he creates a full blown other-world and renders it in tedious fantasy fiction detail (the ‘Horologists’ and the ‘Anchorites’ battling it out in the ‘Chapel of the Blind Cathar’ over the ‘Shaded Way Codex’ is just the tip of the iceberg…). For me, the issue is not that I’m not into fantasy fiction (although I’m not), but more that he’s spelling things out rather than leaving it up to us readers to join the dots. And that the kind of things he’s trying to do with the fantasy elements have been done far better elsewhere, from the new age classic, Jonathan Livingston Seagull to Mark Haddon’s brilliant kids’ book, Boom!

However. The purpose of this blog was absolutely not to give David Mitchell a kicking. It’s exactly the opposite. While Chapter Five of The Bone Clocks didn’t work for me, it was an extraordinary failure. He swung for the fences and missed, went down, as Jon Bon Jovi once put it, in a blaze of glory. For which I hugely applaud him. I’ve written before about creative ambition or, more to the point, the general lack of it. About the way fear holds us (especially me) back, the way it keeps us trapped in our comfort zones. David Mitchell refused to stay stuck there. Asked about the fantasy stuff in a Radio 4 interview he said, “It’s a risk and some people might feel that it’s one I haven’t pulled off. But I’d be depressed if I kept on repeating myself. I would feel I was letting my readers down if I kept on writing an ever-diminishing version of Cloud Atlas.”

I love the idea that a writer so lauded feels a responsibility to his readers and to his talent, to keep pushing for new ways to connect. And that he feels compelled to take risks, to kick against what’s expected of him. This is a writer who’s given me so much enjoyment and taught me so much. And now his fearless attitude has reminded me that it’s fear of failure that holds me back; to, in Beckett’s words Fail again, fail better. Or, as Woody Allen – another writer who’s tasted his fair share of failure along the way to dazzling creative success, once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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