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fall preview 2014

Boundaries Are Conventions. And The Bone Clocks Author David Mitchell Transcends Them All.

Mitchell on Ireland’s Sheep’s Head Peninsula, where the end of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, takes place. Photo: Jackie Nickerson

It is a beautiful summer afternoon in Ireland, and David Mitchell and I are walking up the High Road above the River Bandon, in the town of Kinsale, talking about supercontinents. One of the pleasures of hanging out with Mitchell is that he is, by self-identification, many kinds of nerd—a Star Trek nerd, a Doctor Who nerd, a map nerd, a taxonomy nerd, a tea nerd, a word nerd, and, for good measure, what you might call a nerd nerd: an enthusiast of nerdery of all kinds. At one point in our conversation, he speaks admiringly of sheep nerds.

But right now, he is nerding out about geology. “I’m reading this book called The Origins of the Irish,” Mitchell says, “and it starts with the literal origins of Ireland: Where did this blob of rock come from?” Turns out it came from two blobs of rock on opposite sides of the world. Then, some 300 million years ago, all the landmass on Earth merged into the supercontinent known as Pangaea, “and those two blobs went”—here he produces a crunching-together sound. Mitchell uses sound effects often in conversation, and he is uncommonly good at imitating nonhuman noises: wind in rigging, an arrow leaving a bow, waves lapping the shore, land smashing together to form nations. “And many millions of years from now,” he continues, apropos of the blobs that are currently Ireland, “they’re going to”—he makes a wrenching-apart sound.

A taxonomy nerd could tell you this: There are many ways to categorize writers, and one is by their relationship to place. Mitchell has lived in Ireland since 2004 but is not from there, and he admires but does not identify with, or seem to belong to, its formidable literary tradition. He was born in Lancashire and raised in the village of Hanley Swan—the model for the town in his fourth novel, Black Swan Green—but he does not seem like a particularly British writer either. Among living novelists, he is, in fact, singularly unbound by place—or, for that matter, by time or genre or almost any other constraint. “Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now,” a character observes in his most famous book, Cloud Atlas. “All boundaries are conventions, even national ones. One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so.”

That is what Mitchell has been doing for the past 15 years. His first book, Ghostwritten, published in 1999, is set in Japan, China, Mongolia, Russia, England, Ireland, and New York. It consists of a series of half-realist, half-fantastical stories that together form a quasi-­dystopic meditation on cause and effect—a subgenre that, so far as I know and not counting Star Trek, has a total of two entrants, and Mitchell wrote the other one, too. His second book, Number9Dream, is part Murakami homage, part Grand Theft Auto, and part—I have no idea what to call the part about the adventures of a chicken, a goat, and a literate Pithecanthropus. Cloud Atlas is a symphony for six genres, set across six locations and several hundred years. Black Swan Green is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel that takes place entirely in the title town; by that point in Mitchell’s career, both facts managed to come off as surprising. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set on a Dutch trading post off the coast of Japan at the end of the 18th century, is a work of near-perfect historical fiction, with an entire fantasy novel concealed inside.

It says something, then, that Mitchell’s new novel almost manages to make the rest of his work look hidebound and provincial. The Bone Clocks, which comes out September 2, takes place in Cambridge, Gravesend, Switzerland, Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, Toronto, Vancouver, Russia, Australia, Colombia, Shanghai, Iraq, Iceland, and several places you will look for in vain on a map. The central narrative begins 30 years ago, in 1984, and ends nearly 30 years hence, in 2043, but once you factor in various digressions and backstories, the time span of the book covers some 7,000 years.

You could call Mitchell a global writer, I suppose, but that does not quite capture what he is doing. It is closer to say that he is a pangaeic writer, a supercontinental writer. What is for geologists a physical fact—that the world is everywhere interconnected, bound together in a cycle of faulting and folding, rifting and drifting, erosion and uplift—is, for Mitchell, a metaphysical conviction. Immensity alone, he knows, is psychologically and morally risky; it makes our own lives so comparatively insignificant that it can produce fatalism, or depression, or unimpeded self-interest. To counter that, his fiction tries again and again to square the scale of the world with the human scale, down to its smallest and inmost components. The human conscience matters because it leads to action—a captain holds his fire, a free man saves a slave—and human action matters because, if everything is interconnected, everything we do tugs on the web of space and time.

The Bone Clocks retells this story: It is about how the events of one life reverberate through our world, and through unseen worlds around us. But the book also makes clear the extent of Mitchell’s formal preoccupation with connection. The customary observation about his novels is how radically they differ from one another: Black Swan Green, the coming-­of-age story, is nothing like Jacob de Zoet, and neither one is anything like Cloud Atlas—which, six times over, is nothing like itself. But The Bone Clocks upends that impression. As it turns out, the most striking thing about these books is not how far-flung they are, but what a vast, strange, interconnected world they form.

Up at the top of the High Road, we have reached our destination. “Let’s go into the castle,” Mitchell says.

Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a sextet. Its six sections are told from the points of view of five different characters: Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a 15-year-old runaway; Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge student who is part sociopath, part Alex P. Keaton; Ed Brubeck, a journalist torn between his family and his job covering the Iraq War; Crispin Hershey, a middle-­aged British novelist whose work and life are in simultaneous decline; and a Canadian psychiatrist who is not what she seems. In the sixth and final section, the narrative returns to Holly, but really it has been hers all along. The Bone Clocks is the story of one woman’s life, told obliquely by the other characters as they meet her over the course of 60 years.

For most writers, that would be sufficient structural cleverness for one novel, but Mitchell is just getting started. Twenty-five pages into the book, Holly walks down a pier and meets an old fisherwoman, who offers her a curious bargain: a drink of green tea for Holly, refuge for the old woman should she one day need it. Our runaway, by now very hot and thirsty, consents: “I drink until the sun’s a pale glow through the thin bottom of the plastic.”

It’s a great setup, drawn from our collective familiarity with fairy tales and deals struck with strangers and the perils of accepting sustenance with strings attached. And it is the event that drops a coin into the slot called plot. From that moment on, Holly’s life becomes caught up in—

An epic battle between good and evil,” Mitchell says, making fun of himself in a coming-this-fall-to-theaters-everywhere voice. Well, yes. The Bone Clocks—five-sixths of it, anyway—is about a standoff between two groups of immortal beings: Horologists (good) and Anchorites (evil). The Horologists don’t know why they are immortal; they only know that, 49 days after they die, they wake up in a body whose former soul has just departed. The Anchorites know exactly why they are immortal: because they hunt down children with especially potent souls, lure them to a mysterious chapel, and “decant” them, like hell’s own sommeliers. Their mission is to use that stolen soul stuff to live forever. The mission of the Horologists is to stop them.

The desire for immortality is a common inducement to evil in Mitchell’s work. Novelists need a motive for their antagonists, after all, and most of the classic ones—money, power, hatred—leave him cold. “But what if you didn’t have to die?” he asks. “What if you could stay relatively young and healthy and beautiful forever?” He smiles at me: 45 years old, tall, fit, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, one-sixteenth of a notch too boyish to be cast as a handsome serial killer. “Kinda tempting, isn’t it?”

Sure. But it is one thing to fear death, and something else entirely to live for 900 years by imbibing the souls of children in a shadowy hideout between worlds. “You can look so ridiculous so easily with fantasy,” Mitchell says, “and it’s so studiedly uncool, in the same way that existential misery is so studiedly cool. But if you’re going to do it, you can’t half-do it.” He quotes a Marine’s disgusted comment to his superior when the troops were ordered out of Fallujah: “If you’re going to take Vienna, Sir, take fucking Vienna!”

Mitchell takes fucking Italy. The cosmology of The Bone Clocks includes Incorporeals and Atemporals and Sojourners and Carnivores, a Script and a Counterscript, a Chapel in the Dusk and an Aperture and a Shaded Way. There are verbs you’ve never conjugated (I suasion, you hiatus, he subtalks), and psychovoltaic duels, and much moving-about of objects through palm chakras. None of this is, on its own, particularly strange. Or rather, it is extremely strange, but it is not unfamiliar. The Bone Clocks reminded me of, among other things, A Wrinkle in Time, The Da Vinci Code, the Illuminatus! trilogy, the Dark Is Rising series, Stephen King, Men in Black, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones.

What’s strange, then, is that Mitchell turns this stew into serious adult literature. Readers without a taste for genre fiction might balk a bit; those who relish it, as I do, will cackle. But even without a single immortal on hand to do battle, The Bone Clocks would be psychovoltaic, snapping with the emotional current of real life. Mitchell is writing about a mortal among immortals, and he never abandons the human half of the story: the fell swoop of first love, the labyrinth of silence where unhappy couples live, the clear cut inside a parent when a child goes missing, the chasm between frontline and home front in a nation at war.

All in all, it’s a lot of plot to manage, and The Bone Clocks sometimes feels looser and less controlled than Mitchell’s other work. Holly at 15 is not entirely believable (she gets better as she ages; Mitchell is interestingly excellent at older women), and some stray ends stick out here and there. I never did figure out what the Script was, or grasp the role of a mysterious young woman named Soleil Moore. But for the most part, that feeling of uncontrol is an illusion. After fully 300 pages of wondering if Mitchell was possibly going to get away with what he was doing, I realized that I was having so much fun reading this book—was, in fact, so unwilling to do anything but read it—that, by any measure I care about, he had been getting away with it all along.

Still, I am not sure what I would have thought of The Bone Clocks had it ended after the Horologists, accompanied by Holly, have their climactic face-off with the Anchorites. Give or take a coda, that is where most other writers would have stopped. Mitchell keeps going, and what starts out as the most bonkers of his novels ends up the darkest. Incorporeals et al. notwithstanding, it is unmistakably our own world, which we thought would grow ever smaller and more connected, that, in The Bone Clocks, breaks back apart.

Mitchell began writing his first novel the day after he finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. He was 10 years old, or maybe 11. “I remember writing one of these swooping camera shots coming in over the water,” he says, “past the sails and the merchant ships, to a very Game of Thrones–y-looking castle keep by the sea.” Mostly, though, what he remembers is the map he drew—because, as nerdy 10-year-olds can tell you, every fantasy novel worth its amulet must begin with a map.

By chance, Mitchell is recounting this in a very Game of Thrones–y setting—not quite a castle, although he called it that, but a 17th-century fortress. We’d paid our entrance and declined a tour, then walked up a narrow path to a one-person guardhouse, built at a time before men grew to David Mitchell heights. We settle in on the stone wall beside it, and I ask him about that first book. He claims not to remember the plot, so I ask about the map. 

“It was an archipelago of islands,” he says, “with names and forests and towns and cities and evil ones that lived out in the East.” He laughs. Mitchell laughs often, and his laugh is boyish, or maybe girlish, bubbling and a little bit giddy. “Curiously enough, it always is the East. You wonder if Russian fantasists of a certain generation have the baddies coming from the West.” Anyway, he continues, “You can’t just write the name of a land on a map without thinking about who’s living there. Are they good or bad? Are they human, giants, or dwarfs? So that was my first exercise in world building.”

While Mitchell was teaching himself to write, he was also teaching himself to speak. Around age 7, he developed a stammer—not bad enough to be obvious all the time, but bad enough that he lived in constant fear of exposure. That was horrid, but it had a certain long-term utility. “You need to be able to identify stammer words coming up in the queue,” he says, “and reconfigure your sentence so you’re not going to need to use them.” For that, you need a big vocabulary, but among kids, a big vocabulary can be almost as much of a liability as a stammer. “So that teaches you about register,” he says. “You can’t use perchance as a synonym for maybe, because that will get you beaten up. Which,” he adds drily, “is very helpful for learning to use dialogue to establish character.”

For all that, Mitchell speaks fondly of his childhood. “You know every square inch of a place at that age, or at least in that generation you did,” he says. “You know which curbstone you can hit at a certain angle on your bike to not go bump, you know all the little hidey-holes that adults don’t. We lived on our bicycles and in our Wellington boots.” On his own time, away from his peers, he read, a lot. “The explosion in children’s literature had not yet happened,” he says, “so I could pretty much read all of it.”

Mitchell still seems bookish, and he still seems at home in his boots. But his stammer is barely detectable; if I hadn’t known about it in advance—he transferred it wholesale to the protagonist of Black Swan Green—I am not sure I would have identified the source of the slight hesitation in his speech. These days, he seems like a man who loves to talk, both for the interaction and for the language. “What a lovely word, multiplicative,” he says after hearing it. “It’s like a harp.” At one point he tries out different noun forms of peripatetic—“Peripateticness? Peripateticism? Peripateticity?”—sounding like an oenophile sampling Chablis.

Peripateticism, or whatever it is, proved helpful to Mitchell’s career. After studying literature at the University of Kent, he moved to Sicily to teach English. Then came a stint in London, where he borrowed a flatmate’s Amstrad computer and wrote a novella set on an interstellar ship—“pretty rubbish,” he says now. From there, he moved to Japan and wound up staying eight years. (“Did you have any sense that you were going to be there that long?” I ask him. “No,” he says, laughing, “and you can actually stop that question after about five words.”) While there, he wrote another novel—also rubbishy, per him, but it got the attention of an agent, who encouraged him to try again.

That next try was Ghostwritten. It won Britain’s John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, for the best work of literature by an author under 35, and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. He has published five novels since then, to mounting acclaim each time. Both Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas were short-listed for the Booker Prize, but it was the latter that made Mitchell famous: in literary circles upon its publication in 2004, and far beyond them in 2012, when Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings made it into a film.

Mitchell writing The Bone Clocks while on the movie set of Cloud Atlas in 2011.

Mitchell is grateful for his success and eschews with vehemence the tormented-writer routine—though that could be as much an act of diplomacy as a genuine state-of-the-self. “All these keen kids in M.F.A. courses, whatever they have two of, they would give one of them to have this,” he says. “If this is an arduous working life, lucky bloody me. Don’t you find whinging writers so bloody annoying?” If he found writing angst-inducing, he says, he wouldn’t be able to do it: “I’m too undisciplined. I couldn’t make myself write if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do, if I didn’t get that fix. Oh, what a lovely breeze.” That last is a comment on the weather.

Mitchell’s writing career is coextensive with his marriage. While in Japan, he met and married Keiko Yoshida, at the time a fellow teacher and, these days, his in-house counsel, though not in the lawyerly sense. He bounces ideas off her; she reads early drafts and, among other things, tells him when his sociopaths are getting too sociopathic. They moved from Japan to London in 2002, then settled in Ireland. Together, they have an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, who has autism.

Mitchell lights up when he talks about his kids, a kind of higher-wattage version of the switch that goes on when he’s discussing beautiful sentences or book ideas. “It’s a different state of being,” he says of fatherhood, “and it requires some fairly big-scale readjustment in all sorts of areas, but I’ve never regretted it for a microsecond.”

One of those adjustments is a certain bifurcation of his public persona. On his daughter’s behalf, he has become more guarded. He does not invite reporters into his home or his town, and he no longer does any Irish media at all. “I want her to think that I’ve entered a world’s-most-boring-dad competition and won,” he says. On his son’s behalf, he has become more visible. “Ignorance is making the lives of people with autism harder,” he says, and he tries publicly to combat it. He has written about his experiences raising his son and, with his wife, translated The Reason I Jump, whose autistic author, Naoki Higashida, was 13 at the time he wrote it. (Mitchell also contributed the introduction, and he and Higashida are collaborating on another book.)

It is not lost on Mitchell that his biography is unusually heavy on obstacles to communication: stammering, autism, the difficulty of expressing oneself in a foreign language. All three, he says, are “an experience of being incredibly more complex and linguistically more versatile in your head than you are to the outside world.” Writing is a solution to that problem; Mitchell, Q.E.D., can be as complex and versatile as he pleases on the page. But it also makes that problem something of a gift. He passes it along to his protagonists, and lets their struggle to surmount it become the story.

Fifteen pages into The Bone Clocks, I sat up so fast I clocked one of my own bones—skull against ceiling, in the low nook where I was reading. Holly had just mentioned that, as a child, she had been cured of the strange voices in her head by a visit to one Dr. Marinus. Mitchell fans will recall that Marinus is also the name of the doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When we meet him in that book, it is 1799.

I had noticed recurrent elements in Mitchell’s work before; it’s impossible not to. The same two cats wander through his books (one black, one moon-gray), and his characters admire the same painting (a Bronzino), reference the same novels (Lord of the Flies, Le Grand Meaulnes), and drink the same whiskey (Kilmagoon, imaginary, and I hope more smoky than peaty but I forgot to ask). But in The Bone Clocks, it becomes clear that Mitchell is not just hiding Easter eggs for loyal readers. Nor is he importing favorite props into book after book, as Murakami does with his jazz and ironing boards and infinite spaghetti. Instead, he is importing book after book into his favorite world. Mitchell’s novels share the same past, future, events, ethos, laws, problems, causes, and consequences. They are an archipelago of islands.

That archipelago has a distinct and highly mobile populace. Mongolian thugs, New Age wackos, investigative journalists, literary snobs, menacing G-men, a sadistic nurse: In total—which is surely not the total, since we are talking some 3,000 densely populated pages here—I counted 23 characters who appear in two or more of Mitchell’s six books. You can, if you care to, track entire family trees. Johnny Penhaligon, a Cambridge student in The Bone Clocks, is the great-grandson of the Captain Penhaligon who appears toward the end of Jacob de Zoet. Jacob’s comrade, the kindhearted Con Twomey, was born Fiacre Muntervary—the ancestor of Mo Muntervary, an MIT professor who shows up in Ghostwritten and again in the new book.

There is a word in literary theory for what Mitchell's doing: metalepsis, the transgression of the boundaries of a fictional world by an object, idea, or character. But there’s not much precedent for how he’s doing it. Among recurrent figures in adult literature, the one who comes closest to behaving like a Mitchell character is Falstaff, ambling from Henry IV to The Merry Wives of Windsor. But if Shakespeare had done what Mitchell is doing, Falstaff would have been the grandfather of Oberon, who would have first appeared as a page boy in Richard III.

A fairy king in the middle of a history: Mitchell has no problem with that, and the most jolting of his reappearing characters are those that disrupt our expectations of genre. In this respect, he reminds me most of Madeleine L’Engle, who set 15 books in one world with two frameworks—“Chronos,” largely realist, and “Kairos,” squarely fantastical—then let characters wander back and forth between them. Like her, Mitchell, with his customary indifference to boundaries, regards the normally stark one between fantasy and realism as perfectly permeable.

For readers, the boundaries in Mitchell’s books seem less permeable than magical: Each new novel causes the previous ones to shape-shift. Consider Jacob de Zoet, which, read before The Bone Clocks, presents as pure historical fiction. Granted, there’s that cult whose members believe that eating newborn children will render them immortal, but history is full of cults and their crazy beliefs. Read it after The Bone Clocks: Those cult members become Anchorites, and, within the world of the book, those crazy beliefs become true. Indeed, if you know what you are looking for, the whole cosmology is already there on the page. Marinus, to Jacob: “I’m indestructible, like a serial Wandering Jew. I’ll wake up tomorrow—after a few months—and start all over again.”

Mitchell himself views his novels as “chapters in an Über-book”—which, to one degree or another, he has been writing all along. The first of the Atemporals, whose kind we meet again in The Bone Clocks, appeared in that unpublished novel he wrote in Japan. But what began as vague and intuitive has become increasingly deliberate and clear. Today, Mitchell keeps a notebook in which he tracks Marinus’s lives: number 28 in Jacob de Zoet, number 32 by the time The Bone Clocks begins. There will be future incarnations as well. “There’s something called The Marinus Trilogy in my head,” he says. “Jacob De Zoet is part one, The Bone Clocks is part two, and part three will be”—I cannot in good conscience finish that sentence; it gives away too much about the current book. But I can say that the final Marinus novel will not only finish the stories begun in the rest of the trilogy but also resolve a lingering mystery in Cloud Atlas.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will have to wait a long time to read it. Over lunch at a café in Kinsale, Mitchell astounded me by describing, in extensive detail, his next five books. These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.

The Über-book, in short, is shaping up to be very big. But size is only half the point. The other half is the increasingly dense connections among Mitchell’s novels. For readers, the payoff of these interconnections is far greater than the transitory pleasure of spotting them. It wasn’t smugness I felt when I recognized Marinus and Mo Muntervary in The Bone Clocks; it was happiness. Old characters walk into new books carrying all of their backstory, and all of our affection for them. The best reentrances feel nearly miraculous, like friends we gave up for lost after years of no news who suddenly show up at our door. And even the slightest of them serve Mitchell’s larger vision. By expanding the scope of the book beyond its own borders, these recurrent figures make the world feel bigger. In their familiarity, they make it feel smaller.

Two days later, Mitchell and I are driving down the Sheep’s Head peninsula, toward the place where The Bone Clocks ends. What with one thing and another—parenting, deadlines, life—Mitchell has never been there before; he wrote the book’s final section using Google Maps. Now we turn off the main road and follow a smaller one to where it ends, at a sign that shows a car pitching headfirst into the sea.

It is high noon. Sheep are grazing by the side of the road. Across the way, the foundation stones of a small encampment stand where they have been standing for a thousand years. Mitchell points them out: They will play a role in one of those future novels of his. We follow a dirt track downhill, to a cove with a small pier jutting out into the sea. “Not bad, is it?” Mitchell asks. I imagine the cove in darkness. I imagine it in a storm. I imagine it in 30 years. “You’ve pre-haunted it,” I tell him.

I do not want to say much about how The Bone Clocks ends. It suffices to note that Holly lives on into desperate times, ones that have nothing to do with a fantastical battle between good and evil and everything to do with problems in which we are all currently complicit. In that future, every possible kind of connection is unraveling: transit systems, telecommunications, sympathy. It is very plausible and very proximate, and months after I read it, it is still disturbing me.

In person, Mitchell is an unlikely voice of impending doom; he is, at present, organizing pesto and chutney and local cheese on the pier between us. But when I ask if he regards the Armageddon in The Bone Clocks as an “if” or a “when,” he says, “I lean to the when.” He does not do conspiracies or paranoia or even excess negativity, but he is increasingly worried about endings: his own, the world’s.

Some of that is about having children. “I need the world to last longer than I used to,” he says. And some of it is the end of any illusion that he himself is still a kid. When you’re young, he says, “you know there’s this thing called mortality, but not really. Now I feel it in my kneecaps.” He wrote this book partly to grapple with that feeling. “It’s my gift, my counseling session, my think tank—I think that’s best. The Bone Clocks is my think tank, staffed by myself, where I mull over the increasing presence of mortality.”

I ask if he is afraid of dying. He borrows Woody Allen’s line: No, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens. We laugh, and stop laughing, and for a while there’s just the water lapping against the pier, gently, like the rib cage of something large that’s sleeping. “Yes,” he says finally. “It’s huge, isn’t it? I feel weak by admitting that I’m afraid of it, but yeah, I am. A part of me thinks that’s a lack of maturity. And a part of me thinks you’d be mad not to be scared.”

Death, of course, is the ultimate disconnection—unless, that is, some part of us lives on. I ask Mitchell what he thinks about souls, which feature prominently in his books, and especially in The Bone Clocks. “I doubt that we have them,” he says, “and I hope that I’m wrong.” He means it, but he is once again laughing as he says it, and I remember something Marinus says to Jacob de Zoet: The soul is a verb, not a noun.

I was undone by the ending of The Bone Clocks, but I was also—to borrow the word for how Horologists reconstruct themselves when they are born anew—re-raveled by the one note of grace Mitchell bestows on the failing world. It is the grace of connection: a single life that turned out to matter, a single act, a debt repaid, a promise kept, a flame lit by another flame.

The end of the Sheep’s Head peninsula is more rugged than the rest of it. We hike along it, amid heather and gorse and rock outcroppings that look like foundation stones from the 11 millionth century B.C. Out at the point, concrete steps appear from nowhere and lead up to a lighthouse. There is a place you are supposed to go and a place you are not supposed to go and a bright-red railing to distinguish between them. Mitchell ducks under it, and I follow him, and we go and sit with our backs to the lighthouse and our faces to the sea.

The sky is cloudless. The ocean, this high up, looks motionless in the pan of the world. I ask Mitchell to orient me. “That is County Kerry,” he says, pointing to the west, “a much fatter peninsula, almost as wide as it is long. Up there is Bantry Bay. That’s the Beara peninsula, it’s what Holly sees when she looks out from her garden. The boat”—he is talking about one that appears at the end of The Bone Clocks—“will leave from there and head off thataway, forever and ever until we get the third installment of the Marinus trilogy. New York is out there. When do you go home?”

It is the day before the longest day of the year, and somewhere between the conversation and the generous northern light we lose track of time. Suddenly we realize that I am in danger of missing the bus back to Cork, and we scramble to our feet to start hiking out. I turn one last time to look at the view. The lighthouse is squat and white and plain, and even from a few feet away it looks very small compared to the job it must do. I say as much to Mitchell. “True,” he says, turning around to look at it with me. “But it isn’t the lighthouse that matters. It’s the light.”

*This article appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Jackie Nickerson; null/Warner Bros