The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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There is, I think, a transactional element inherent in fiction. A reader will only buy a certain amount of clumsy explanation before she needs something in return, something else to compel her attention, something like a plot or a convincing relationship. Without the drama of the human experience, the reader is left holding pages of rules and regulations that are roughly as interesting as a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook (which can be quite interesting, but only if the reader is planning to actually play the game). Ornate systems of mythical histories and commandments tend to lack the meat and movement of successful fiction—that is why people read The Silmarillion or Quidditch Through the Ages after having read The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, not the other way around.

This is the primary issue with The Bone Clocks, the newest novel by David Mitchell, author of the massively successful Cloud Atlas. Whereas The Silmarillion is a self-consistent bible that embraces the influences of Nordic, Finnish, and Greek mythologies, the universe of Mitchell’s sprawling novel, with its spell-casting, body-hopping immortals (sorry, “Atemporals”), and “psychosoterica,” is dotted with inconsistencies and violations of the pact that allows the reader to suspend her disbelief.

Maybe three-quarters of this sizeable text is well written and captivating. Holly Sykes, a sort of main character who narrates the first section, is headstrong, honest, and utterly likeable. Following an argument with her mother, she runs away from home and right into a battle that makes approximately zero sense to the reader. Mitchell’s prose is often so deft and appropriate that one has to wonder why he would spoil it with garbled, rambling accusations, unfamiliar names, and capitalized words. All of the novel’s six sections are written in the first person, but with different narrators, so the reader is only privy to information that the narrator herself can understand. If it appears meaningless, that is because it is also meaningless to Holly. Which, all right—but that does not mean the author should fill his pages with nonsense only to explain it all implausibly 500 pages later. Consider this, from the fight in which Holly, fifteen year-old refugee, finds herself an unwitting target: “Did you think the Shaded Way has never heard of burglar alarms? Did you not know that the Chapel is the Cathar and the Cathar is the Chapel? Holokai’s soul is ash. Xi Lo’s soul is nothing. And you, whichever you are, you fled. As per your sacred Script, no doubt. We love your Script. Thanks to your Script, Horology is finished.” I see.

As quickly as this barrage of nonsense arrives, however, it is gone, and we are back to a genuinely moving portrait of a young girl’s life. The same thing happens in almost every one of the novel’s sections. Hugo Lamb, one of the most reprehensible bastards I’ve encountered in fiction, has a similar run-in with the war between Horology (the name alone makes me cringe) and the Anchorites, but it is mercifully brief and the reader is allowed to return to Hugo’s life as a conniving snake in the grass at Cambridge. His section, like each of the sections, eventually reaches a point of redemption for its narrator that feels authentic and powerful, occasional tastelessness notwithstanding. (One of Hugo’s undergraduate friends is named Richard Cheeseman, which is both unbelievable and dumb, and which is the source of many predictable jokes.)

David Mitchell

David Mitchell

Crispin Hershey, a washed up British novelist with all the requisite beige disappointments of middle age, occupies the fourth section. He, like Hugo, is almost totally repugnant, so we should give props to Mitchell for making two equally condescending, elitist douchebags and for making them so well. This is also the section in which Mitchell tries his hand at a bit of metacommentary, which smacks of vanity. Cheeseman, who at the time of Hershey’s narrative present is a successful reviewer, savages Hershey’s newest book: “So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Mitchell has clearly anticipated the criticisms that The Bone Clocks, which has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and which is sure to sell many thousands of copies, will generate. The second and third points are especially astute.

Though I cannot describe the other three sections without revealing significant plot developments, each is long and detailed enough to be a novel in and of itself. Until the final 200 pages, the intrusions of the fantasy timeline are uncommon, which works in the novel’s favor. Mitchell’s strength lies in chronicling the experiences of people—humans—who live and die and love in between. His insistence on threading an ungainly carpet of half-digital, half-mystical magic is puzzling, especially when it is so unnecessarily complex. This is due in part to the weird method Mitchell employs to introduce psychosoterica to the reader: a dense couple of pages filled with words like “suasion,” “Horology,” “hiatusing,” “psychoferno,” and, “Moombaki of the Noongar People,” followed by an explanation of what those things mean several hundred pages later, well after the reader has forgotten the sense in which they were used in the first place. Twice Mitchell takes an impromptu dig at Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, and both times we are reminded that Brown, who is a terrible writer, at least does his readers the service of making his puzzles and lame intrigue coherent.

If Mitchell’s editor thought it would be a good idea for him to use ad nauseam all of the distracting linguistic tics that abound in The Bone Clocks, the author would do well to find a second pair of eyes. The Horologists converse with each other through unspoken mental communication called “subspeaking.” (NB: “horology” is the study of clocks, watches, and other timekeeping devices. Naming a group of immortal wizards “Horology” is like naming the people you ate lunch with in college “Philosophy.”) The “sub-” prefix is appended to the verb that would be otherwise unadorned if it were normal speech, e.g. “I subaddress her,” “Ōshima subreminds me,” “I subreply,” and, “he subpoints out.” This never stops sounding awkward, and neither does Mitchell’s habit of turning nouns into verbs. The process of reading someone’s mind is called “scansioning”; to be immobilized without your knowledge is to be “hiatused.”

At the end of the novel, we are unceremoniously pulled nineteen years into the future. The world is in the midst of “Endarkenment,” which blahblahblah post-apocalyptic scenario. Often, Mitchell has a hard time indicating that we are in a strange new world as time skips forward in each section. To do so, he relies on exposition that sounds implausible. The reason something like, “Luckily I have some AA batteries in my desk drawer—they are also extinct—and slot them into the Walkman,” doesn’t work is that there is no conceivable justification for the narrator to explain that no one uses AA batteries anymore. The first-person narrative is not a letter whose sole purpose is to describe to someone topical changes in technology. This is supposed to be a novel, and something like the passage of time can and should be indicated in subtler ways. The final section is composed of this and this alone. “My feckless generation trusted our memories to the Net, so the ’39 Crash was like a collective stroke,” the narrator says, exactly one page before, “I sigh, looking around for a box of tissues before remembering our world no longer has them.” Yes, the future is a cold place in which there are not even any tissues.

The novel’s oppressively bleak vision of the world to come is finally sort of redeemed by a deus ex machina that shatters the consistency of the byzantine magical order that the reader has been trying to get a hold of for the last 600 pages. The characters’ personal experiences are tied ham-fistedly with global events in a way that feels unfair to both the characters and to the global events: “It’s not just that I can’t hold [her] again, it’s everything: It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.” The cheese, as it were, is served.


Woody Brown is a writer from Buffalo, NY. He is the book critic for Artvoice, Western New York's largest weekly newspaper, and an editor at CASE Magazine. His fiction won the Peter Burnett Howe Prize for Excellence in Prose Fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Contest. He is at work on a novel. More from this author →