Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell has long been one of my favorite writers, whose works never fail to leave me feeling literature freshly limitless. So I’ll have to admit up front that my expectations for his new novel, The Bone Clocks were supremely high. When I finally got my hands on a copy I binge-read it in fits, alternating between wanting to devour and savor it. Ultimately, The Bone Clocks was everything I wanted and nothing I expected. Like his masterpiece, Cloud Atlas, this novel is built out of six sections, each narrated by different characters who are so vivid that they feel like old friends after only moments. Holly Sykes, Ed Brubeck, Hugo Lamb, and Crispin Hershey are all worthy additions to Mitchell’s oeuvre. The story begins in the familiar past: 1984, and ends in an unfamiliar (for now) future: 2043. The plot revolves around two competing sects of Immortals, locked in a millennias-old war. And if that sounds kind of out of left field… well, it is. But if you know David Mitchell at all, then you also know that he can be trusted to pull off the left field, the right field, and the whole diamond in-between. With David Mitchell all you can ever be sure of is that he will not quite give you anything like what he has done before. His sixth novel, The Bone Clocks not only achieves this great feat, but goes further by designing a whole new dimension by which his earlier novels can be read.
Allow me to jump back a moment. A few years ago, just after finishing his previous novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I read a tiny gossipy article online that reported that novel was just the first in what Mitchell was considering a trilogy of novels centered on the theme of Immortality. Ever since I had been imagining what that might look like, and the good news is that in true Mitchell fashion, The Bone Clocks not only functions as a kind of a sequel to Thousand Autumns but goes ten better, by establishing continuities with several of Mitchell’s earlier novels and stories.
Dedicated Mitchell readers may have already noted subtle overlappings in his pre-Thousand Autumns novels. Some are fairly obvious, like how publisher Timothy Cavendish, who first appears as a secondary character in the “London” story/chapter in Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, gets his own novella in the later book, Cloud Atlas. Another character, Neal Brose, is mentioned in Ghostwritten and reappears in Black Swan Green. And is the landlord, Buntaro, of Number9Dream a distant relative of the Buntaro who appears in Thousand Autumns? You get the idea. These references are fun to hunt for – I’ve even caught one or two in uncollected short stories of Mitchell’s – but they have never felt like much more than inside-jokes or bonuses for the careful reader. But as Mitchell recently revealed in a discussion with Alexandra Alter at The New York Times, these continuities have been part of something meaningful all along, which becomes crystallized at last, in The Bone Clocks.
There are characters in this novel that link up with every other previous work of Mitchells, making The Bone Clocks a sort of a keystone in an arching “uberbook” or a “macronovel”. In the same way that Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas is really six nested novellas that link the distant past to the imagined future, with texts-within-texts spanning centuries… that one magnificent book is, itself, nested within an even larger framework now.
If this sounds intimidating or overwhelming, it needn’t be. Each of the novels, including The Bone Clocks, can and should be appreciated as separate entities. But the larger picture reveals, and magnifies, the ideas about life and humanity that are shared by those individual works. Writer Kathryn Shultz explains, “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.”
Crucially, this ambition and immensity never comes off as the end-result of any kind of swollen ego. It serves not Mitchell’s sense of grandeur, but a grander sense of humanity. In The Bone Clocks, there is a novelist character of the former type named Crispin Hershey, a hysterical egomaniac, a “Wild Child of British Letters” who once upon a time was worshipped, but who is now washed-up. He is impatient, sexist, narcissistic, rude, abusive and thoroughly charming in that way that Literature used to love its Alpha Male novelists to be. A lesser writer than Mitchell might have been satisfied in using Hershey to conduct a barbed attack on some of his literary forefathers (Martin Amis, some speculate), but Mitchell clearly wants us to feel some genuine love for this man who is more than just another degraded Xerox of Ernest Hemingway. At one scene at a literary festival, Hershey writhes in agony as he is forced to listen to a panelist named Dr. Aphra Booth deliver a section of her essay “Pale, Male and Stale: the De(CON?)struction of Post-Post-Feminist Straw Dolls in the New Phallic Fiction”. It found myself cheering Hershey on as he takes Booth down a peg, revealing to the gasping crowd that he spotted her in the Singapore Airport buying a Dan Brown novel.
By twists and turns, Hershey, comes to accept that his time has passed, and he even steadily begins to see the larger picture around him, and to accept the irreparable damage done by his selfishness. It is astounding development, done in maybe 60 pages, for a character you’d started out swearing could never change. It is never preachy or saccharine or predictable, and while his transformation alone might be a book’s worth to any other writer, for Mitchell it is only one part of the much larger puzzle. For instance, that one passing Dan Brown jab is funny on its face, but funnier still when held up to the fact that Mitchell himself has written in the paperback detective mode – in Cloud Atlas, Luisa Rey is a gossip columnist who gets embroiled in a Robert Langdon-worthy conspiracy surrounding a nuclear power plant, complete with gunfire and car crashes and explosions. There is something important in this, too, that speaks of the fictions that Mitchell makes possible.
Maybe back in Crispin Hershey’s heyday, we expected our great writers to color strictly within the lines of psychological realism, but these days it just isn’t enough. Every year we get another Iowan truckload of such novels. They don’t stand out; they can’t mean enough. Our world has gotten so much larger than that. The mark of Mitchell’s genius is his ability to embrace every genre, every form – for the world I inhabit today consists not only of what is psychologically real, but also what can be profoundly imagined. Each time you begin a new story, section, or novel, a David Mitchell reader can’t know if he or she will get: magical realism, science fiction, historical fiction, a piece of a mystery, a young adult bildungsroman, or a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Mitchell frequently binds these ordinarily disparate modes together in his books, bringing out the realities within these non-realistic genres.
With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s war between the two bands of Immortals falls into a genre he hasn’t touched before: high fantasy. I have to confess I didn’t love it; whereas his science-fiction writing in the past has been done so well it feels real, this never stopped feeling like fantasy. There are scenes that went a bit too far for me to follow, as these beings “subspeak” and fire “psycho-voltage” at one another in something that felt like the dénouement of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. These scenes took me out of the novel in a way that similar bits of his past novels – like the futuristic clones in Cloud Atlas or Murakami-esque surrealism in Number9Dream – had never done. But if my disbelief was temporarily unsuspended, it came right back again for the final section, set in the year 2034, and sets up, no doubt, great things to come in his next novel, or the one after that, or the one after that.
A few years ago I went to see Mitchell read from Thousand Autumns and was delighted to discover that, in person, he was just as I’d imagined him from printed interviews: kind, funny, humble, ordinary, and brilliant. Bizarro Crispin Hershey, in other words. As the bookseller introduced him, reading off a litany of prizes and praise, Mitchell grinned sheepishly at us and then walked goofily over to the nearby corner and stared at it in pointed embarrassment until she had finished. During the Q&A afterwards he spoke equally brilliantly and humorously about the process of inventing his own pseudo-old-fashioned language to write his 16th century novel in, and being addicted to episodes of Star Trek. He spoke with the zeal of a true enthusiast – equally nuts about Captain Kirk and really-old dictionaries, and yet he was perfectly serious at the same time. When I went up to get my book signed, I tried (poorly) to communicate what this meant to me as a writer and as a reader. What I wound up saying was, “It’s so cool that you like Star Trek.” He laughed and drew a small Starship Enterprise in my book above his signature.
What I meant to say was that it’s important to me that he likes Star Trek. That it’s part of the world I live in. That Star Trek is at least as real to me as The Odyssey; neither Spock nor Odysseus live in a world I can much recognize, but I am as likely to learn something about being human from one as the other. What I meant to say is that by bringing the possible in line with the perceivable, he enriches both. And that the abundant love he puts into his work stands out, to so many of us.