Holly Sykes, precocious, headstrong, a girl who hears voices, is the tie that binds in David Mitchell’s ominously titled sixth novel, The Bone Clocks. Like a few of his previous works, The Bone Clocks serves up a dizzying and sometimes disorienting ménage of stories-within-stories unwinding over long spans of time, across many continents (among other, less earth-bound locales) and then attempts to re-ravel the variegated threads into a unifying whole. Mix in a dash of fantasy – warring factions of immortal beings – and you have a novel quite unlike any other.
Mitchell possesses an uncanny ability to draw his readers quickly into a scene which, given his modus operandi, serves well to bridge the transitions between vignettes less jarringly than one might expect from a novelist with lesser powers. This is not a new revelation for fans of Mitchell. After Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, two of his previous novels which employ similar feats of digressive storytelling to great effect, his readers have come to expect these surprising forks in his narrative road, trusting him to lead where he will. In The Bone Clocks Mitchell seems at times to revel somewhat cheekily in this unwritten compact between he and his readers, as when the crusty ‘Bad Boy of British Letters’, Crispin Hershey, reads a scathing review of his latest novel by the critic Richard Cheeseman (who also appears in an earlier vignette as a student-friend of Hugo Lamb at Cambridge–twists and turns, threads weaving):
“The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look… What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?”
These meta comments, the awareness and anticipation the characters (and Mitchell himself) seem to possess about the reception of The Bone Clocks, has the unsettling effect that whatever the reader thinks he thinks is all somehow part of Mitchell’s grand plan.
And it is a grand plan, make no mistake. The scope of the book is staggering, as is the number of characters – many of which, the minors and even a few extras, are given surprising depth with just a single line. But. There did seem to be a saturation point reached here, at least for this reader, as many of the peripheral characters or random names had been forgotten by the time they were reanimated in later sections; a problem augmented by the fact that several of the Atemporal characters of the fantasy subplot which drives the novel were variously referred to and went by numerous names each. Even toward the end of the book characters are still being introduced in dizzying quantity – including several members of the cabal of baddies crucial in the ultimate climax. Is this intentional? Given Mitchell’s talents it would be hard to judge otherwise – this is only one of many of the sacred no-nos of fiction writing that Mitchell ignores at his leisure and usually, usually, gets away with. But for this reader, at least, not caring about or even having a basic picture of these characters left the climax decidedly anticlimactic – what do we care if so-and-so dies on page 555 when he was only described on 554? It brings to mind the “expendable extras” in old Star Trek episodes, the ones you knew were getting offed by the very fact they were squeezed into the scene.
The fantasy section as a whole (siding with Richard Cheeseman here) just seemed off, plagued with prolonged info-dumps and confounding, often campy sci-fi lingo. It seemed lazily executed given Mitchell’s extraordinary talent, all the more so when juxtaposed against the other, beautifully-written vignettes. That is not a statement made lightly – even now, having written it, I cringe. An example, then, to support (slight spoiler, but not really):
On page 491, Marinus (yes, the same Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – sort of) recounts to a middle-aged Holly Sykes a scene which the reader remembers from the opening section, when Holly was 15, and which she doesn’t recall after having her memory of it redacted. (Confused yet?)
“He slew Heidi Cross and Ian Fairweather for the hell of it, and was about to kill you, too, when I reraveled myself enough to animate Fairweather. Rhimes kineticked a weapon into my head, and I died.”
On flipping back to page 66, where this scene first plays out, it is in fact not Fairweather that Marinus animates, but the girl, Heidi Cross:
“Cat got your tongue, Marinus?” asks the pale man called Rhimes.
“Let the girl go,” says the head-flopping Heidi.
The Chopping board hurtles across the living room into the back of Heidi’s head. I hear a noise like a spoon going into an eggshell.
Not a major error that affects the book in any great way, but with an already convoluted plot, where the reader is scrabbling for understanding, discrepancies like this undermine the confidence, the unwritten compact between Mitchell and the reader. We start to doubt, and once the crack of doubt creeps in and widens, the spell is broken, and we begin to see the magician pulling on his strings.
We’ve seen Mitchell do hybrid stories before (Cloud Atlas abounds with brilliant dystopian futures, historical narratives, even mystery, all written with inventive, playful prose) but here, where I expected Mitchell to shine and dazzle and put his stamp on the genre, the fantasy was merely fantastical.
What fans of Mitchell will find here in abundance are larger-than-life characters going about the messy business of living – deception and betrayal, aging and mortality, war, parenthood, love – all are touched upon and occasionally touch us. The dialog, when unburdened of the requirement of dumping information, is often startlingly true-to-life, at times even brilliant. And then there are those poignant descriptions of background goings-on Mitchell likes to sprinkle in while his characters are acting out scenes. It is one of my favorite of Mitchell’s devices, one which lends a real sense of immersion in the story with just the deftest touch of color.
Does it all come together in the end? Does it succeed in weaving those disparate threads into as profound a pattern as we are accustomed to seeing from David Mitchell? Not quite, I think, but very close, and well worth deciding for yourself.