Midway through David Mitchell's novel The Bone Clocks,
author Crispin Hershey is caught up in a heated phone
conversation with his agent.
"Crispin. Are you trying to tell me
that you’re writing a fantasy novel?"
"Me? Never! Or it’s only one-third
fantasy. Half, at most."
"A book can’t be a half fantasy any
more than a woman can be half
I doubt that Mitchell had the same
discussion with his own agent, but
many readers will still second-guess
his decision to stake his literary reputation on a "one-third
fantasy, half at most."
Such is the betwixt and between book he has delivered to
the marketplace. Even more to the point, Mitchell is a
repeat offender, one of the leading culprits in the conspiracy
to infuse genre concepts into literary fiction. Others have
assisted in this subversive plot, but Mitchell's Cloud Atlas ranks
at the top of lit-crit police's most wanted list. This ambitious
2004 novel advanced six separate narratives, set in different
continents and historical periods, and mixed straight realism
with future-tripping sci-fi. Those who believe that Tolstoy
and Balzac could have learned a few tricks from Heinlein
and Asimov gleefully point to it as evidence in their defense.
Others lament it as one more sign of the taint and contamination
threatening serious literature in the current day.
Mitchell attempts something similar with The Bone Clocks.
Again he constructs six loosely-linked narratives, spanning
the globe and set in different time periods—including future
ones. Mitchell's pet themes from Cloud Altas also reappear,
notably an elaborate metaphysics involving the transmigration
of souls. Genre concepts are again juxtaposed with hard-
boiled realism. No, this isn't actually a sequel to Cloud Atlas,
but by almost any measure, Mitchell is returning to the
playbook that delivered his greatest success.
And, in the early stages of this novel, this looks like a winning
bet. Mitchell creates a series of fascinating protagonists—
including runaway Holly Sykes, vengeful author Crispin
Hershey, charming swindler Hugo Lamb, and workaholic
war-zone reporter Ed Brubeck—and immerses them in life-
defining crises to test their mettle…and his own storytelling
skills. Mitchell moves with ease from Ireland to Colombia to
Iraq to Australia, navigating through a literary labyrinth of
his own construction—all the more fitting, given the fact that
a maze eventually emerges as a physical and symbolic
unifying element in the story.
But something strange happens two-thirds of the way into
this novel—and I’m not talking about the magical happenings
that move to center stage in the book. Rather, David
Mitchell abandons the writing skills that brought him that far,
and resorts to a second-rate imitation of J.K. Rowling.
Characters lose all their depth and collapse into cardboard
heroes and villains. The writing becomes laborious. The
dialogue gets bogged down in convoluted explanations more
suitable for an L Ron Hubbard book than a David Mitchell novel.
"The Anchorites fuel their atemporality by feeding on souls,
as Marinus said But not just any old soul will do; only the souls
of the Enlightened can be decanted….Around every equinox
and solstice, the soul’s owner has to be lured up the Way of
the Stones into the Chapel. Once there, the hapless visitor
stares at the icon of the Blind Cathar, who then decants the
visitor's soul into the Black Wine…."
This is sluggish going, and there isn’t much payoff. By this
stage in the book, the plot starts looking as predictable as a
light saber fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
If anything, Mitchel's story is even more cartoonish—at least
Darth Vader had conflicting allegiances and could inspire an
Oepidal conflict in his opponent, whereas the puppets enacting
this battle between Horologists and Anchorites move clumsily
with all the strings showing.
I say all this with a heaviness of heart. I have long been a
champion of the merging of literary fiction and genre concepts,
and I know that many readers will blame Mitchell for having
allowed infantile fantasy to rub shoulders with grown-up realism.
But that isn’t the real problem with The Bone Clocks. The failure
of Mitchell's latest book is that he gets lazy when he writes
fantasy, and stops paying close attention to the niceties of
character, dialogue and language—those very elements that
brought him to a position of eminence in the literary world.
Despite what you might have heard elsewhere, you can write
a sci-fi story that has complex, multivalent characters—check
out Jack Vance’s Emphyrio or John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy
or Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins for examples. You would
think David Mitchell would know that, but the final 200 pages
of The Bone Clocks suggest otherwise.
Honestly, Mitchell only needs to read his own work to find the
solution to his problem. In the early going of The Bone Clocks,
Mitchell describes the complexities of life in Iraqi battle zones.
Here is a conflict that many would simplify into black-and-white
categories, assigning characters to their assigned roles of hero
and villain. But Mitchell refuses to take that easy way out, and
earns our respect by dissecting the compromises and
conflicting loyalties that undergird the newspaper headlines.
In other words, he won’t pretend that a labyrinth is a neatly
demarcated two-lane highway. He accepts the complexity
and messiness and grapples with them, drawing on the
talents that distinguish skilled authors from hacks. For 400
pages, Mitchell operates at this high level, and if he had maintained
that level of craftsmanship and integrity for the duration of the book,
The Bone Clocks would be a masterpiece. Instead, at the
crucial juncture in this book, Mitchell decides to settle for juvenile
escapism...and not even good juvenile escapism. I almost
expected invisibility cloaks, unicorns and horcruxes to enter the
plot, but even if they had, Mitchell would still have been a few
rungs below the estimable Ms. Rowling.
I will spare you the details of the battle royale between the
good guys and bad guys that serves as the main course in this
twisting and turning novel. I'll simply say that I've seen more
convincing rivalries on TV wrestling shows. Sure, these
antics might be enough to earn Mitchell a movie deal—and,
frankly, who could blame him for thinking about film rights
given the current state of the publishing industry?—but only
produced a second-rate novel. David Mitchell can do better,
as he has proved in the past. Let's hope he returns to form
next time around.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His
next book, a history of love songs, will be published by Oxford
Publication Date: September 17, 2014
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The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell
Reviewed by Ted Gioia