Review – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Is David Mitchell in your Top Five?

How to discuss The Bone Clocks? It’s composed of six first-person novellas set in different times, from 1984 to 2048. It combines elements of genre fiction with indelible prose. Its characters are familiar, but deep. I almost cried, at the end, because of the ending but also because it was over. When you’re in it, it’s the greatest. It’s only towards the end, or maybe after you finish, that you begin to think about it as ‘light.’ Why is it light, exactly? It was awesome, too.

Maybe it’s light because each novella carries with it an easy perspective and an easy plot. The teenage girl running away from home; the amoral rake who finds actual, real love; the war reporter who loves his daughter but also needs the high of danger; the washed-up, cynical author; the immortal mystic who has a final psychoduel (sic) with a monologuing enemy (also immortal, and there’s been a whole secret war, etc.); and finally the grandma just tryin’ to survive with the grandkids in post-apocalyptic Ireland. I guess ‘easy’ is the wrong word.

I suspected that there was a grand, underlying structure of genre that I was missing. At first I thought this is Mitchell’s version of a ‘regular novel.’ He did a historical novel (Thousand Autumns) and a bananas novel (Cloud Atlas), and some other stuff, so here you go. Straightforward, comfortable, archetypal, with a smoke monster and a hatch. I thought this during the first section, the story of the teenage girl, Holly Sykes, which is told from her perspective and reads like the best-written YA novel ever. But that perspective jumps in time, gender, and style in the second section, and you can feel the author turning up the juice – not ‘regular’ at all. Hugo Lamb, the rake on vacation at a ski resort, is observant and sharp, confident but probably insecure. I could have read a whole book about just him, even though he’s a jerk. This book being what it is, though, he comes back later.

My second thought was that Mitchell should have left the science fiction material on the shelf. In each section there is a return to a mysterious cosmology about reincarnated immortals that connects all the stories, with the exception of the fifth section, which is all about that stuff and where you get answers to most of your questions. In the first two I waited eagerly for new reveals, but by the third I was finding it tiresome, because I was so invested in the characters. A frantic, beautiful, emotional search for the child, presumed lost, of Holly Sykes (the central character in Bone Clocks, also present in all the stories) left me breathless, but it ends with an unexplained location tip-off, delivered psychically, or mystically, or something, through Holly via ‘The Script’ (also unexplained), and I thought, ‘Oh, right. Forgot about that.’

There are many such split moments, the halves of which compete like children pushing each other out of the way to tell you their story first. What do you care about in a book? Myth-arcs, or falling in love? Psychovoltage, or words that make you cry? Mitchell forces you to think about these things. But sometimes, I just wanted to read the story.

Because David Mitchell is in my Top Five, I developed the Unified Bone Clocks Theory, that his experiments with genre are meant to Make The Reader Think, or Teach The Reader A Lesson. As you read Bone Clocks, you notice that the science fiction stuff doesn’t actually matter much, either to the book or to you. It’s interesting, sure. It’s fun to think about what life would be like as an Atemporal who could egress (leave your body as a soul) and suasion (convince) people, and it’s even poignant to investigate the emotional effects of never dying. The climactic battle in the fifth section between warring immortal clans is exciting, and even satisfying. But it doesn’t matter, in many ways. The deaths of various immortals during the battle, for example, leave the reader unfazed. The trajectory of world history remains the same regardless of the battle’s outcome, as civilization tumbles through an Internet collapse into the post-apocalyptic sixth section. The main character, Holly Sykes, isn’t even sure that the events of the fifth section happened. Mitchell’s cosmology is the steel frame of the unfinished building next door. His prose, characters, and their relationships are the comfortable living room we’re in right now.

This is why the novel feels ‘light.’ It requires so much thought about itself. It doesn’t allow you to get comfortable in the stories about actual people. Though he’s unchained his caged Salvatore, Mitchell still wants you to notice that paragraphs of exposition are just as boring in literary fiction as they are in your favorite superhero movie.

I loved it, even from deep within the origin story of some immortal. There are always things that make you laugh, or gasp. The highest moments of this book happen when Mitchell achieves perfect synthesis between his deep humanity and his exploding imagination. In one of the origin stories, a six-thousand-year-old woman recites her ‘long name,’ which continues to grow throughout her life, and carries within it the history of her people. It takes her a long, beautiful time.