David Mitchell’s new novel enthralls, soars, and crackles, but in the end, it lets you down.
In whirlwind fashion, The Bone Clocks follows British teenage runaway Holly Sykes from small town England in 1984 right through to a dystopian future in 2043. But Holly only has pride of place among what often seems like a horde of protagonists, and before it’s done, the story has tackled several novels’ worth of subjects, including the pangs of teenage love, the vicissitudes of literary fame, the shallowness of middle-class ambition, and war-zone addiction for journalists.
The story supposedly underpinning Mitchell’s tale is centuries-long war between mystical beings known as Anchorites and Horologists. In short, the Anchorites are the bad guys who are, as it were, buying themselves immortality on the installment plan by feeding on mortal humans with “psychosoteric” capabilities. The Horologists, who come by their deferred mortality naturally, are out to frustrate the Anchorites wherever they are found, and destroy them whenever possible.
In the same fashion as his far superior Cloud Atlas, this latest Mitchell novel spins its six-decade-long tale by dividing the narrative into six sections, with each section told from the point of view of a different character.
In the first chapter, rebellious Holly Sykes runs away from home and headlong into the melancholy perils of first love. But while a fair amount of space is spent here setting up the Anchorite-Horologist plot, the best parts are Mitchell’s knowing take on the fraught bonds between mothers and daughters trying to break free. In chapter two, Mitchell picks up the story of Hugo Lamb, a middle-class striver secretly preying on his silver spoon-fed friends and an easy target for recruitment by the Anchorites. Next we dive into the world of war reporter Ed Brubeck, whose adventures take readers back to the heady, confusing days of the Iraq war. The next section, though, is Mitchell at his best. Crispin Hershey, a once-successful British novelist on the slide finds himself reduced to has-been status after a devastating review goes viral. The observations are witty, and Hershey’s self-destructive wallowing is as addictive as the best reality show. The next chapter, on the Horologist Marinus, allows Mitchell to dazzle us with his seemingly endless random knowledge of people and global history.
The book ends bizarrely, taking us back to Holly’s point of view and returning to the dystopian setting found in Cloud Atlas. Mitchell spends his last hundred-odd pages heavy-handedly pounding away at consumerism, and if that weren’t bad enough, he lazily waves away any number of plot problems by evoking magic to save the day for his heroes and extricate himself from the odd corners into which he’s painted himself.
And where are the clever insights so prevalent in Cloud Atlas, e.g., “If war’s first victim is truth, its second is clerical efficiency.” Or, “all revolutions are fantasy until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.”
Reading The Bone Clocks is like working your way through a packet of Starbursts at one go. At first, there is pure joy and giddiness, because, yes, that is exactly what pleasure tastes like. It’s witty, and the always dynamic characters are nearly always good company.
But when you’re done, you look at all those empty wrappers (a lot more than you remember opening) and wonder, while you try to get rid of the aftertaste of that lone tropical-flavored Starburst they stick in there because they’re trying to force those flavors on people, “To what end?”
Moreover, that “To what end?” feeling is too often reinforced by observations like this completely unoriginal description of power by one of the book’s villains: “Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it, many of the sane crave it, but the wise worry about its long-term side effects. Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul.” It goes on like that for another half a paragraph, but you get the idea.
The millions watching Game of Thrones for the bloodsport come across more interesting takes on the subject, with the added bonus of having it delivered by Conleth Hill and Peter Dinklage.
Ken Follett recently dismissed fantasy fiction by saying, “I just can’t read whimsical fantasy. I’ve never got through a Tolkien. If there are no rules, and anything can happen, then where’s the suspense? I hate elves.”
That attitude ignores the fact that modern writers who are taken seriously by the fantasy community never employ magic or fantasy merely to cover up bad storytelling. For somebody like Patrick Rothfuss, for example, that means no more prophecies, helpless damsels, dwarves in caves, brooding vampires, and dragons. For someone like Brandon Sanderson, it means insisting on basic rules of magic so that it isn’t used inconsistently or to clean up contrived endings.
In the case of The Bone Clocks (that’s us, by the way, bone clocks—ghoulishly deft metaphor, excellent title), the magic doesn’t cover up bad storytelling, but it does undercut the best parts of the novel. And it feels almost like an afterthought, since Mitchell doesn’t bother explaining the magic until we’re almost three-quarters of the way through, by which time the reader can be forgiven for not caring too much.
Mitchell is one of the most talented writers alive, and The Bone Clocks is almost never less than entertaining, but there’s something thin and insubstantial about it. If Cloud Atlas was a feast, The Bone Clocks is like that tropical-flavored Starburst: all empty calories and regrettable aftertaste.