The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

For a short summary and review, please see my review for the Robbins Library on Goodreads.

For a more complete summary (spoilers included) and quotes, please see my review on LibraryThing.

“You only value something if you know it’ll end.”

I did not read any reviews before reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I wanted to come to it fresh, unbiased, with no preconceived notions or other people’s opinions clouding my view or telling me what to look for. I devoured its 620 pages in four days, and then I looked at what reviewers had said about it. I started, perhaps unwisely, with James Wood’s review in The New Yorker (about which more below); the most understanding thing I can say about it is that, with his obvious contempt for the science fiction and fantasy genres, perhaps he was not the best reviewer for this book. (“Every book its reader; every reader his/her book.“)

I thought Ursula K. Le Guin’s review for The Guardian might be more sympathetic, but she calls Mitchell’s writing “anxious” and self-conscious. She wrote – surprisingly for a fantasy/sci-fi author – “I find these radical shifts of time and person difficult, and, though willing to suspend disbelief, am uncertain when to do so. Am I to believe in the hocus-pocus of the secret cult of the Blind Cathar in the same way I am to believe in the realistic portrayal of the death agonies of corporate capitalism – or should I believe in them in different ways? How many novels is it? If it is one, I just don’t see how it hangs together. Or maybe its not hanging together is the point, and I’m not getting it.” Le Guin also probes, not unjustly, at Mitchell’s choice to narrate in the present tense. I know some readers who are particularly sensitive to present-tense narration, but in this case at least, I didn’t find it troublesome. Rather the opposite: by using the present tense, Mitchell anchors the reader in each of six presents.

Joanna Kavenna, in the Telegraph (UK), is generally positive, though she doesn’t sound entirely pleased for David Mitchell that he has entered that “lit-fic kingdom of heaven” where one is both “critically acclaimed” and “wildly popular.” Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, provides more of a summary than any other reviewer; her review is mixed, praising the realistic parts of the novel and dismissing the “silly mumbo-jumbo” of the more fantasy-heavy sections. I found the “mumbo-jumbo” fairly easy to decode, but I could see how readers might have trouble with the denser paragraphs of it. Considered individually, the words Mitchell makes up or repurposes are all logical, even if he does sometimes use a noun as a verb (e.g. hiatus).

Pico Iyer’s take in the Sunday Book Review aligns most closely with my own, though he puts everything better. Unlike Le Guin (“How many novels is it?”), Iyer writes, “with Mitchell it’s the whole, the way he stitches the pieces together to make something greater than their sum, that makes the work unique.” He admits that the fifth section strays too far into “Marvel Comicsdom” for his tastes, adding generously, “[Mitchell’s] take on everyday life is so alive and so much his own that it seems a waste when he starts inventing realities, as so many other writers do.” In his final paragraph, Iyer concludes, “Other writers may be more moving, and some may push deeper, but very few excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”

Back to James Wood’s review in The New Yorker, in which he displays his condescension for fantasy and science fiction. He gives a head-nod to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Mark Haddon’s Boom! (“a terrific little book I enjoyed reading to my son a few years ago, but which I didn’t bother to treat as more than a nice bedtime game”), but clearly he believes that fantasy and sci-fi are for children (who, apparently, only read or are read to for diversion, not to set their imaginations on fire and develop worldviews).

Undoubtedly, The Bone Clocks has elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and no reviewer who scorns these genres as less serious than “literary fiction” can review it fairly. (Besides, as Holly’s father points out to her partner, Ed: “Life’s more science-fictiony by the day.”) Wood’s lack of interest in these aspects of the novel led to his misunderstanding in at least one case: there wasn’t a “schism” between the Horologists and the Anchorites; they are fundamentally different creatures. The Horologists are reincarnated; the Anchorites practice animacide (not “animicide,” as it was printed in The New Yorker. Anima = soul).

cloud_atlasFurthermore, Wood seems to disparage storytelling itself. In the opening paragraph of his review, he writes, “As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling…flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive.” I would argue that storytelling is central to the human experience, and good stories – the stories we remember and retell – do have meaning. Mitchell’s novels, particularly Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, have more meaning than most of the other contemporary novels I’ve read. Wood barely addresses the sixth and final section of the novel, wherein Mitchell imagines a realistically grim version of 2043.

Some of Wood’s criticisms are fair; he writes that “[Mitchell’s] characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike.” It’s true that Holly Sykes (at all ages), Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey, and Dr. Iris Fenby (a.k.a. Marinus) are all clever, witty, insightful, and observant, but their dialogue and their thoughts are unique enough to be distinct. (Mitchell has already proved, in Cloud Atlas, that he’s capable of writing in many different voices and dialects.) And it’s not as if character was sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, either; Kakutani calls Holly “a thoroughly captivating character,” and I’m inclined to agree.

blackswangreenThough it is by no means easy reading, I love spending time in the Mitchell universe, where every novel belongs to one “‘Uber-book,’ in which themes and characters recur and overlap.” Seeing these characters reappear is like running into an old lost friend at a Christmas party: unexpected recognition, a delighted sense of “oh, it’s you!” In The Bone Clocks, nearly everyone makes an appearance: there are cameos from Jason and Julia, Alan Wall, and Nurse Noakes (Black Swan Green), Timothy Cavendish (Cloud Atlas), and the omnipresent moon-grey cat; there is a larger but behind-the-scenes role for Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas); and Marinus (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and Hugo Lamb (Black Swan Green) play significant roles.

So, what is The Bone Clocks about? It is about the life of Holly Sykes, fifteen when we first encounter her in 1984 and seventy-four when we last see her in 2043. It is about the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, which is really a war about the value of life; the Horologists’ aim is to prevent the Anchorites from committing animacide (killing) in order to preserve their own youth. Mitchell has called The Bone Clocks his midlife crisis novel, and one can’t read it without considering aging and death on the ordinary human scale as well as the “Atemporal” one; as Nurse Noakes says to Hugo, “You’d think old age was a criminal offence, not a destination we’re all heading to.”

According to David Mitchell himselfThe Bone Clocks is about survival. And it is about the future we are all headed for if we don’t begin making drastic changes now: a scarcity of resources and a consolidation of power, lawless zones and fear, a time when we’ll remember clean water and electricity as luxuries. Of course, both survival and life can be considered on more than one scale: in The Bone Clocks, there is the individual, the species, and the Atemporals. The Horologists and the Anchorites may be pure fiction, but we still have to worry about the rest. Will 2043 look like it does in Mitchell’s vision?

11/7/14 Edited to add: Stephen King makes a similar point about literary critics and genre fiction, specifically citing The Bone Clocks, in this Rolling Stone interview. He says, “Michiko Kakutani, who writes reviews for The New York Times, is the same way. She’ll review a book like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which is one of the best novels of the year. It’s as good as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, has the same kind of deep literary resonance. But because it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, Kakutani doesn’t want to understand it. In that sense, [Harold] Bloom and Kakutani and a number of gray eminences in literary criticism are like children who say, “I can’t possibly eat this meal because the different kinds of food are touching on the plate!”

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