While The Bone Clocks is compulsively readable, there are too many parts of this book that can only be called lazy.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Random House, $30, 608 pp
By Clea Simon
I so wanted to love The Bone Clocks. From the early reviews – and David Mitchell’s earlier books – I was prepared for the return of the author’s herky-jerky stylings, his shifts in voice and POV, in tone and literary genre. A crime fiction writer myself, I’m no snob when it comes to fantasy-realism mash-ups, to a dash of science fiction invading straight contemporary narrative. Hell, I loved Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s breakthrough third novel (2004), which jumped centuries as well as voices, nestling strikingly different historical and speculative novellas inside one another in bewitching fashion.
The Bone Clocks? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. When Mitchell’s latest opens, with the 15-year-old Holly Sykes reminiscing about a romantic interlude with her significantly older boyfriend, it’s electric, the tone so dead-on right that it’s hard to remember the author’s gender. And as Holly heads out, her encounter with her strange little brother is easy to pass over. He gives her a maze he’s drawn and says something about “the Dusk” that won’t make sense for several hundred pages. It’s only a few pages later, when Holly starts talking about “Holly Sykes and the Weird Shit” that we get a peek at just what Mitchell has in store for us.
What that is, as most readers will know by now, reaches far beyond Holly’s teenage romantic woes and into a dystopian future that serves as an ecological cautionary tale. Along the way, Holly gets involved in an ongoing battle between two kinds of Atemporals, supernatural creatures who are beyond time. These are the Horologists, benign souls whose destiny is to be perpetually reincarnated unless they are “killed-killed” by particular violence. (These characters help Mitchell explain some of his recurring characters, like Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 2010, who float from book to book.) Less welcome are the Anchorites, or “Carnivores,” who achieve their immortality by “decanting” human souls. Specifically “psychovoltaic” souls like Holly’s (remember that weird shit?).
This is a lot to accept, and Mitchell’s specialized vocabulary – Atemporals silently “subspeak” to each other, manipulating mere mortals through “suasion” – doesn’t help, especially when he jumps ahead and from narrator to narrator. But what really hurts is the author’s apparent unwillingness to flesh out the more fantastic aspects into a convincing alternative reality or to make the hard choices.
Part of the problem lies in the limitation of some of his voices. Writing as Holly, who does not start out as the sharpest girl in Gravesend, he has understandable difficulty describing the majesty of a battle between Atemporals. She simply lacks the vocabulary, as she recounts “Black flames and a roaring loud as jet engines fill the place, and I can’t run and I can’t fight, and I can’t even see anymore so all I can do is stand there and listen…”
But several hundred pages later, writing in third person, he still fails to connect – to make his imagined reality tangible. “[W]ell,” one Horologist offers, “it’s hard to describe a psychosoteric battle at close quarters….”
“Think of those tennis-ball firing machines, but loaded with hand grenades,” offers another, “trapped in a shipping container, on a ship caught in a force-ten gale.” Mitchell’s unwillingness to commit to more than that isn’t freeing. It’s abandonment.
Mitchell can still bring it, when he wants to. In an interlude with Crispin Hershey, a novelist who has aged out of his boy-wonder status, he can be as sharp and self-aware as ever. Crispin grows increasingly desperate during his sojourn, facing financial ruin as well as writer’s block. “This one’s got legs, Hal,” he tells his agent, making up a supposedly in-process project as he talks. “A jet-lagged businessman has the mother of all breakdowns in a labyrinthine hotel in Shanghai … think Solaris meets Noam Chomsky via The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Add a dash of Twin Peaks…”
“Crispin,” his agent finally responds. “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 pregnant” comes the retort.
Clearly, the agent is wrong, and we’re supposed to laugh knowingly at his lack of imagination. But Mitchell doesn’t make it easy, and while The Bone Clocks is compulsively readable, there are too many parts of this book that can only be called lazy. When a Horologist is going through Holly’s memory, for example, he sees her with that long-ago boyfriend – “a young man on a Norton motorbike” – being there for her in a way no woman would believe. Another of Holly’s loves resurfaces at a surprising moment to lend a hand and then disappears from the book, his story unresolved. Resolution is equally problematic for two other characters, both dear to Holly, who benefit from an eye-rollingly flagrant deus ex machina as the book comes to its dark end.
Maybe this was a way for Mitchell to save these characters, to bring them back in another book, somewhere down the line. In a book about choices and consequences, a work of ambitious scope, this is possible – but it also feels like a cheat, a last-minute move both timid and wrong. By saving them, he may just have jettisoned some readers, and only time will tell if we’ll come back.
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 15 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.