WARNING FOR SPOILERBABIES: There are some things that could be construed as spoilers in this review, so be aware.
The inside flap of The Bone Clocks posts a glowing review from Publishers Weekly, which poses a seemingly-important question: “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” Since I’ve not read every novel ever written I can’t in all honesty answer the first question, nor can I the second as I’ve only read most of Mitchell’s oeuvre at this point, but this quote attests to the crazy hype surrounding this release, doesn’t it? Not since Abrams and Dorst’s magnificent S. from last year have I felt such a huge marketing push behind a book, and it seems like every major newspaper that still has a book section felt the need to review this so I guess it worked. I’ll guess on both of these questions, why not: 1. No, The Bone Clocks is not the most ambitious novel ever written. I’m no big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, but it’s certainly much more ambitious than this one; 2. Wondering if a novel is working in a style reminiscent of its author’s other books is a stupid question, but yeah, it’s pretty Mitchell-esque.
Clocks features six narratives coming one after another, moving forward in time from the mid 1980s to the mid 2040s. It is reminiscent of Mitchell’s story layout for Cloud Atlas, although I preferred the way each of the segments in that one stopped suddenly and had their stories concluded only after we moved through all the later time periods. I’m reluctant to tell you much about each of these sections, as even the titles might spoil some of the book’s enjoyment, but the grand narrative surrounds Holly Sykes, who in 1984 is lighting out on her own from the small English country town of Gravesend after a fight with her mother. When Holly was small, she thought she heard something she called “The Radio People”: voices inside of her head that often gave her premonitions of events to come. She even saw one of the radio people, but this was explained away as being a “daymare” and was cured when she went to meet the kindly Dr. Marinus, whose name might be familiar to readers of some of Mitchell’s other books.
Later story sections include the early ’90s adventures of Hugo Lamb, a kind of Patrick Bateman-in-training who is going to a pricey college with some much richer friends, who he often fleeces for cash in poker games and other shady deals. Hugo and his gang end up at a chalet in Switzerland, in an entertainingly amoral sequence that recalls the best of Bret Easton Ellis. We also encounter Ed Brubeck, a war reporter whose story takes place simultaneously at a Sykes family wedding and the streets of Iraq post-2004 invasion. My favourite segment of the story is about Crispin Hershey, whose status as the “Bad Boy of English Letters” is in check as his latest novel fails to cause much of a fuss either financially or critically. The fifth sequence of the book is where I started to become a little ambivalent to the whole project as you’ll see later on. This is where the title of the novel is explained, though, and some of the seemingly-impossible events from earlier sections are revealed to be mere skirmishes in a war that we learn has been going on for centuries. The last part of the story catches up with Holly in a believably dark near future ravaged by climate change and new diseases, foretelling the world of Cloud Atlas.
So when Publishers Weekly asks if Clocks is “the most ambitious novel ever written”, what they’re actually referring to is the amount of intertextuality in this story. In addition to how bit players in one sequence become much more important later on in the novel, like how a character in Hugo Lamb’s story is a die-hard Crispin Hershey fan, there are many references to other books in the Mitchell canon. Again, as I’ve only read most and not all of these (for the record, I’ve read Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and I really enjoyed all of them), maybe I was missing the whole feeling the novel was trying to evoke in me. Clocks is a magnum opus, an ur-book that ties all of Mitchell’s prior books together under a new theoretical framework, and as far as I can tell it basically makes sense? I actually grew to resent this device by book’s end. In cases when I knew which book he was referring to, I had to wrack my brain to remember who exactly this character was in that story, often ending up at Wikipedia. When I didn’t know who he was referring to it didn’t really detract from the plot, exactly, I just knew based on some of the names and descriptions that these bit players would be really cool in other books presumably. This became somewhat jarring in the end.
Intertextuality is not exactly a new thing, no matter how much PW was impressed by it. Comic books do this all the time, with characters from other series appearing in other people’s books, often with an editorial note saying “for more on this exciting person, check out issue x of y”, but this sort of thing isn’t unheard of in the world of literary fiction, either. Thomas Pynchon’s books, for one, have recurring characters like Pig Bodine, the Traverse family and others.
With that out of the way though, for the most part I enjoyed the style of the book. Mitchell’s knack for interesting characters and dialogue that evokes a specific moment in time is convincing throughout. He moves easily from the mind of a disaffected teenage girl in Thatcher’s Eighties to a crusty early-2000s war reporter to a douchey has-been author with the greatest of ease. My main issue with the story comes from the resolution of the device that connects all of the characters in this book, and indeed now all of his characters in all of his books. While I feel like I don’t need my hand held when it comes to explaining characters with magic powers, which the two factions at war in the course of this saga, the Horologists and the Anchorites, both possess, I think the blase nature with which Mitchell tosses off concepts at will in the fifth section of the novel renders them less powerful than they ought to be. I don’t want a Back to the Future II-style chalkboard chart explaining how every person is able to release their inner power and throw fireballs, put up shields, etc. but a little more explanation, a few more encounters in the ostensibly “real” world of the first four segments, would have gone a long way in making the fifth bit feel more real, more lived-in.
So is this the most David Mitchelliest David Mitchell novel? I think I still prefer Black Swan Green of his books that I’ve read, and Cloud Atlas‘ better fleshed-out universe was the most entertaining for me, but I think if you’ve enjoyed all the prior books you’ll get a lot out of this one. Just don’t get your hopes up that it’s the greatest, most complex thing ever, because it’s really not. As I mentioned before, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. from last year was a much more complicated and beautiful thing, and of course we can’t count out Infinite Jest when talking about complicated novels. Still, The Bone Clocks is a very entertaining, high-concept fantasy novel, one that really recalled Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber (has anyone else made this connection?), which is high praise indeed.