Reviews Too Late: The Bone Clocks

by wjw on August 15, 2015

The_Bone_Clocks_(Mitchell_novel)As a writer, your first success is your Fate.  You can write any damn thing you want until you actually succeed at something. If your first successful novel is science fiction, then you’re a science fiction writer pretty much forever, and that’s sort of that.  People will break your bones with baseball bats to keep you in your designated straightjacket.  To become anything else requires a complete reinvention, which is a lot of work and trouble and probably won’t work anyway.  And— as I discovered when I wrote Metropolitan— whatever you write will be read as science fiction, whether it’s intended that way or not.

And if your first success is a literary novel, then you’re a literary writer, even if you’re writing about two groups of immortal warring magicians whose lives stretch into a post-apocalyptic 2043, and who have a big action-fantasy showdown in which they hurl mighty spells at each other.

Which brings me to The Bone Clocks, the 2014 novel by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas.  If Bone Clocks was given a cover featuring a young, scantily-clad, heavily-weaponed female, it could be sold as urban fantasy.  (Though possibly not successfully, since the book is a whopping 640 pages long, and urban fantasy tends to confine itself to more modest lengths.)

But since David Mitchell’s first success was a literary novel, Bone Clocks has a highbrow cover and was long-listed for the Man-Booker Prize, not the World Fantasy Award.  (This despite a blurb from Stephen King.)

No sour grapes here, honest!  Bone Clocks delivers on pretty much every level you could want it to.  Feel free to nominate it for whatever prize you like.

Like Cloud AtlasBone Clocks consists of a series of six interrelated novellas, and like Cloud Atlas, has a succession of different narrators reaching from the past into a post-apocalyptic future.  Unlike Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks does a much better job of tying its elements together into a single coherent story.  (Cloud Atlas’ various stories were stuck together with some mystical hand-waving, a birthmark shared by its protagonists, and the fact that each story referenced its predecessor, a structure that implied more depth than I could actually find.  And I found the science fiction stories just a little old-fashioned, insofar as I felt that I could discern behind each the ghost of John W. Campbell, waving his finger at me and pointing a moral.)

Bone Clocks is unified by a single character, Holly Sykes, who we first meet on the Isle of Dogs in 1984 as a 15-year-old runaway, and last see in 2043 as an old widow and single grandmother in an Ireland wrecked by the cleverly-named Endarkenment, in which all the world’s fossil energy runs dry at the same time, and every commercial aircraft falls victim to hackers and falls from the sky on the same day.  (I wish that last bit were less plausible.)

Holly narrates the first and last sections.  Though other characters narrate the others. each of them encounters Holly during the course of their story, and also gets involved in the fight between the two rival groups of magicians, the Horologists and the Anchorites.

Each character has a distinct, lively voice (mostly snarky) and his/her own concerns.  Mitchell is a fine ventriloquist— almost as good as me!—  and as a good postmodernist is also a dab hand with parody and pastiche.  Of the various sections, only the middle bit, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet,” an overlong, heavy-handed satire of the British literary scene, runs out of steam before the end.

So what about the urban fantasy, then?  The centuries-long war between the Horologists and the Anchorites is well-envisioned, as these things go, and leads to a slam-bang action finale in a creepy old monastery filled with mazes and traps.  Which tells me that Mitchell has an affectionate working knowledge of modern fantasy and of some possibly older science fiction, maybe off his dad’s bookshelf.

He doesn’t condescend to the fantastic elements, and you get the idea he’s not congratulating himself for inventing stuff that’s been common in the genre for the last seventy years.  He’s a devotee of story, and his devotion to narrative trumps any temptation to literary snobbery.  He frankly wants his readers to like his stuff, and he goes out of his way to ingratiate himself with his audience.

So if you’re one of those readers who says, “I just read for the story,” this one will give you what you’re after.  Though maybe you’ll find some of the metaphors originate somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Though the fantasy is there, sure enough, it’s lurking in the background for most of the novel. The slam-bang action finale aside, most of the characters have their own worries, obsessions, and agendas, and most of them have no knowledge of the Horologists and the Anchorites, and remain firmly within their own mortal world.  (Not that their world isn’t entertaining.)

I have to wonder what a genre editor would make of this manuscript crossing her desk.  I can conceive of two possible reactions.  One would be to junk about 400 pages and concentrate on the magic, action, an’ stuff, and for God’s sake make the narrator a magician, preferably female, preferably young.  And the other would be to expand everything, turn it into a six-book series, and to make the narrator a magician, preferably female, preferably young.  I mean, why can’t Holly Sykes take some magic lessons and incinerate a few Anchorites of her own? All she needs is an older mentor, an Obi-Wan Gandalf type, to develop her talent and then get killed so Holly can stand center stage and defeat the Dark Lord.

And for heaven’s sake get rid of the depressing last post-apocalyptic chapter, with the bog-standard heavily armed young males running around Ireland looting food, fuel, and (more imaginatively) solar panels.

“So,” I hear you ask, “this all sounds very clever, but what’s the story about, exactly?”

Death.  Insofar as it’s about anything other than its own ingenuity, Bone Clocks is a series of confrontations with death, and on what death means, and how it changes people, and what people will do to avoid it, and how people continue in spite of it.

As someone who can’t stop writing about death myself, I find this theme sympathetic.

But I find myself obliged to point out that this book isn’t a grimdark meditation on mortality, with an emphasis on blood and other bodily fluids, but is actually bright and fun and often very funny.  I was entertained all the way through.

David Mitchell wants you to like him.  Why not give the man what he wants?

Rebecca Stefoff September 1, 2015 at 8:16 pm

I’m glad I caught this review, Walter. I read this novel a while back and enjoyed it mightily, and I appreciate your take on it. I wonder if the Wachowskis have this one in their cinematic sights, too?

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