Review: "The Bone Clocks"

David Mitchell's latest work, The Bone Clocks, is a great read. I'm just not sure it's a very good book.

Having binged on politics up to and including the day after election night, I'm going through a bit of a purge at the moment. So I've pretty much tried to ignore Labour's travails over the last couple of weeks (oh, OK - I've been reading all about them, but am determinedly attempting not to comment on any of it).

Instead, I've spent much of the last week buried in David Mitchell's latest opus, The Bone Clocks. This was something I'd been looking forward to doing for a while, after hearing he had a new book coming out this year. Having first come across him with Cloud Atlas - a book that genuinely blew me away, and I still can only grudgingly admit that maybe, just possibly, The Line of Beauty did deserve to pip it for the 2004 Booker Prize - I've been a bit of a fanboi. So for anyone who cares what I might think about his latest work (and be warned, my last foray into literary criticism was ... underwhelming), here goes.

First up, the boy sure can write. As a stylist and story teller, there's not many can run with him once he's on his way. So I fair flew through the text, which carries you effortlessly through the various plot twists and turns without ever wanting to pause. It was fun and I enjoyed reading it a lot.

But ... there's a lot of buts.

In what follows, I'm going to compare The Bone Clocks to Cloud Atlas quite a bit. It might seem silly to hold Mitchell's latest work up against one that he wrote over 10 years ago now, but it really is hard not to. For one reason, there's a lot about the structure and approach of both books that invites such comparison. For another, Mitchell himself has said that his various novels form a kind of "übernovel", with deliberate associations drawn from earlier works into his later ones. So reading The Bone Clocks alongside (or perhaps through) Cloud Atlas (as well as his other earlier novels) seems to be what Mitchell wants from us. It's just that in making such a comparison, I do not think The Bone Clocks comes out very well.

The first has to do with perspective and voice. As with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell has given us another 6-part story spread over time (59 years, in this case) linked by a common thread. That thread is the person of Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a 15 year old in Thatcher's England. Without giving away too much, she then becomes the love object of a sociopathic Cambridge undergraduate, the mother of a child with an addicted-to-war journalist recently returned from Iraq's bloodbath, the friend of an aging former enfant terrible of the literary world, a rescue vessel for the wounded soul of an immortal being (there'll be more on this later!), before we return to her story as a carer for two children on the shores of Ireland in a collapsing post-oil world.

In distinction to Cloud Atlas, however, Mitchell exclusively uses the first person perspective in each of these six parts to show us the narrator's world. And the problem is, this perspective - or "voice" - really doesn't change much at all. So 15-year-old Holly has the same voice as does twenty-something Hugo Lamb, who then observes and speaks much like early thirties Ed Brubeck, who then transmutes into late-middle aged Crispin Hershey, who could just as well be a centuries old immortal called Marinus, before we're back to Holly again (who doesn't sound that much different in her 70s to her teens).

Now, don't get me wrong. Its a great voice to read. It's clever, it's witty, it's largely deviod of cliche (an apparent hate of Mitchell - the evils of "the cliche" are a recurring theme in the book). But where the six different parts of Cloud Atlas took you into six different worlds with six different experiences, the various parts of The Bone Clocks sound like David Mitchell recounting the tale to you on audio book with a slightly different timbre for each part. Which then dulls the whip-snap delight of plunging forward through time into a new world (and then back again) that formed such a big part of Cloud Atlas' appeal.

The Bone Clock's second problem has to do with the elephant in the room - or rather, the various immortal beings that keep popping up throughout the story (and which have the fifth part all to themselves) in order to continue their centuries-old conflict. I won't spoil (or, maybe, bore you with) the details of this aspect of the novel, other than to say it just doesn't work.

Now, one point to make clear at the outset. I am not "anti-fantasy". My Dad read Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" series to us as kids. I spent too much of my intermediate school years immersed in the world of D&D. My bookshelf contains several of Neil Gaiman's novels, and I'd put American Gods high on any list of "books that I recommend people read". I'll buy anything China Miéville writes without first looking for a review. Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series still is a favourite.

But Mitchell's attempt to fuse a fantastical war between opposed groups of immortals into his "Holly Sykes saga" is a bit of a clunker. Perhaps most unforgivably, it just isn't very good fantasy.  Oh, sure, it's got all the hallmarks of the genre. Immortal beings! Secret societies! Psychosoteric powers! A battle between good and evil across time! But all this is wheeled out in a way that devolves into almost caricature ... the chief bad guy immortal even cries "Crush them like ants!" in the key battle scene between the rival groups, for crying out loud!

Furthermore, the actions of these immortals often makes no sense at all. This matters, because as Ursula Le Guin has said;

The touchstone to plausibility in imaginative fiction is probably coherence. Realistic fiction can be, perhaps must be, incoherent in imitation of our perceptions of reality. Fantasy, which creates a world, must be strictly coherent to its own terms, or it loses all plausibility. The rules that govern how things work in the imagined world cannot be changed during the story.

Here's just two ways in which Mitchell breaks Le Guin's guidelines. First of all, the bad-guy immortals suspect that Holly Sykes knows something about the war that they are fighting with the good-guy immortals (they've got fancy fantasy names, but ... really, they are "the bad guys" and "the good guys") and, in particular, the fate of one of those good-guys. The bad-guys also have the power to rifle through peoples memories and find out everything that is in their heads. So ... the obvious thing is to seize Holly and use these powers to check what she knows, right? But apparently not - instead they use their power to almost at random torture Crispin Hershey to find out what she's told him about them, for no other apparent reason than that this allows Mitchell to shoehorn their appearance into that part of the book.

Equally, we're treated to the backstory of Marinus, one of the "good guy" immortals, and how he came to be a part of the tale. Apparently, when he "dies", he gets resurrected 49 days later into the random body of a child who has recently deceased. In one case, this happens to be that of a serf girl in the frozen outposts of Imperial Russia. Which, as he himself notes, is about the worst of all circumstances in which to begin. So ... given that "dying" really just means a 49 day rest before another roll of the dice and a new, undoubtedly more pleasant future, why not just walk out into the snow and let nature take its course, rather than suffering years and years of deprivation and hardship before life starts to look up? It would seem that this approach doesn't ever occur to him, despite his many centuries of experience.

Of course, it's "just" fantasy, so why does any of this matter? Well, it matters because it's this bit of the book that Mitchell seems to want us to think matters. The other five sections really serve as a sort of painted foreground through which, at various times, the real action inserts itself. And this cosmic conflict between the powers of good and evil - yes, the bad-guys eat the souls of children in order to stay immortal - represents a purified distillation of a theme that Mitchell has mined repeatedly. Go back and re-read the final journal entry of Adam Ewing that concludes Cloud Atlas to see what I mean.

But consider, then, the subject matter of the rest of Mitchell's tale. Part three has Ed, the war reporter, reliving the daily horrors of Iraq's sectarian bloodbath as he prepares for a wedding back in peacful Britain. Part six has Holly and her charges scrabbling to survive in a society where the fuel "civilisation" was built on no longer exists - even as the climate that that fuel has forever changed wrecks havoc on the globe. These are surely things that count more than a handful of immortals playing out their game over ... well, not very much at all, actually ... and to deploy them as a stage for that bit of action seems almost disrespectful. Or, at least, might make us wonder if Mitchell hasn't gotten a bit confused about what is the "important" story he's telling.

(As an aside - another thing that bugs me about the fantasy sub-plot. Let's say you are an immortal being with the power to get into ordinary people's heads to read and even change their minds, along with centuries of lived experience and wisdom behind you. Do you then (A) spend your time chasing around and fighting with a bunch of other immortal beings who kill a small handful of people every year in order to continue their existence, or (B) do you (and your fellow good-guy immortals) use those powers in order to become the leaders of the world and try to stop humanity doing stupid things like fighting wars, trashing the climate, and the like? Apparently to an immortal superbeing with magical powers, the obvious answer is (A) - it's the other immortals that really need your attention.) 

Having said all this, I rather suspect that in his heart of hearts Mitchell might not completely disagree with it. At one point in the third part of the book - the one told from the perspective of the author "Crispin Hershey", a mash-up of David Mitchell and Martin Amis - there is the following scathing review of Hershey's latest book:

One: [the author] is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are running dry than a writer creating a writer-character?"

How clever of Mitchell to effectively draw the sting of any negative reviews: "see ... anything bad you want to say about me, I've already said it in a harsher and far more clever fashion!" But while I'd not go as far as the erstwhile Richard Cheeseman in damning Mitchell's book, I'd also note there's ne'er a truer word spoken than in jest.

So, yes - The Bone Clocks is beautifully written, and fun, and entertaining, and clever (just not as clever as it thinks it is). But it shouldn't win the Man Brooker Prize (which it apparently is being touted as the "favourite" for). It's no The Luminaries. Hell, it's not even Cloud Atlas.