THE BONE CLOCKS: Book Review
“Think larger. Redraw what is possible.” The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
These words come from the mouth of a villain in Bone Clocks, but if they’re not engraved above David Mitchell’s writing desk they should be.
In every book he has written Mitchell has redrawn the map. A collection of interlocked short stories that included the perspectives of record store clerks, cultists, unborn spirits and artificial intelligence in a kaleidoscope of voices was followed by a coming of age story about a single nineteen year old in Tokyo. Cloud Atlas’s portrait of karma in motion, which condensed the entire history and future of humanity into one long eternally reoccurring narrative was followed by a story that looked at all that sprawl and focused on a single mundane time and place with such intensity that it felt like time travel. And after burrowing itself in the past in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, The Bone Clocks goes tripping into our future and outside the bonds of our reality.
And yet some people have accused The Bone Clocks of repetition. While it’s true that The Bone Clocks like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, has interlocking stories, a time skipping structure and competing narrators, look to what different ends these tools are put. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas used these techniques to paint a portrait of a world that was growing smaller by the moment, the kaleidoscope of voices speaking to a unity of experience. The Bone Clocks on the other hand uses these elements to portray a world whose centripetal force threatens to send it spiraling apart for good and all. Though the time span is only that of a single human life the shifts in it are just as radical as those found in Cloud Atlas. In a sense this book feels like one that Mitchell has been spending his entire career building up to. The boyish optimism of his wunderkind era replaced by a fear which has not dulled his extraordinary empathy a single jot.
His expertise is evident in his virtuositic handling of genre, assembling an array of voices and stories and playing them off one another with a dexterity that makes his use of the technique in Cloud Atlas look like timid experimentation. The Bone Clocks follows, Holly Sykes who starts out as a cocky brash fifteen year old New Waver living in industrial Britain in the eighties and ends up and sticking around just long enough to watch world civilization crumble. In that time she finds a hole in reality and attracts the attention of the dangerous beings who dwell within. Mitchell has the ability that belongs only to the truly great novelists to find the universal in the singular and the singular is the universal. With it comes the ability to bring equal fascination to the detail of the everyday and to the extraordinary. Mitchell is able to ring as much fascination from the details of a fight between a fifteen year old girl and her Mother that is probably being echoed tens of thousands of times across the world as you read this and a trip into an inter dimensional chapel where literal monsters dwell.
Mitchell employs a dizzying array of voices and genres to tell Holly’s story. Bone Clocks unfolds from her perspective as well as the point of view of her rivals, lovers, guardians, friends and enemies. Switching from a Hornby-esque depiction of working class England, to capital H horror, to Shakespearean monologue, Amisian farce, war stories, self parody and meta criticism (including a few comments that I have to believe were directed Mitchell’s way verbatim) and in the final utterly harrowing chapter Sci Fi. Mitchell’s trick is that he doesn’t treat any of these techniques as inherently inferior. The line between genre fiction and literary has always been porous and Mitchell sees no reason not to skip back and forth across the line in order to suit his ends. Any tool that Mitchell can use to illuminate the truths of his characters. To tell his story, to articulate what it means for us to be alive now and this moment both to ourselves and whoever comes after is fair game to Mitchell. To him all of literature is a paint box that is free for him to plunder and as a result he has the richest palate of any author working today.
This has lead to a lot of chin stroking pieces about The Bone Clocks and whether or not Mitchell can truly be considered one of the greats. After all it’s just a horror story isn’t it? I don’t know if Mitchell’s work will last the ages, no one knows whose will. All I know is that Shakespeare wrote about ghosts and swordfights too, as did Dickens as did David Foster Wallace. The work that truly lasts is the work of writers who embrace the broadest definition of what literature can be, what it can express. Not those who set self imposed limits and make their subject the mundane interior suffering of the well to do. Make no mistake every David Mitchell novel is a dispatch from a superior imagination. I don’t know if it will last and I don’t care if it meets the narrow criterion of what great literature is supposed to be. All I know is at this point David Mitchell has written six books that I as a reader would not trade for anything. I live for writing like Mitchell’s, in a sense more literal than I would strictly care for. And when I read something as daring, challenging, painful, lovely and wonderful as The Bone Clocks, it is easy to remember why.