I was keen to read David Mitchell’s new novel because I loved Cloud Atlas. Like that masterpiece, The Bone Clocks comprises six novella-length sections each narrated by a different character in a different time period. But these narratives are closer linked than in Cloud Atlas, taking place at roughly decade intervals and reincorporating the same characters, so the whole adds up to a single story in a single fictional frame. This integration of the story has posed certain structural challenges to a writer whose primary interest, both here and in Cloud Atlas, is in the kind of high-performance pastiche that gets you listed for the Man Booker Prize.
The narrator of the first section, Holly Sykes, daughter of a Gravesend publican, is 15 years old in 1984. She crops up as a character in every section, so we witness her progress through life as the decades go by, and she returns, with satisfying inevitability, to narrate the final section in 2043, when she’s in her seventies. The second section is told by a Cambridge undergraduate, an arrogant twat who ruthlessly exploits for his own gain anyone who trusts him. The third narrator is more sympathetic, a war reporter whose only flaw is his fatal addiction to his work. The fourth section, extending from 2015 to 2020, follows Crispin Hershey, onetime ‘Wild Child’ of literature, now going to seed, whose grudge against a hatchet review of his latest novel shamelessly recycles a plot driver from Cloud Atlas.
These first four sections revel in evoking the narrators’ voices, from the stroppy semi-articulacy of the working-class teenager – ‘I’d never nicked anything in my life and really I almost peed myself’ (p. 41) – to the jaded sophistication of the has-been novelist: ‘I see my reflection in the mirrored wall, and recall a wise man telling me that the secret of happiness is to ignore your reflection in lift mirrors once you’re over forty’ (p. 305). The present-tense narration – so overused these days – is justified by a number of scenes where, for reasons I won’t spell out, the narrator loses their memory of what they’ve just related. These four sections also work hard to evoke the flavour of each decade – with cultural and current-affairs references that are sometimes too obviously shoehorned in: ‘You say that, but reunification is going to cost the earth. My clients in Frankfurt are very jumpy about the fall-out’ (p. 113). The sections are linked by the network of connections between characters, of which Holly is the central node, and also by a hidden plot that now and again surfaces, unexplained, into the characters’ lives. At first glimpse, I thought we had to do with the supernatural or beings from another dimension. It quickly becomes clear that the individuals in question are human beings blessed with advanced ‘psychosoteric’ powers.
Little is explained about these adepts till the fifth section, set in 2025, when a narrator who is one of them reveals all via a sequence of big infodumps and flashbacks. There are goodies (Horologists) and baddies (Anchorites); I best not say much more. This narrator’s voice is less distinctive than the previous sections’, the life and times of the 2020s are little evoked – beyond a few token advances in IT – and neither scenes nor secondary characters are strongly realised. What we get instead is a Latinate lexicon to refer to psychosoteric phenomena, some nice visualisation of the metaphysical landscape of death, and a high-stakes Harry-Potter-style combat sequence that seems pitched for the big screen but also made me wonder whether Mitchell’s intention was parody.
After that, the final section is anticlimactic, despite its subject being the collapse of civilisation when the oil runs out. It’s a well-imagined and all-too-plausible portrayal of a local community struggling along with their chicken-keeping and homemade clothes, as promoted by today’s Transition movement – only for this tolerable existence to be overrun by gangsterish survival of the fittest when the Chinese-sponsored Cordon of law enforcement ceases to be economically viable. The impact of this scenario is weakened by the fact that – bar one brief prognostication that the internet won’t last for ever – it’s not set up by the rest of the novel. The psychosoteric plot is abandoned, has no consequence, except to provide a deus ex machina.
As in Cloud Atlas, there is a sustained theme of the perennial moral choice between coldly exploiting others to serve one’s own interests and, on the other hand, warm-hearted service of others – in ideological terms, the choice between the right and the left. The relative autonomy of the six texts in Cloud Atlas permits the novel to be unified by a theme. In The Bone Clocks, theme isn’t enough; the narrative continuity between the sections demands more coherent narrative structure.
If the relationship between the science-fiction plot and the verbal pyrotechnics of pastiche is strained, and the crucial fifth section is under-imagined and over-explained, the first four sections could use some polishing to eliminate intrusive detail and a sometimes forced tone of voice: ‘Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on’ (p. 3). During a lovely send-up of a literary festival, Mitchell quotes the trasher of Hershey’s novel to throw in what sounds like a ironic acknowledgement of risks Mitchell takes in his own writing: ‘One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what sure sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ (pp. 281–2).
The Bone Clocks is better than that, it’s well worth reading, but I fear it may have been written against a deadline that prevented Mitchell doing full justice to his genius.
This review was first published in Vector, No. 280, 2015