Review: ‘The Bone Clocks,’ by David Mitchell


”The Bone Clocks,” by David Mitchell (Random House)

Anticipation started pooling around David Mitchell’s magical new novel as soon as the title was revealed last year. Like Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami — to whom he’s often compared — Mitchell excites his culty fan base into fits of rapture. One bookseller told me that a customer offered money to be allowed to sit in the store and read an advance copy of “The Bone Clocks.” Named a finalist for the Booker Prize more than a month before publication, the novel has finally descended incarnate from the mind of this divinely inventive author.

Like “Cloud Atlas,” one of Mitchell’s earlier novels shortlisted for the Booker, “The Bone Clocks” presents a curio cabinet of apparently disparate stories, but readers should be onto his tricks by now. The presumption of an interconnected puzzle hangs over these narrators as though Mitchell’s oeuvre were some massive literary sudoku. Devout Mitchellians are already cross-referencing the names and locales of “The Bone Clocks” in the ever-accreting concordance to his works. (Why, there’s Jason Taylor’s cousin from “Black Swan Green.” And my, my — it seems like a thousand autumns since we last saw Dr. Marinus.)

But don’t let the high walls of his fan club intimidate you. This new novel offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation, stretching around the world from the Margaret Thatcher era of the 1980s to the Endarkenment of 2043. (Alas, it turns out that the climate-change deniers were wrong. You might want to put up some root vegetables before winter.)

At the center of this cunning arrangement of nested tales is a strong-willed 15-year-old named Holly Sykes. We meet her in the summer of 1984 when she runs away from home to move in with Vin, a 24-year-old car salesman who wears a leather jacket embroidered with the words “Led Zep” in silver studs. He can play the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.” Quite the catch! “Vin and me could start a band,” Holly thinks. In a twist that will surprise young teens everywhere, that love match doesn’t pan out, but Holly continues running for a few days just to give her mum a good scare.

This jaunty, first-person picaresque is filled with the young woman’s pop culture and school-hall concerns — and so many discombobulating clues to future mysteries that it sometimes feels as if the ink from another novel were bleeding through the pages. Having grown up over her parents’ pub in Kent, Holly displays a tragicomic mix of confidence and naivete, which Mitchell balances endearingly to keep her from seeming like an object of mockery. As she confidentially chats away, we catch glimpses of what she calls her mind’s “nutso part,” the “Weird S---” — including muffled chatter from the Radio People in her head and visits from a golden-haired fairy godmother who once, conveniently, pushed a schoolyard tyrant in front of a van. But that’s just crazy talk — right? — easy to brush over as Holly wrestles with the real-life challenges of finding food and shelter on the lam.

Subsequent sections — in different places, at different times, with different characters — continue this pattern: intensely compelling confessions that seem wholly realistic, except for those incongruous moments of fantasy that poke through like carpet tacks. Some of these narrators are moving and sympathetic; others radiate the metastasizing creepiness of a Patricia Highsmith villain. Their stories evolve in subtly distinctive tones and forms that reflect their outlooks. An ambitious journalist, for instance, is bored at a family wedding, his mind ricocheting from marital festivities to Iraq bombings, until a crisis close to home scares him more than anything in Fallujah. How entirely different that tightly focused family drama feels from the glib sociopath who glides from one ingenious swindle to the next, assuring us that anyone “spared love is spared grief.”

The most irresistible section is narrated by a bitter novelist named Crispin Hershey, whom a TV interviewer describes as “a master stylist and a laser-sharp chronicler of our times.” In this tour de force satire of literary culture and its roiling jealousies, Mitchell has created “the Wild Child of British Letters,” a writer “so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower.” It’s a fantastically witty section, like tumbling into a Martin Amis novel (an early, good one). Crispin scorns his bestselling competitors, including an author working on a novel that sounds something like “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” He lusts after others’ fame as he’s driven deeper into debt and the circuit of inane writing conferences. (In one particularly humiliating moment, he’s mistaken for Jeffrey Archer.) His public battle with a feminist scholar — a “bigoted blob of trans fat” — recalls the good old slugfests of Mailer and Vidal before authors grew so darn polite with each other. When Crispin’s new book is harpooned by a sharp review, the aggrieved novelist has no choice but to react to the “pube-bearded” critic with equal and opposite force: “Ethics are Newtonian,” he warns us.

But in fact, the ethics of this novel are anything but Newtonian; they’re all spooky action. As these characters spin into the 21st century, their morality is reshaped and redirected by quirks and quarks they couldn’t possibly anticipate. Some will steal or kill for money or fame. And what wouldn’t one do for mind control, telekinetics, even immortality? That’s the weird strain running throughout these stories: As time is etched on the bodies of the mortals — mere “bone clocks” — they’re periodically enlisted by “Atemporals,” participants in a metaphysical battle waged over the centuries beneath the shade of the material world.

That fantastical mystery smolders away under hundreds of pages, but when it finally bursts into flames in the novel’s fifth and longest section, it throws off surprisingly little heat. While Mitchell explains the characters’ obscure connections to each other, he suspends the novel’s serious philosophical and moral tenor in favor of an adolescent moral code and some vague theological iconography. In fulfillment of the Script — something like fate or prophecy — two ancient camps, the vampiric Anchorites and the body-snatching Horologists, try to psycho-demolish each other in a blind Cathar’s castle. It is, as one character needlessly explains, “a fight to the death,” but the whole enterprise feels as worn as the stone walls of Hogwarts. Too earnest to be a parody of old fantasies, it’s laced with tinfoil ’n’ Scotch-tape lines such as “I revoke my cloak and invoke a body-shield.” The evil overlord is an elegant and sardonic fiend somewhere on the scary scale between Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the Penguin. His evil villainess actually shrieks, “Crush them like ants!”

We climb this steep mountain expecting that we will be rewarded with the wizardry of “The Night Circus,” “The Magicians” or “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” — but somehow, as “The Bone Clocks” winds up for its long-anticipated climax, Mitchell abandons his exploration of character, sexuality, class and politics for an old warlock’s sack of cliches. In the words of one of the book’s courageous, jargon-laden soldiers, the “psychovoltage is low.”

Fortunately, the author doesn’t leave us in this knock-off version of “Harry Potter.” Instead, for its finale, the novel jumps ahead to a surprising time and place, and we’re back to the real world of rapacious men and women and the good souls who must confront them. It’s another story entirely, another example of Mitchell’s boundless dexterity. By this point, some of these characters are familiar and beloved, which makes their increasingly lawless era all the more terrifying.

And Mitchell makes a strong case that it’s coming our way. Atemporals should be fine; the rest of us bone clocks might want to get busy and see if the Script can be changed after all.

Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews run every Wednesday in Style. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

THE BONE CLOCKS

David Mitchell

Random House. 624 pp. $30

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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