Fans of David Mitchell (of which I am definitely one) will feel right at home with his newest work, The Bone Clocks. You’ve got your chameleon-like ability to shift voice across a wide variety of genders and ages via multiple POVs, your richly vivid characterization, the literary and at times lyrical passages of internal monologue or description, spot-on dialog, an interconnected-story structure that spans time and space, the erudite use of history, and imaginative yet grittily real extrapolations of future settings and language. Weaving in and out of all this are familiar themes involving reincarnation, mortality, the predatory nature of humanity against both itself and the environment, and the idea of interconnectedness, the latter made more overt via the added pleasure for Mitchell fans of the many references to characters from earlier Mitchell books. Throw in some paranormal events, and it all adds up to yet another well-deserved Booker nomination for one of our best contemporary novelists.
Similar to his best-known work, Cloud Atlas (a brilliant must-read novel I’d consider one of the best of the past 20 years), The Bone Clocks is structured as a series of POVs, though this novel is much more tightly unified and occurs over a much smaller time span. We begin in 1984 with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes as she storms out of her house after a row with her mother. The ensuing sections move through the next six decades, each from a different POV (save the last, which returns to Holly) and narrated by a character who will somehow interact with Holly in that particular section: a lover, the father of her child, a fellow author, the leader of a mysterious group of people with psychic powers. The settings shift as well, with the story touching down in such locations as Shanghai, Ireland, Iceland, and the Swiss Alps. But despite the way the novel ranges across time and place and voice, Holly always remains at the center.
Each POV is a fully realized, fully three-dimensional character, each voice having its own original style and tone. The section narrated by the author, Crispin Hershey, an acerbic mid-lister whose best work appears to be behind him, is often bitingly hysterical. The father’s section is emotionally painful, the psychic’s very formal. But of course, none of these voices are solely these things, for then they wouldn’t be the complex rich characters they are. And so Crispin also has one of the most moving passages in the entire novel, while the formal, heightened language of the psychic leader is in a section containing the most cinematic big-action scene. Each of these characters in some way surprises the reader in ways that make them seem all the more human, all the more like real people.
The plot, which involves a long-standing war (and I mean loooonnnng) between two psychically empowered groups, is set in motion in that first section when Holly runs away, but is only slowly revealed as the novel progresses, not really coming fully forward into the story until about two-thirds of the way through The Bone Clocks’ 600+ pages. For the most part, the novel moves quickly, ironically maybe slowing a bit at about that two-thirds point when the “action” plot kicks in. If it does bog down a bit, it isn’t for long, as the suspense, the stakes, and the action move into high gear. I can see some perhaps thinking Mitchell writes past his ending, but I would argue wholeheartedly against that; the final section of the novel is essential to many of the themes Mitchell brings forward.
As mentioned, many of those themes will be familiar to Mitchell’s fans, though in some ways they are explored more directly or bluntly here. Whereas the idea of souls and reincarnation ran like an abstract thread of an idea though Cloud Atlas, here it is the brightly visible foundation holding up the plot. While the dystopic and post-apocalyptic sections of the earlier novel show us the results of humanity’s treatment of each other and the planet, here Mitchell doesn’t simply show the result but has several of the characters draw the line between now and the future much more explicitly (some might say dogmatically), as in this monologue:
It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent . . . all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God, visited upon us. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burnt our way through…
Hard to argue with any of that, just as it’s hard to argue with Mitchell’s starkly concrete vision of that depressing near future, which in genre terms is more Mad Max than The Road, though portrayed in more domestic fashion, on smaller, more human terms.
Mortality is another theme that runs throughout the novel — an individual’s fear of its personal inevitability, the ways in which a parent always sees it shadowing their child or how their child is a constant reminder of their own mortality, the ways in which we try to forestall it, the lengths we will go to. Here, for instance, is one character’s morose observation amidst the life of a pumping, crowded nightclub:
I stay on the dance floor… So what if I won a Maserati GranCabrio convertible, a villa in the Cyclades… an empire of stocks, properties, portfolios? Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark… Look: wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen; beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat, varicose veins worm through plucked calves; torsos and breasts fatten and sag… as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither, and fall in chemotherapeutic tufts; cancer spatters inside this tarry lung, in that ageing pancreas… DNA frays like wool, and down we tumble; a fall on the stairs, a heart-attack, a stroke; not dancing but twitching… They knew it in the Middle Ages. Life is a terminal illness.
Besides the concept here, one which drives much of the plot, note the stylistic choices. The use of semi-colons and dashes to create a long clause upon clause sentence to mirror the way time keeps marching by in non-stop fashion. That beat-by-beat-by-beat that is the dance throb but also the beating, aging heart and also the ticking clock of time. That careful grave-allusive use of “worm” for what varicose veins do. The poetic sound quality of “calves”, “fatten,” “sag,” “as” and “last” all in a row. Or of “song,” “frost,” and “fall”; “tufts” and “lungs”; “cancer spatters” (and cancer will make an appearance eventually). That return to the dancers that started this long paragraph. The way the paragraph ends so that the reader must linger on that last idea, emphasized even more by the use of white space that follows. This is the brick-by-brick attention to detail — to vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation, allusion, sound quality, foreshadowing, metaphor and simile — of a true craftsman.
One can see the well-crafted nature as well of The Bone Clocks in the way these themes are woven throughout, popping in and out in a variety of ways — dialog, snatches of poetry, references to paintings — that always keep reminding the reader of these concepts. These constant references serve as well to further unify the novel and also underlie another of the themes: the idea of interconnectedness.
The Bone Clocks is a thoughtful novel, a tightly constructed novel, and a stylistic tour-de-force in many ways. A highly literary novel from a highly literary author that has already been recognized by one of our more literary of prizes (I’d call the Booker THE best guide to good writing amongst the many literary prizes). But too often “literary” is taken as “dry” or “stuffy” or “unapproachable.” The Bone Clocks is literary. It is also laugh-out-loud funny in many places, has a full-pitched “magic” battle, and several scenes that will wrack your heart. One of my favorite reads this year.