December 25, 2014
Thoughts on ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell
- The only other Mitchell book I’ve read is Cloud Atlas. I thought that was pretty good. A lot of people consider it the first great 21st century English novel, but I really don’t see that. Maybe I just don’t get Mitchell?
- But at the beginning of Bone Clocks I felt like I did get him. The first section of this book is great. Strong character, strong story-telling. Beautiful style. Artful setting up of the world and the narrative. I read it in one sitting with this bubbling happy feeling that this was going to be one of my favorite novels ever.
- Oh, there were a few things I didn’t like. Mitchell’s dialog is pretty clunky. It’s all like: ‘This is what I’m thinking and why and I’m articulating it perfectly.’ ‘This is exactly what I think about that, and here is my artfully worded witty reply.’ Also, there are genre elements – fantasy horror – that he’s pretty clumsy with: heavy on exposition while simultaneously confusing. Good genre writers – someone like China Mieville, say – make sure the reader always knows what’s happening, but not why. That’s the mystery that keeps you reading.
- Unfortunately these bad features get far more pronounced, and the good things fall away. Bone Clocks consists of six linked novellas, all with different characters, with the main character reappearing throughout and telling her own story again in the sixth and final section.
- Critics seem especially dazzled by this. Such formal invention! Polyphony has been a major feature of the novel since, like, the mid-19th century so I’m not sure why everyone acts like Mitchell invented it, but again, maybe I’m missing something here.
- The second section is about an amoral, wealthy Cambridge student. The third is about a journalist covering the Iraq war in the early days after the invasion. I particularly hated this bit: if Mitchell wants to write a screed about how he thinks the Iraq war was a horrible mistake he can put that highly original and unique perspective in an essay or something, not cram it into a fantasy novel in which his characters articulate the author’s political opinions in long speeches and (worse) pseudo-witty quips back and forth to each other.
- The next novella is a (long) piece of literary satire. The main character is instantly identifiable as Martin Amis, although for some reason Mitchell denies this character is based on Amis. Maybe this part of the book will be interesting to readers who like Martin Amis, or hate Martin Amis, or even care a bit about Martin Amis?
- Next section: the fantasy elements take over and we see a centuries long war between magical immortals play out. This is more boring than it sounds. Good fantasy writers spend lots of time establishing the rules of their world and the parameters of their magic systems so that the reader understands what’s happening during the climax, and what everyone can and cannot do, and what the stakes are. Mitchell has a bunch of magicians show up and start casting spells with stupid names at each other.
- Final section: the original character at the end of her life living in rural poverty on the west coast of Ireland in the 2030s in a climate-changed, post-oil-crash world. And hey, this part is also pretty good. Pity about the 400-odd pages of really-not-very-good content between the opening and closing sections.
- What I thought Mitchell was doing in the opening section was writing a genre novel with literary qualities. Something like Lev Grossman’s Magician books, or Elizabeth Knox’s adult fiction. What he’s actually done is write five literary novellas and a fantasy novella and link them together with genre tropes: secret societies of immortals, evil sorcerers and characters learning telepathy, etc.
- The result is a bit like those fake novelty book-covers you can buy to slip over a copy of 50 Shades of Grey and pretend that you’re reading Proust. Bone Clocks provides the illusion of ‘literature’ but it’s driven by genre elements. With Cloud Atlas you kept reading because you wanted to discover the links between the characters, and what happened to them; with Bone Clocks you keep reading because there’s sexy magicians and psychic powers and shit. None of the genre elements work on a literary level. The sexy blonde magician doesn’t represent anything the way, say, the ghost in Beloved represents the ghost of slavery. She’s just a sexy blonde magician.
- Not that I have anything against sexy blonde magicians. But Bone Clocks doesn’t have any of the pleasures of a good fantasy novel. It doesn’t even make sense. Even the critics who liked this book – and there are a lot of them, many of whom ranked this as their favorite book of the year which is how I wound up hate-reading it in late December – admit that the climax of the book is ‘bewildering’, by which they mean ‘incomprehensible nonsense’.
- And you don’t have to take my word for all of this: Mitchell points out most of the flaws in his novel in a review inside his own book, something which admiring critics seem to find particularly brilliant, but which made a kind of red-mist descend over my vision for a few minutes.
- The obvious comparison to Bone Clocks is Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s much-better third book, which has a similar structure. But the real template for Bone Clocks, I suspect, is Earthly Powers, an Anthony Burgess novel published in 1980, which didn’t win any major awards so is a little forgotten today: its also a world and time spanning epic with a metaphysical war playing out in the background, and the super-erudite, too-clever voice of most of Mitchell’s characters is almost identical to that of Burgess’s protagonist. I haven’t read Earthly Powers for about twenty years: maybe its been sort-of forgotten for a reason? But I remember it being an awful lot better than The Bone Clocks, so let me recommend that in lieu of this.
- And here’s one last thing, just while my dander is up. Most of the reviewers who loved this book mention – in terms of reverent awe – that Mitchell’s books are linked. Characters in one book have the same name as characters in the others. Maybe I’m missing another trick here, but so fucking what? Stephen King (among others) has been doing that for forty years. Why is this simple, gimmicky unoriginal trick another hallmark of Mitchell’s unique genius? What gives?
- Merry Christmas!
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