The Bone Clocks – The Most Beautiful Novel I’ve Ever Hated
(NOTICE: This is a review and plot summary of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and will contain significant spoilers for it, as well as spoilers for some of Mitchell’s other works, notably including Cloud Atlas.)
Like probably most of his readers, I first ran across David Mitchell’s work when I read Cloud Atlas, a flawed but very memorable fiction that pulled the reader through six nested storylines in a kind of metanarrative about how souls interact through time. Cloud Atlas was poignant, humorous, clever, subversive, and occasionally jawdroppingly cruel. Mitchell’s particular use of language, and the book’s clever conceit of a full sextet of stories nestled within one another, raveling and unraveling as the reader progressed, kept me hooked and increasingly amazed all the way to the ‘end,’ which occurred brilliantly right in the middle of the book. I was impressed in a way that fiction rarely manages for me.
When a copy of The Bone Clocks came into my hands, I was immediately excited for it. I hadn’t read Mitchell’s interim works, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but my expectation was that The Bone Clocks would be another superb piece of wordsmithing, and that a decade of the craft of fiction writing at Mitchell’s level would probably see my few grievances with Cloud Atlas ironed out.
I regret to inform you, dear reader, that the only real pleasure I experienced in reading The Bone Clocks was the moment when I finally closed the book, more than six hundred pages later. Let me show you why.
A very, very, very, very long goodbye
The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, close enough to my birth year that I can immediately sympathize with the protagonist it introduces. Holly is a teenager in Thatcher’s Britain, living an unrecommendable life at the bottom of the austerity food-chain. We cringe as we watch her be taken advantage of by a world that doesn’t value her much, watch her make a few decisions she can’t take back, and begin to cheer for her as she follows through anyway, pretending that the only way forward for her is the way that she makes for herself.
It is here, too, that we learn that Holly hears voices, occasionally suffers from seizures, and has hallucinatory interactions with people who don’t exist… or at least, so we’re led to believe, given the harsh reality she’s surrounded by and the relentless plausibility of her life as presented. She’s aided in her awkward stumble toward personal authenticity by a fellow teenager, Ed Brubeck, the only seemingly trustworthy person in the whole act, and so of course, Holly doesn’t trust his motives at all.
So far, so good. But just as we begin to warm up to the idea of following our somewhat luckless protagonist, the view lurches…
Intolerable charisma (Protagonist Count: 2)
…to 1994, where we’re introduced to Hugo Lamb, a deeply charismatic sociopath. He is in fact aware that he is a sociopath, and makes a somewhat ironic point of feigning emotions amongst his friends, none of whom seem to have caught onto his game. Like many sociopaths, we find ourselves liking Hugo despite his total lack of empathy for his fellow man, even as he diabolically chessgames one of his ‘friends’ in order to squeeze a significant fortune out of him.
It gets him in trouble when his friend’s reaction is all too human rather than calculated and rational, however, and things take a grim turn for everyone involved as the group of friends vacations in the Alps. But who should we find as an unexpected blizzard rolls in? Why, Holly, now a goth-cliche and still being victimized by circumstances on every side. She eventually succumbs to Hugo’s wiles, and Hugo briefly allows himself to be convinced that he might even want something more serious with her, but it turns out that the voices Holly’s been hearing all this time are actually real people, body-hopping soul-stealers who want to recruit Hugo Lamb into their cabal of misfits. So thirty pages of wooing and seduction go by in a story that’s set up like every ‘bad boy makes good’ romance novel, but then Hugo takes the left-hand path at the very last minute…
Quagmire (Protagonist Count: 3)
…and then it’s 2004 and the camera is looking over Ed Brubeck’s shoulder as he reckons with his career as a war correspondent in Iraq. Holly has been passed along again and now she and Ed have a child, Aoife (EYE-fah). Ed is torn between his love of his family and his addictive urge to return to the adrenaline-jolts of conflict zones. When the choice comes to a head and Holly cold-shoulders him, Ed’s last real act as a father is to listen to one of Holly’s seizure-pronouncements in order to locate Aoife, who has gone missing. Holly ends up predicting exactly where she’ll be, and it’s on Ed to trust his fatherly instincts and retrieve the daughter, but only after panicking around the neighborhood and running across an old-time ‘psychic,’ who offers to predict the future.
It is here that the reader is treated, also, to the first of several mentions of or references to the late Christopher Hitchens, himself a war correspondent and insistent supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of his life in December of 2011. As a person who is given a Full Name in the narrative, someone who was unfamiliar with Hitchens might expect him to be a fabrication for Mitchell’s story (just you wait), perhaps someone we’re going to hear from when the camera shifts again, which it does. Having introduced three protagonists and taken us through twenty years of world events and more than one third of the book, doing nothing to tie any of it together or make us care at all where it’s going…
The life and times of an author’s author’s author (Protagonist Count: 4)
…suddenly it’s 2014. We’re introduced to Crispin Hershey, a somewhat joyless and contemptible novelist who Used To Be Somebody and is very upset about it.
If you’ve read all the way to this point, I’m going to have mercy on you and spare you what I was not myself spared: A hundred pages of the self-satisfaction, personal failings, and inexplicable comeuppances of Crispin Hershey. Hershey seems to be a mashup of every British literary figure of the last twenty years, containing bits of the post-Eton archetype, most notably Christopher Hitchens, who was not himself a novelist but was a reviewer of books and lover of literature and possessed the kind of decadent life that makes him a ripe target. Mitchell even made it easy on us by giving Crispin Hershey the same initials.
A moment occurred during this arc that made me put the book down for the night, by the way: Timothy Cavendish, one of the protagonists of Cloud Atlas, makes an appearance at a high-society soiree. Fair enough, now we know that this book and that one take place in the same world. How can we be sure Mitchell isn’t just having a wink?
Because Cavendish notes that a movie is to be made of his experiences, and that he is to be played by none other than Tom Hanks – the very man who did play him in the Cloud Atlas book-to-screen movie.
There is such a thing as being too clever.
Anyway, Hershey meets Holly, as well as now-teenaged Aoife, and we learn here of Ed Brubeck’s death in Iraq during a hotel bombing in Iraq, nicely freeing up Holly for a graying, distant romance with the snobbish literary has-been, even as Hershey successfully connects with a South American woman…zzzz…
Mitchell is very capable of rendering all of these events and timescapes in beautiful prose, masterful English… but absolutely nothing is happening. We follow Hershey’s life through several years. Hershey’s uninteresting, self-serving, ultimately meaningless midlife crisis pulls us relentlessly behind it, like a horse dragging a fallen rider. It’s all laden with portent and foreshadowing, a promise of a massive payoff. Given the ingenious nature of Cloud Atlas, I plowed on, increasingly hoping against hope as the width of the remaining pages dwindled.
Invasion of the theme-snatchers (Protagonist Count: ~7)
Scarcely a quarter of the book is left when we’re introduced, rather suddenly, to a whole cabal of the soul-stealers. (Remember them?) Gone is Crispin Hershey, gone is Hugo Lamb, gone is Ed Brubeck, now we’re treated to page upon page of a whole cosmology being introduced, timelines being reset, events being explained, the plot (such as it is) spoonfed to us/Holly in 2024. The ongoing war between the Anchorites and the Horologists (who?), the explanation of who that strange woman was in the church that Hugo Lamb forgettably met, the reason Holly hears voices, and whatever happened to her long-lost brother.
All of this happens in time for a Desperate Last Attack(tm) against the Bad Guys, whom we have been given no reason at all to care about, and whose fate seems not to concern us at all. Nevertheless, Holly signs on with this crazy, extremely dangerous adventure, despite having no real powers of her own, being nothing but a container for one of the Good Guys, which she has been since That Fateful Day. Are you noticing a pattern, here?
During the Desperate Last Attack, something very important happens: David Mitchell’s ability to meaningfully describe a scene finally falters. We’re left with swooping, meaningless imagery, Portentously Capitalized Events And Locations, and are practically dared to flip back a few dozen pages and read all the liner-notes about the plot that’s apparently been going on this whole time, about which we were not made to care at all.
So when the Whole Place starts Coming Apart At The Seams, and the few surviving Good Guys make a run for it, and we briefly trip over Hugo Lamb on the way out the Door, we glance down and see that there’s only about forty or so pages left and maybe, just maybe, when Holly stumbles out into the real world, so too will we…
None of it matters (Plots and narrative arcs resolved: 0)
It is 2043. Holly, now in her late seventies, has retired to Ireland to live with her grandchildren and her cancer. Gone is Aoife, stolen away offscreen, along with Crispin Hershey and all of his problems, along with any talk of Ed Brubeck, and along with any semblance of the social order. Climate change is upon us, China Has Risen, and the backwoods of Ireland have become a tribute to Mad Max – no country for old women.
It is the world’s most miserable epilogue. Her memories of the Battle of the Soul Chapel (or whatever) are two decades old. She knows no one will believe her if she talks about them. Everyone has their own problems just trying to survive under severe rationing, and anyway she has two new children to look after. They mean the world to her, and now they’re under threat – one because of his need for medicine in a world where such things are hard to come by, and the other because she is a growing teenager who is being leered at by the local bullies.
Tension rises – and this is during the epilogue! – and then suddenly (spoiler alert) an Icelandic naval ship appears in the harbor. A young man and his band of soldiers come ashore and offer asylum in safe, secure Iceland for the two kids we’ve been so worried about for almost thirty pages now. But not Holly, no. Luckless still, old and cancer-ridden in a completely unfair world, Holly watches them sail away, hoping they’ll be happy.
Holly’s life is never her own. Six hundred and twenty pages go by in which we’re introduced to all the people who brush through her life, but aside from the beginning and end of the book, we are not told who she is, what she thinks, why any of this motivates her. In the end, Holly – the only female protagonist in the whole work – is a plot device.
That’s bad from a social angle. From a literary angle the crime may be even worse. If you’ve read all the way down through this review and summary, I congratulate you. You’re probably wondering where the payoff was. So am I.
The problem seems to be that Mitchell can’t decide what kind of novel he’s writing. Is it a high-literary novel, full of sweeping language and meaningful human interactions? Is it a pulp science-fiction novel, with its soul-stealers and Manhattan street-magic? Is it a piece of social commentary, in which both quotidian human events and vast supernatural conspiracies all take a back seat to the destructive inevitability of climate change? Or is it just what it looks like, a literary version of a prank, a shaggy dog story in the form of a six hundred page doorstopper?
The Bone Clocks was an enormous novel in which David Mitchell did not tell a story. He recited a series of disconnected events, introduced characters and plot arcs that were completely irrelevant, patted himself on the back for connecting this book to his expanding mythos, and then turned out the lights and locked the whole place up behind him. He didn’t leave me wanting more, either, which is the job of all good storytellers. He left me wanting less.
Aside from closing the book, I suppose the only satisfaction I derived from The Bone Clocks is knowing that not only do I not have to open it again, I also don’t have to be excited about Mitchell’s next offering.