There’s no denying it: David Mitchell is a master stylist, a grand storyteller, a meta-magician, a daredevil, and one of the best writers working today. His sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, which hit shelves this week, is both an enchanting romp and his most ambitious work by far — but it’s not his best. That said, you should really read it anyway.
Like Mitchell’s most famous novel, the recently movie-ified Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections; unlike Mitchell’s earlier work, his latest moves relentlessly forward in time, by leaps and bounds, and each section features — at least peripherally — one Miss Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a troubled, almost unbearably mouthy teenager in 1984 and leave on the shore in a decimated 2043. Mitchell is as flexible with language and character as ever, and he hops from speaker to speaker as the sections go by — we get teenage Holly, snotty Cambridge scholar Hugo Lamb, war reporter Ed Brubeck (also Holly’s partner), over-the-hill writer Crispin Hershey, the immortal Marinus, and Holly again, nearly 60 years from where we first met her. Mitchell’s flexing those narrative skills again, and I like it.
But despite all these (mostly) fleshy “bone clock” protagonists, there is a mega-story at work here: a centuries-old battle between two rival cults of immortals — the Anchorites, a group that survives vampirically on the souls of psychically potent children, and the Horologists, whose members are reborn in newly vacated bodies throughout the years. I mean, it’s almost kind of silly. And yet, it’s fun enough that I went right along.
Good thing, too, because this is the heart of the novel, or at least the overhanging cloud: this mysterious immortal war. But after a fantastical showdown at the end of the first section, Mitchell makes us wait. We get no answers. He presents storyline after storyline that ask us to pay attention to the humans when those storylines seem increasingly beside the point — who cares about Crispin’s feud with Richard Cheeseman when there is an epic ageless battle between good and evil going on in the background? Well, we’re supposed to, and we do, mostly on the merit of Mitchell’s storytelling abilities. But in the end, it feels like the premise has written a check that the novel can’t quite cash. By the time we discover the answer to the mystery of the Horologists, it seems like too much has happened — the field has been muddied, we don’t know where to look or what has meaning, whether relative or ultimate.
Now, despite that fact, there’s much to love here: the sentences in this novel are particularly juicy and playful. These are sentences that immediately make friends with the reader, though the characters do not always accomplish the same. The final section is a cuttingly bleak view of the world’s future that could stand on its own against any post-apocalyptic volume. This novel is pure pleasure to read: it’s funny, it’s bizarre, it’s sometimes incredibly profound, it’s sometimes un-profound in the most human of ways, in the way that makes you think: ah, yes.
But The Bone Clocks suffers from the same essential problem that Cloud Atlas has, which is this: under all the language play and virtuosic storytelling, under all that delight, what is Mitchell really telling us? Surely not simply, in Cloud Atlas, that we are all connected; surely not simply, in The Bone Clocks, that life is precious, that death is scary and inevitable, or that good is preferable to evil. Big ideas, but not complex concepts, at least not as presented here.
For all its many characters and styles, Cloud Atlas wrapped itself up with a bow: we began where we started, having hit all the same steps on the way down, and it felt whole. The Bone Clocks feels somewhat more than whole — it feels exploded, or maybe like one very good novel that invaded the consciousness of another very good novel. Or four.
But perhaps Mitchell isn’t interested in wrapping things up neatly anymore — any fan of his will realize, while reading his latest, that familiar characters appear. I’d noticed this before in Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas, and thought it a charming wink to the dedicated reader, but apparently not one of his novels stands wholly alone. In fact, Mitchell told Kathryn Schultz that he considers his novels mere “chapters in an Über-book” that is yet to be completed. This is a fascinating, incredibly ambitious idea — that all of these novels, from psycho-mystery fantasy to realist coming-of-age story to historical novel to whatever the hell Cloud Atlas is, exist in the same Mitchell-verse, which is maybe also the us-verse. Maybe the ends will be tied together in a wholly satisfying way, someday — with the next novel, or the one after that. I trust Mitchell enough to keep on reading.
After all, as the final line of The Bone Clocks tells us, in pure Mitchell-ian ambiguous cheek: “For a voyage to begin, another one must end, sort of.”