If I had to sum up my thoughts on this book in one phrase, it would be “I see what you did there.” David Mitchell is an incredibly self-conscious writer and nowhere is that more visible than in The Bone Clocks. This novel is full of references to his other works (hi Jacob de Zoet!), meta jokes about writers whose style he attempts to emulate (hi Martin Amis!), and barely veiled criticisms of the very book you’re holding. It is a well-crafted work and a great showcase of Mitchell’s gift for jumping from one writing style to another. However, admiring an author’s skill is not enough. A true magician can make you believe his assistant is levitating even when you can see the strings holding her up, and despite Mitchell’s arsenal of tricks and gadgets, The Bone Clocks fails to keep the illusion alive where it really matters. Ironically, it’s the fantasy elements where the mirage falls apart.
In many ways, The Bone Clocks resembles Mitchell’s big success to date, Cloud Atlas. The book is broken up into parts, each set in a different time, each told by a different narrator with a distinctive voice, with a red thread connecting the lot. Where in Cloud Atlas this thread was something more abstract and elusive, The Bone Clocks is held together by one lineair, overarching story: the battle between two immortal camps, the Anchorites and the Horologists. These beings disappear from the book for long stretches of time, to the point where you find yourself wondering: “say, whatever happened to those murderous magicians chasing Holly?” Which is, of course, exactly when they crash back into the narrative and derail everything.
The problem with this is twofold: on the one hand, we are away from this main plot so often and for so long that by the time the climax finally arrives, it almost doesn’t matter anymore. On the other hand, because this overarching battle is always in the back of our mind, we become restless during the parts that veer so far away from the main road that we are not sure if we will ever find out way back again. All the way through Ed Brubeck’s chapters I was wondering if the Radio People would ever be mentioned again, and when I’d finally forgotten about them long enough to get invested in Ed’s story, the voices were suddenly back. For a 600-page novel, this lack of focus is a serious problem. It is a disorienting experience, getting swung back and forth between storylines, and as a result it becomes increasingly difficult to care about any of the characters or what will happen to them as the story progresses. The curious thing is that Mitchell himself points out this very issue halfway through the novel: “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.” Then why is it still happening? Is the confusion I’m feeling just one big meta joke? Because if so… I don’t get it.
Perhaps what made Cloud Atlas work was that the different narratives were only very loosely tied together by shared themes. The sections were all coherent stories in their own right: I could still enjoy Robert Frobisher even though I did not really like the part about Luisa Rey. Here, “the big picture” that keeps interfering is little more than an inconvenient distraction that builds up to a seriously disappointing climax full of phrases like “incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.” What does that even mean?
Mitchell has always been an ambitious writer, but perhaps he has finally bitten off more than he can chew. As potentially interesting as it is to make a big puzzle out of your book (or even your entire body of work), there has to be a reward for solving it, and in that regard, The Bone Clocks has nothing but glimpses of something more interesting to offer.