A Timely Read

by Dish Staff

James Wood summarizes David Mitchell’s appeal in a review of his new book, The Bone Clocks:

He has a marvellous sense of the real and of the unreal, and his best work keeps these elements in nice tension—a balancing of different vitalities. One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist; Mitchell is a steady entertainer. Pleasing his readership, he has said, is important to him: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this, and to try to find a positive answer for that. People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.”

Derek Thompson hails the novel an “almost-masterpiece”:

For diehard Mitchell fans, The Bone Clocks is another six-part, globe-trotting, time-traveling performance in literary ventriloquism. For the unconverted, it offers everything you could possibly want from a conjurer at the height of his powers—a ludicrously ambitious, unstoppably clever epic told through a chorus of diverse narrators that is both outrageous in scope and meticulous in execution.

The story begins with Holly Sykes, a love-struck teenager gushing over her first boyfriend in 1984 England. After a vicious fight with her mother, Holly runs away from home and reveals that she has a history of hearing voices and seeing what may be ghosts. Wandering the countryside in self-exile, she encounters strangers whose clues, threats, and mystic wisdom hint at a fantasy universe that remains present but often unseen for the rest of the novel, coursing under the main narrative like an underground river.

Alan Jacobs recommends the book with more measured praise:

The Bone Clocks is a massive achievement, and allows us for the first time to see just how ambitious a writer David Mitchell is. He is not stylistically ambitious as, say, James Joyce was — as I’ve noted, Mitchell shares Joyce’s love of pastiche, but it’s fairly pedestrian vocabularies that he likes to imitate. His books don’t quite amount to novels of ideas, at least not in a conventional sense. In fact, it’s hard to describe Mitchell’s ambition. But while it has long been noted that Mitchell tends to recycle characters — people who appear as minor figures in one novel reappear as major ones in another — only with The Bone Clocksare we able to see that this is not just a little novelistic quirk but rather a central feature of Mitchell’s imagination. All of his books are starting to look like a single vast web of story, with each significant character a node that links to other nodes, across space and time. And the essential insight, or image, or hope that provides structure to the whole web is the immortality of the human soul.

Kathryn Schulz is also impressed:

You could call Mitchell a global writer, I suppose, but that does not quite capture what he is doing. It is closer to say that he is a pangaeic writer, a supercontinental writer. What is for geologists a physical fact—that the world is everywhere interconnected, bound together in a cycle of faulting and folding, rifting and drifting, erosion and uplift—is, for Mitchell, a metaphysical conviction. Immensity alone, he knows, is psychologically and morally risky; it makes our own lives so comparatively insignificant that it can produce fatalism, or depression, or unimpeded self-interest. To counter that, his fiction tries again and again to square the scale of the world with the human scale, down to its smallest and inmost components. The human conscience matters because it leads to action—a captain holds his fire, a free man saves a slave—and human action matters because, if everything is interconnected, everything we do tugs on the web of space and time.

But David Plotz finds the scope tiresome:

Mitchell hurls people, places, and ideas at us; so many that none stick. From a single page: Noongar, Moombaki, Ship People, Pablo Antay, Five Fingers, Lucas Marinus, Nagasaki, Whadjuk, Horology, Nineveh, Ur, the Deep Stream, the Schism, the genocide in Van Diemen’s Land, Xi Lo, Esther, spirit-walk, the oldest Atemporal, Freemantle, the Swan river, Shakespeare, Rome, and Troy.

Mitchell has written a book about immortality that mimics immortality itself. It feels like it takes forever.

And Emily Temple strikes a middle ground, remarking that though The Bone Clocks isn’t Mitchell’s best, “you should really read it anyway”:

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.