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The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell

(New Yorker)

David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince. Black Swan Green (2006) is a funny and sweet-natured semi-autobiographical novel, conventionally told, about a boy growing up in a stifling Worcestershire village. Cloud Atlas (2004), his best-known book, is a brilliant postmodern suite, comprising six connected and overlapping novellas, set in such eras as the eighteen-fifties, the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-seventies, and the dystopian future. His 2010 book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a more or less traditional historical novel, set in 1799, in the bay of Nagasaki, about relations between the Japanese and the Dutch. 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.'

His latest novel, The Bone Clocks, is often enjoyable in this way, and is rarely without Mitchellian charm - a good sense of humor, a lack of pretentiousness, and decent prose. It is very long, is profuse with stories, and re-employs the form of Cloud Atlas: there are six large, related narratives, stretching from 1984 to 2043. There are plenty of vivid protagonists, including Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a teenager, in 1984, and finally take our leave of in 2043; Hugo Lamb, a dastardly Cambridge undergraduate, seducer, thief, and near-murderer; and Crispin Hershey, a successful English writer with tinctures of both David Mitchell and Martin Amis, who is obsessed with taking revenge on his harshest reviewer, one Richard Cheeseman.

But pure storytelling seems to have triumphed here; the human case has disappeared. The novel keeps producing iterations of itself, in different places and times - England in the nineteen-eighties, Iraq in 2004, America in 2025, post-apocalyptic Ireland in 2043 - but instead of formal capability there is a sense of empty capacity. It hardly helps that threaded through the book is a science-fiction plot about warring bands of immortals, named the Horologists and the Anchorites. Weightless realism is here at slack odds with weightless fantasy. Both the book's exuberant impossibilities and its restlessly proliferating realities have a way of refocussing one's suspicions of his earlier work: Mitchell has plenty to tell, but does he have much to say? Cloud Atlas offered an impressive narrative parquet, but what else was it? In that novel, to take an example, Robert Frobisher, a composer working in the nineteen-thirties, is writing a musical piece called Cloud Atlas Sextet; later in the book, in the pulp-fiction tale set in nineteen-seventies California, a character named Luisa Rey listens to this piece in a record store; she had discovered the music in a series of letters written in the nineteen-thirties by this same Frobisher. Cloud Atlas is made up of intricate replications like these, but what do they amount to? Does Cloud Atlas do much more than announce and adumbrate a universal, and perhaps not very interesting, interconnectedness? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet begins as a formidably achieved historical novel but gradually turns into something out of Japanese anime, complete with a shadowy nunnery and an evil abbot, bent on grooming young girls as sex slaves. And although that book inhabits its late-eighteenth-century milieu with easy power, there is perhaps something ungrounded about its very ease, as if Mitchell might as well have set his tale in eighth-century England or fifteenth-century Granada. Mitchell can seem a weirdly frictionless entertainer.

The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, in pleasingly familiar territory. We are in the provincial England of Black Swan Green - a world of possessive lower-middle-class parents, bad English cars, inventive slang, and terrific music (Talking Heads' Fear of Music, the Police's Zenyatta Mondatta, a Quadrophenia T-shirt). Holly Sykes, a fifteen-year-old whose parents own a pub in Gravesend, Kent, has an argument with her mother and runs away from home. Things quickly get peculiar. On the road, Holly encounters a strange old woman named Esther Little, who knows her name, and who mysteriously says that she may need asylum if 'the First Mission fails.' Holly tells us that from an early age she has had visions and has heard voices, which she used to call the Radio People. At the age of seven, she woke up to find a spectral visitor, Miss Constantin, sitting on the edge of her bed. Dr. Marinus, a Chinese child psychiatrist based in London, was called in to treat Holly, and used what he said was a technique from the Old Country to cure her: with his thumb, he touched a point in the middle of her forehead.

Now the problem of the visions returns with force. Holly has a vision of her kid brother, Jacko, under a bridge, even though she is miles away from home. She has various adventures and further visions. Holly ends up picking fruit at a farm. It is here that a concerned school friend, Ed Brubeck, arrives, with the news that Jacko has gone missing. So ends the novel's first section, which is about ninety pages long.

All the sections in The Bone Clocks are narrated in the first person, a mode whose natural volubility does Mitchell few favors. He uses first-person narration to seat himself in a comfy, rather bloke-ish realism; his characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike, because they are all involved in a figurative exaggeration that is at first amusing but which becomes tiresome and coarse. Here is Holly Sykes: 'Guys are all sperm-guns. . . . Green tea's great while you're drinking it, but it makes you pee like a racehorse, and now my mouth feels like a dying rat crapped in it.' And here is Hugo Lamb, the Cambridge undergraduate who narrates the novel's second section (set in 1991), describing his besotted friend Olly: 'His pupils have morphed into love-hearts and, for the nth time squared, I wonder what love feels like on the inside because externally it turns you into the King of Tit Mountain. . . . Olly's glowing; if he was six inches tall and fluffy, Toys R Us would ship him by the thousands.' And here is the adult Ed Brubeck, who narrates the third section, set in 2004. (Ed is now a distinguished war reporter; he and his partner, the adult Holly Sykes, have a six-year-old daughter, Aoife.) 'Pete's bat-eared and his hairline's beating a hasty retreat, but Sharon's marrying him for love, not hair follicles.' Here is Ed again, describing someone's look of sheer surprise: 'If Austin Webber wore a monocle, it would drop.' When Aoife goes missing, Ed is terrified: 'Twenty thousand volts fry me into hyperalertness. . . . My bones turn to warm Blu Tack.' And here is Crispin Hershey, the middle-aged novelist who narrates the fourth - and excessively long - section, entitled 'Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet': 'Miguel tries to look jokey-penitent, but misses and looks like a man in white jeans who underestimates a spot of flatulence.'

Since all the characters in The Bone Clocks - even the Anchorites and the Horologists, alas - speak to one another with the same matey, Christmas-cracker jokiness, the effect is that of a novel without internal borders, everyone churning up the same bright, clever prose, the tone poised somewhere between Richard Curtis and Eddie Izzard. Even Crispin Hershey's literary agent sounds just like Crispin Hershey. 'Your sales have resembled a one-winged Cessna,' he complains to his famous client.

Much contemporary writing fetishizes style, and the priority is felt as a constant anxiety. Prose has to sign itself, establish its showy authority in silvery cutlass swipes through the air: clever insights, brilliant metaphors, unusual words, sharp observation, perpetually buoyant dialogue. The way Crispin Hershey describes a cool young woman - 'short, boyish, and sports a nerdy pair of glasses and a shaven head: electrotherapy chic' - not only confirms Crispin's literary talent but validates Mitchell's, too: it's the kind of thing that gets approvingly quoted in reviews like this one. But novels are not best built out of one-liners, and long novels of one-liners drum an insistent, madly intermittent tattoo.

Crispin Hershey, a writer known, we are told, for his Amisian avoidance of cliche, tells a class that the writer should 'grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below.' At such a moment, Mitchell seems to tease this kind of post-Flaubertian peacockery, but he is not quite able to resist it. There is a telling moment when Crispin, who has been visiting an area of Australia marked by colonial atrocities against the Aborigines, complains about 'all those slick galleries selling Aborigine art. . . . It's as if Germans built a Jewish food hall over Buchenwald.' Aoife, who has been listening to him, approvingly comments: 'Spot the writer.' Mitchell may be having fun with his assembled characters, but the phrase about the Jewish food hall sounds very like David Mitchell: the writer as phrasemaker, the guy who keeps things entertaining. It gets tiring to keep spotting the writer.

The Bone Clocks is indeed entertaining. What it cannot be is coherent. It knits itself together, to be sure: we follow Holly Sykes as she grows up, and we enjoy her reappearances in the novel's successive sections. In the second, she has a brief relationship with Hugo Lamb, when the two of them meet in a Swiss resort, in 1991. In the third, set in 2004, she is living with Ed Brubeck, who later dies in Syria. A single mother in the fourth section, set in 2015, Holly is now a very successful writer, well known for her memoir The Radio People, which tells of Jacko's disappearance, and of the voices she heard when she was a child. On the literary circuit, she meets Crispin Hershey, and the two become friends. These connections and interweavings are fluidly managed, and there is pleasure to be had from Mitchell's customary self-references: Dr. Marinus appeared in 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'; a Chinese restaurant is called the Thousand Autumns, and so on. (In New York, Kathryn Schulz counts twenty-three characters who appear in more than one of Mitchell's novels. Mitchell tells her that he keeps track of Marinus's many lives in a notebook.)

But these happenings, which occur over hundreds of pages, feel a bit empty, because they are not humanly significant. What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle. Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, and just as certain kinds of theology threaten to rob human life of intrinsic significance - since theology exists to convert worldly meaning into transcendent meaning - so Mitchell's peculiar cosmology turns his characters into time-travelling groundlings, Horology's dwarves.

First, the cosmology, which has the demented intricacy of science fiction. Holly Sykes is not the only character to encounter Miss Constantin. Hugo Lamb is similarly visited, and is persuaded to join the villainous Anchorites, of which Immaculee Constantin (to give her her full name) is second-in-command. Two fellow-Anchorites explain to Hugo that 'we are the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar'; the cult sustains itself by inducting members into “the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way.' Though it is 1991, the Anchorites' leader was born in 1758. Their visitations are abrupt, alarming, and mysterious, but it is clear that they are up to no good.

In the fifth section, An Horologist's Labyrinth, set in 2025, Marinus explains the shape of things to a bewildered Holly. The Horologists, we learn, were founded in the fifteen-nineties. A schism appears to have divided the group into Horologists and Anchorites. Members of both cults have the power to defy death. The Horologists can live for centuries by inhabiting successive historical personages. (Ordinary mortals, by contrast, live and die only once: they are the poor 'bone clocks' of the book's title.) Esther Little, the strange old woman whom Holly encountered when she was fifteen, is a tremendously old Horologist; her soul predates Rome, Troy, Nineveh. She has taken asylum in Holly Sykes. Esther taught Marinus, who, when he treated Holly as a girl, was inhabiting the body of a Chinese man based in London but all these decades later is inhabiting the body of a woman based in Toronto. Jacko, Holly's curiously precocious brother, was actually hiding the soul of Xi Lo, the oldest and best of Horologists. Horologists are inclined to make references to the Script, a plan that is to be followed.

While the benevolent Horologists inherit resurrection as birthright - they live natural lives and die like normal humans, and then come back as someone else - the sinister Anchorites lack this gift for metempsychosis, and must kill humans, ideally children, in order to drink their blood, or, in the proper lingo, 'decant' the victim's soul into 'Black Wine,' which temporarily staves off aging. The Anchorites are thus soul vampires, and the Horologists have been at war with them for a hundred and sixty years, in order to put a stop to their rampant 'animicide.' (As a girl, Holly had been in danger before Marinus intervened.) Esther Little helped launch the First Mission against the Anchorites, in 1984; it is time, Marinus explains, for the final mission, the war to end all wars. In required fantasy form, Mitchell stages a battle royal, popping with barely comprehensible patois. It is narrated by Marinus:

Seeing my dead body against the wall, the Anchorites reason that no psychosoteric can now attack them, and their red shield flickers out. They'll pay for this mistake. Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants. It smacks into Imhoff and Westhuizen, the Fifth and Seventh Anchorites, respectively, and down they go. Three against seven. I ingress into Arkady to help him repair the shield, which turns a stronger blue and pushes back the remaining Anchorites. . . . Go to Holly, suborders Arkady. I obey without even thinking to bid him goodbye, an omission I regret even as I transverse to Holly, ingress, evoke an Act of Total Suasion.

This kind of thing leaves my own Black Wine quite cold, though there are many readers who thrill to tales of invisible eyes, Scripts and Counterscripts, the Shaded Way Codex, the Dusk Chapel, redacting human memories, and so on. But how much respect does this fantastic imagining deserve? Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series anticipates Mitchell, with its notion of the Old Ones, mystical beings who can freeze time, and who represent the forces of Light against the forces of Dark. Nor is Mitchell's fantasy so different, in its materials, from Mark Haddon's story for children Boom! (about aliens who are kidnapping humans, in order to restock their dying planet), a terrific little book I enjoyed reading to my son a few years ago, but which I didn't bother to treat as more than a nice bedtime game.

Of course, Mitchell's novel is longer, deeper, more ambitious, and more intricately constructed than Haddon's swift concoction. He writes better prose. But the two books share a fatal structural similarity. As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself in the novel's first section, the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism - the human activity - is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters. Whatever the stakes are, the reader decides, they are not really decided in the sublunary realm. As in Haddon's book, though on a grander scale, the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of 'realistic' skepticism. 'It all sounded too X-Files,' Ed Brubeck thinks. 'Stop talking as if I believe you,' Holly says to Marinus, as he is explaining how things really work. 'They're mad, or liars, or - most disturbing of all - neither,' Hugo Lamb thinks, of his visiting Anchorites. 'What bloody planet are you on?' Holly demands of Marinus. And so on. These ritualized expressions of resistance have no more weight than the token obstacles thrown in the way of thieves by other thieves in heist movies ('Are you kidding? This is crazy. . . . I'm in'). An authorial decision has been made in favor of the mystery: this is no more than weak realism's bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won.

So the human protagonists are slowly imprisoned, deprived of their freedom as fictional actors. (That this freedom is itself fictional is an unimportant paradox, just part of the everyday novelistic contract.) And there are other ways in which Mitchell's cosmology rigs things. As far as I can tell, Horology is spiritually elitist. In this, it has something in common with Gnosticism, whose heretical mythology appears to have influenced Mitchell’s invention. I was surprised, late in the book, to discover that there are perhaps only eight Horologists. Presumably, in some supernatural version of the Academie Francaise, the number of them is strictly limited. And even the poor victims of the Anchorites are not ordinary folk - only 'the souls of the Engifted can be decanted.' Crispin Hershey, apparently, is not gifted enough: he is of no great theological interest to either Horologists or Anchorites; and the same goes for Holly's parents, and for Ed Brubeck, and for the horrid critic Richard Cheeseman. (Oh, well.)

It is possible that Mitchell truly proposes a bleak Gnosticism, a vision of the universe in which humans, poor bone clocks, suffer and strive, to little effect, in a cursed material world, while all the momentous stuff is going on in a restricted soul world of true initiates. But this vision, because it wrenches interest away from the human realm, seems a dubious one for a novel. The battle belongs to the Anchorites and Horologists, fighting in Technicolor hues of Good and Evil.

I doubt that David Mitchell's intention was to return the secular novel to theological allegory, but that is what The Bone Clocks does. Above all, his cosmology seems an unconscious fantasy of the author-god, reinstating the novelist as omniscient deity, controlling, prodding, shaping, ending, rigging. He has spoken of his novels as forming one Uber-book, in which themes and characters recur and overlap: an epic ambition. Battles involving men and gods are, indeed, the life-and-death-blood of the epic form. But didn't the epic hand off to the novel, in the last book of Paradise Lost, when the Angel Michael tells Adam and Eve that, though they will lose actual Paradise, they will possess 'a Paradise within thee, happier far'? The novel takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement. The 'human case' refuses to be preordained. The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced, too. Despite Mitchell's humane gifts as a secular storyteller, The Bone Clocks enforces an ordained hermeticism, in which fictional characters, often bearing names from previous Mitchell fictions, perform unmotivated maneuvers at the behest of mysterious plotters who can do what they want with their victims. Time to redact this particular Script.

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