The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell – [Book Review]

Don't interrupt me
In China, being rudely interrupted whilst reading Cloud Atlas

About four years ago, I picked up a copy of Cloud Atlas on a recommendation from my friend Ben. From the first few pages I was stunned. Here was a book of such quality, it made my own work read like the witless ramblings of an illiterate cretin. I loved it, and loathed it with self-deprecating awe.

I’ve heard some people were thrown by the first chapter’s somewhat verbose Victorian-style prose, but I found it captivating. The vocabulary was astonishing, the choice of words practically perfect.

I was also struck by the symmetrical structure of the book, which, when I realised I would be returning to the initial protagonist Adam Ewing, gave me all the more compulsion to read on and discover the resolution to his plight. Yet, I was enthralled by the next character I was presented with, and the next.

Each tale had its own unique tone, its own genre. And beneath it all there ran the theme of mankind’s predatory nature, persisting through the eras, adopting a different guise to confound us.

It’s a fabulous book and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

But it’s that, I’m afraid, that makes this review all the harder to write.

A bone to pick
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell's
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks has a few similar traits to Cloud Atlas: the narrative adopts the perspectives of a handful of characters, each taking their turn in long, unbroken chapters of roughly a hundred pages, their association with the subsequent chapter initially unclear, but eventually revealed.

It is evident throughout that David Mitchell is an excellent writer, with an incredible grasp of tone, voice and character. Motivations are real, perceptions are tightly tuned and dialogue is believable, varying from voice to voice.

But in The Bone Clocks, it’s what pieces each story together that feels so drastically out of step. There’s this hackneyed fantasy plotline that feels so thrown in amongst the rest of the character drama, it feels like an afterthought. Indeed, there’s such little mention of it for the most part, until, after around 500 pages, you finally glean what’s happening, in an overwhelmingly expositional block of prose. To be fair, it needed to be, as 500 pages is a lot to go through before you’ve any idea what the Hell is going on.

Too many cooks

I can’t help thinking a marketing team got involved with this one, interfering in order to plug into markets that this book should have left well alone. It felt to me like the overarching storyline was forced upon the author – it’s so jarring. Strip it down and it’s about vampires for heaven’s sakes. Was there anything trendier in 2014?

I’m not a massive fantasy buff, but I’m pretty sure introducing all of your magic mechanics in one scene is a bit of a no-no, especially so near the end of the story. The climactic battle scene is so saturated with obscure sorcery, it sounds like a thirteen-year-old excitedly relaying his Dungeons & Dragons game to bewildered parents:

Arkady, Unalaq, Holly and I are knocked back by a barrage of jagged emberfire, laser-whiplash and sonic bullets. I feel Unalaq’s nervous system scream with every impact. Arkady and I fire back, our Deep Stream projectiles passing from our palm-chakras through Unalaq’s shield. Those that hit their targets will hiatus, sedate or redact an Anchorite out of the battle, but Shaded Way psychoincendiaries will fry our flesh.

– Ok, Billy, you run along and play now.

It’s so frustrating; the well-written character dramas are undermined by this hokey, derivative and laboured plot underpinning everything. (And yes, I know that’s passive voice, but if Mitchell can do it, so can I).

Oddly, Mitchell draws attention to the book’s shortcomings in a passage more meta than a Mandelbrot animation. The beginning of the fourth chapter begins with a writer-character, Crispin Hershey, bemoaning a scathing review from a literary critic, Richard Cheeseman, whose critique reads thusly:

‘So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what surer sign is there that the creative aquifiers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’

That’s right: a writer writes a writer-character’s literary review that highlights all of the ailments of the work in which the fictional review appears. But is that phenomenally brave, self-deprecatingly subversive, or arrogantly blind?

Because I don’t bloody know.

If you’ve read The Bone Clocks, please tell me I’m wrong. I was so excited to read it, and I loved Cloud Atlas so much, I’d love to be told I’m wrong, and that, actually, it’s great, a tour de force of fantasy fiction, a self-referential masterpiece that I just didn’t get because I’m too bloody dim.

Maybe I just need to be better at opinions.

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