My rating: 2 of 5 stars
It was about a decade ago that John Banville rightly called Ian McEwan’s Saturday “a dismayingly bad book,” and I am sorry to say that I would make the same judgment about this new novel by another maven of mainstream British fiction. I will not rehearse the novel’s plot or structure, since they are described at length in many other reviews (here, for instance). The following will be evaluative and will mostly interest those who have already read the novel.
I have quarreled with the theoretical presuppositions underlying James Wood’s review of The Bone Clocks: as I said, I fundamentally disagree with Wood’s claim that the novel as a literary form must treat its characters’ inner life with some version of psychological realism. Wood argues that the novel has absolutely superseded the epic following a suspiciously sectarian and nationally specific hand-off from Paradise Lost to modern fiction. In fact, Mitchell foresees such a critique and answers it in advance when his writer character, Crispin Hershey, borrows from W. H. Auden (as well as from Ezra Pound and Milan Kundera) to note that the modern novel emerged, long before the 18th century, in the sagas of medieval Iceland:
“If you’re writing fiction or poetry in a European language, that pen in your hand was, once upon a time, a goose quill held by an Icelander. Like it or not, know it or not, it doesn’t matter. If you seek to represent the beauty, truth, and pain of the world in prose, if you seek to deepen character via dialogue and action, if you seek to unite the personal, the past, and the political in fiction, then you’re in pursuit of the same aims sought by the authors of the Icelandic sagas, right here, seven, eight, nine hundred years ago. I assert that the author of Njal’s Saga deploys the very same narrative tricks used later by Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Molière, Victor Hugo and Dickens, Halldór Laxness and Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and Ewan Rice [a fictional writer in Mitchell’s novel]. What tricks? Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and backflash, artful misdirection. Now, I’m not saying that writers in antiquity were ignorant of all of these tricks but,” here I put my balls and Auden’s on the block, “in the sagas of Iceland, for the first time in Western culture, we find proto-novelists at work. Half a millennium avant le parole, the sagas are the world’s first novels.”*
But literary theory aside, Wood’s assessment of The Bone Clocks‘s aesthetic failings is correct. Mitchell’s novel is an indigestible stew of incompatible elements, and its binding agent is a gratingly superficial, overly “voicey” set of first-person monologues characterized by what Wood calls “matey, Christmas-cracker jokiness.”
All five of the novel’s narrators speak in a rushed present-tense narration, a kind of stream-of-consciousness, full of try-hard cleverness and slangy sarcasm: the effect is like 620 pages of Twitter. Here is protagonist Holly Sykes, describing the novel’s catalyst event, a fight with her mother that led her to run away from home: “I only ate half my Weetabix before Mam started her Muhammad Ali act on me.” Fair enough from a 15-year-old, but here is Holly at 74, reflecting with identical TV-teen glibness on a conversation with her adopted grandson as the resources of the modern world run out: “Which maybe wasn’t the best thing to say, but if there was a book called The Right Things to Do and Say as Civilization Dies, I’ve never read it.” With allowances made for differences in class and dialect, the whole novel is written in this tediously over-the-top style, which cannot convey much subtle or genuine feeling. Add to that Mitchell’s excessive reliance on dialogue for exposition, narration, and characterization, so much so that pages at a time feel like a prolix screenplay, and you have a glaring failure from such an accomplished writer. This is a novel without silence; it shouts at us unremittingly.
Its characters’ psychologies are accordingly crude and superficial. Mitchell and his surrogates garrulously offer Tuesdays with Morrie-level platitudes as wisdom—
“Can’t advise you, Ed, but for what it’s worth, I’ve met a fair few fellers down the years just after they’ve been told by a doctor that they’re going to die. […] You won’t be surprised when I tell you that not a one of them fellers ever said, ‘Dave, if only I’d spent more time at work.'”
—even as the most one-dimensional or clichéd feelings motivate the main characters: first love, greed, the excitement of war, maternal solicitude. On almost every page of The Bone Clocks, flat characters rush around in a constant hubbub of eventfulness, whether the events are realistic or fantastical. Even the novel’s mundane aspects, meant to contrast with its supernatural subplot, include scenes where characters break into a church, jump off the roof of a chalet, defraud dementia-stricken philatelists, encounter boardwalk psychics, plant cocaine in a rival’s luggage, etc. If the novel is not meant to be a farce—and I don’t think it is—then something has gone wrong.
As seen in Cloud Atlas‘s Adam Ewing and Luisa Rey, the titular Jacob de Zoet, and the aged Holly Sykes in the present novel’s final sections, one of Mitchell’s great and rare strengths is in portrayals of complexly good, kind, well-intentioned, and decent people. But his vision of evil is simplistic by comparison. The Bone Clock‘s villainous cult of soul-decanting Anchorites are preternaturally selfish, and grossly theatrical about it too. To make this cartoonish villainy humanly relevant, Mitchell accuses all of us—himself included, I must imagine—of a similar selfishness at the end of the novel, when the apocalypses of liberal and industrial civilization start piling up: climate change, peak oil, corporate exploitation.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It’s not just that I can’t hold Aoife again, it’s everything: It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.
Mitchell also attacks irrationality when Holly denounces religious believers in the novel’s last section, sermonizing atheistically in the self-righteous tones of a Dawkins or Hitchens. He also assails political stupidity when Holly’s partner, Ed Brubeck, voices a fierce polemic, correct if out of place, against George W. Bush and the architects of the Iraq War for their gross irresponsibility in destroying Iraq’s institutions without replacing them.
But are selfishness, irrationality, and stupidity really what motivates people to commit evil acts, especially politically evil ones? The novel lacks any account of how “evil” people convince themselves that they are doing what is right and necessary; among the frankly childish elements of the novel is its portrayal of the Anchorites as greedy sybarites and the Horologists as heroes of human sympathy. A character literally says of the conflict, “It is black and white,” an interpretation that goes unchallenged even though the character himself, a defector from Horology’s services, means it ironically. But isn’t George W. Bush fascinating and frightening precisely because he seems to truly believe that his mission of destruction was in fact a righteous, moral, and compassionate crusade to emancipate the Iraqi people? Bush may be an Anchorite, but he thinks he is an Horologist! Bush’s is a paradox of motivation and consequence that the novel as a literary form exists to examine, but its like is found nowhere in this novel’s characterization, in which all nuance is drowned in a cacophony of cleverness.
In one of the best positive evaluations of the novel, Brian Finney describes it as largely a parody—but how can we tell? What made Cloud Atlas so compelling was its textuality; in the earlier novel, Mitchell brilliantly recreates six distinct literary styles, each presented as a material text of some sort, which adds a savor of sportive Joycean irony to the epic narrative. But Mitchell dispenses with such sophistication in The Bone Clocks; the novel’s shrill staginess of narration and dialogue, presented not as culture-mediated text but as the unmediated expression of its characters, reads less like a parody of grandiloquent silliness than like grandiloquent silliness itself. Cloud Atlas‘s textuality gave it a deeply comic dimension, reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels or Ulysses, whereas The Bone Clocks is endlessly jokey and rarely funny.
Critics have argued about whether the novel’s fantastical and realistic elements cohere, or whether the fantastical elements are legitimate at all. On the first point, I would argue that they do not. Mitchell’s taste for exaggeration, comedy, and melodrama leaves him little gift for social or psychological realism of the kind practiced by, say, John Updike. Everything is just too, too much in Mitchell’s world to be persuasive as a picture of everyday life. His satire of the literary world in section four of The Bone Clocks, for instance, is a caricature filled with catty critics, trendy Brooklynites, and hysterical ideologues.
English novelists have long maintained that the novel can unite world or cosmic history to the quotidian lives of ordinary people. For example, here is George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, another novel that famously fails to integrate its elements, making what might as well be the case for Holly Sykes:
Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.
What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.
But The Bone Clocks gets less and less convincing the more it tries to represent the everyday or the individual. Every character in the novel, from barkeeps and journalists and provincial mayors to ancient immortals, think and speak as if they were in some kind of kitschy movie or sitcom, obviating the realism that a great 19th-century novelist like Eliot could use to ground her grander world-historical speculations:
“Wow, Mum!” says Aoife. “The Crispin Hershey actually knows who you are. Aunt Sharon’s going to be, like, ‘Whaaa?‘”
(If this review were published in the London Review of Books, the reliably malicious editors would title it “Like, Whaaa?”)
In answer to the question of whether a writer of Mitchell’s talent should pursue fantasy, then, I would say it is all he should pursue. Unlike most critics, I thought the fully fantastical fifth section of the novel was the best, since it doesn’t bother us with one-dimensional mockery of Cambridge privilege, the Iraq War catastrophe, or the Hay-on-Wye festival, but rather lavishly indulges Mitchell’s strength at plangent, globe-and-history-spanning fantasies that reveal the small place of the human soul in the vast cosmos.
I love the long passage in which the almost immortal Marinus recalls his first encounter with Esther Little, a fellow “atemporal” who has lived for millennia among the Noongar people of pre-invasion Australia. In this fantastic moment, when the fragility of culture is juxtaposed with the soul’s resilience, Mitchell’s novel quiets down enough for some tender, lyrical feeling to come through:
By night, Esther and I sat across the fire from each other at the mouth of her her small cave and subspoke about empires, their ascents and alls; about cities, shipbuilding, industry; slavery, the dismemberment of Africa, the genocide of the natives of Van Diemen’s Land; farming, husbandry, factories, telegraphs, newspapers, printing, mathematics, philosophy, law, and money and a hundred other topics. […] Her metaage became apparent one night when she recited the names of all her previous hosts, and I lined up one pebble per name. There were 207 pebbles. Moombaki sojourned into new hosts when they were about ten and stayed until death, which implied a metalife stretching back approximately seven millennia. This was twice as old as Xi Lo, the oldest Atemporal known to Horology, who at twenty-five centuries was a stripling compared to Esther, whose soul predated Rome, Troy, Egypt, Peking, Nineveh, and Ur. […] When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to a Shakespeare. When I scansioned her, I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea.
Alas, this moment is soon over, and the book goes back to its more characteristic idiom of ranting and unstoppably loquacious screenplay, full of bad action-movie dialogue:
“We do give [the Anchorites] a chance to mend their ways,” says Unalaq.
“But they never do,” says Ōshima, “so we have to mend their ways for them, permanently.”
Mitchell is a dreamy, sensitive fantasist at heart. Or at least dreamy, sensitive fantasy is the mode in which I think his novels—I have read all but Ghostwritten and Black Swan Green—find their deepest springs of energy. Instead of trying to be a postmodern maximalist, writing an endless Über-novel, Mitchell might do well to consider other models of poetic and fantastical narrative—I think of Ray Bradbury’s or even Bruno Schulz’s short stories—ones less susceptible to the vulgar verbosity of The Bone Clocks.
While I admire this novel much less than Ursula K. Le Guin does, I think she is right that its vision of immortals staring over “the Dusk…between life and death” where all souls pass on their way is its truest, deepest moment. The loneliness of the semi-immortal, confronting the littleness of our lives: contra Mitchell’s critics, this fantasy is his best vision, and the one he should throw over his blundering excursions into social realism to pursue. Other Über-novels have worked in a similar métier; I recall, for example, the Vertigo maxi-series I loved so much in my adolescence, Gaiman’s Sandman, Morrison’s The Invisibles. Inside our bone-clock bodies, we feel like eternal souls looking over a vale of mysterious impermanence; this is no idle fantasy, but a metaphor for an actual and pervasive experience.
*Instead of typing this long passage out, I copied it from here, in an intelligent and laudatory interpretation of the novel by Parke Muth, which you should definitely read if you are unsatisfied by my distaste for the book.