The Bone Clocks

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

Is there any fiction that is completely devoid of the mechanisms of science fiction or fantasy? Perhaps not, but David Mitchell’s novels, while marketed as literary fiction and boasting jackets free of genre stigmata, are most assuredly invested in the principal devices and tropes of both science fiction (narratives set in projected futures) and fantasy (paranormal and occult powers). The Bone Clocks is divided into major sections distributed over the period from 1984 to 2043, with a series of interrelated first-person narrators, most of whom are about my age, as is Mitchell himself. The connecting plot of the novel is a “war in heaven” scenario featuring rival groups with praeterhuman powers, operating unseen in the midst of human society. I found it superior to similar stories such as Roger Zelazny’s Amber series or, say, the original Matrix movie, because of the far greater emphasis on and development of the mundane life of the characters, allowing the irruptions of the weird to genuinely shock.

As he did in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell includes a plot-line set in the literary industry, and involving animus between an author and a critic. A quote from the critic’s panning of the book Echo Must Die was surely one of the more backhandedly reflexive pieces of text I’ve read recently: “One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche 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 aquifers are dry than a writer writing a writer-character?” (294) While I don’t think that any of those three criticisms would be accurate for The Bone Clocks, they were almost certainly Mitchell’s three chief worries about the possible weaknesses of this long book. In fact, the prose is very accessible, and the different characters’ voices are distinct and engaging. The “fantasy sub-plot” is more of a “super-plot,” and seems to have a constructive relationship to the contemporary issues raised by the mundane events of the novel. And the Crispin Hershey writer-character allows for a level of intertextual creativity that I suspect I have only begun to appreciate, since I haven’t yet read most of Mitchell’s work. In fact, at least three of the narrating characters are writers, by the time the whole picture is put together.

The book has three of its six sections set in the future of its composition, one of them now largely in our past. “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet” begins in 2015, in a book published in 2014, and continues through 2020. “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the longest section, supplying the climax of the super-plot, and taking place in 2025, and the denouement “Sheep’s Head” is set in 2043. I found these projected settings fairly credible, if not optimistic. Well, the last of them actually bummed me out more than a little, but I don’t regret reading it, and I won’t condemn the “State of the World pretensions” that inform it.

LibraryThing includes The Bone Clocks as the second of three novels in a series called “Horologists.” Wikipedia, however, points out the continuities of character and setting to five other books by Mitchell, so that it sits in a larger web of connected texts, accounting for the majority of the author’s published books. I’m sure I’ll read more of these. [via]

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