Book Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
Posted on September 28, 2014
*Warning: I have said things in this review which some readers may view as plot spoilers, so proceed with caution, please.*
I have read only a handful of The Bone Clocks professional and lay reviews so far because I find that if I read too many reviews before writing my own, I feel constrained by others’ opinions. But I think I can safely assume that most of the important points about this book have already been made, for better or worse.
I should say upfront that the inferences I’ve made about the author, which I find worth discussing because they are based on the book, may or may not be correct. I have read only one other book of his so far, which is Cloud Atlas, and one short interview with him discussing his favourite books by Japanese authors.
I have to admit to a bias here against knowing too much about the authors whose work I enjoy. I wade tentatively into those waters of familiarity because I have found myself on several occasions put off writers’ works after coming to know too much about them personally. Since I worked for years in the NYC book industry, first as a manager and then a buyer, I know that my disengagement does not occur merely from meeting an author and chatting amicably (or not, in some cases), or enjoying a meal together; rather, it is a result of over-sharing, which is a social media and talk-show phenomenon that I have never quite adjusted to, despite growing up in the Oprah generation.
As a reader, I need a bit of distance. I don’t want to know so much about a writer’s personal life that I cannot get it out of my head when trying to read a book they’ve written. Partly, this may be a result of having spent a longish second career as a therapist, too. Vouching safe the memories and secrets of my clients’ lives has resulted in my becoming a silent personal historian, brimming with private confidences that I will take to my grave. So maybe I’m topped up — in perpetuity — on the deep and meaningful in social intercourse.
There are some writers, however, whose interviews I will read and whose lives I will follow, because they maintain enough personal restraint that I am not left feeling overly involved. Murakami is one of these. As soon as I think of the others, I will let you know.
So, as I discuss both my impressions of the book and its author, please keep in mind that I may not know what I am talking about!
There should be an introduction to this novel that sorts its readers right away by saying: those of you on the socio-political left, please shift to the bow of the boat, and those on the right, to the stern. Something tells me that the boat would tip and sink quick-smart. Mitchell’s social and political values are so evident in his writing that I can only wonder if he has any conservative, right-wing readers at all. This is fine with me, of course, being a left-wing type myself. Having said that, even I find him ham-fisted and preachy at times, so I do wonder if right-wing conservatives would be put off entirely.
There’s a scant handful of big socio-political themes that Mitchell does not address in The Bone Clocks, but I figure I could guess his views on those, regardless, because he seems to run on a straight ticket. With some books and authors, it is clear that their characters do not represent themselves and their own views, but only those of their characters. With Mitchell, I suspect this is not the case. I think his books, although fantastical meta-fiction, are very much a mouthpiece for his views on personal and social morality and politics. I am willing to be corrected on this, as I am no Mitchell expert. But, it strikes me that enjoying The Bone Clocks may depend upon one’s sharing this world view.
Here are some examples of some key points I think Mitchell is making:
• In a not-too-subtle metaphor, the good guys — those trans-migratory souls called The Horologists — are multi-cultural vegetarians (“it’s a mind-spirit thing”), and the bad guys are all white carnivores. The one percent, as we have all long suspected, are feeding off the rest of us!
• War’s destruction is widespread and cannot be contained, eventually impacting not only those who start and maintain it, but also those who turn a blind eye to the suffering and corruption it inevitably fosters. Also, your opinion of who’s the terrorist largely depends on which side of the gun barrel you are on at the time.
• Catastrophic weather damage and a subsequently devastated future for all living things are inevitable if we continue to consume fossil fuels as we do, and fail to address — adequately and realistically — our impact on the planet. Our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences and some of them will turn on us with a righteous vengeance as a result of our indulgences and failure to take personal responsibility.
I don’t agree with all of those statements, in their fullest sense, but I think arguments can be made to defend them all, and I believe that Mitchell is making them throughout his book — mostly to good effect. Though, as I’ve mentioned — and this is my one big complaint — it’s sometimes just too much hammers-on-nails banging home his point. I wanted to scream at times that for heaven’s sake we get it already, and anyway, surely he is preaching to the converted! Then again, he may be over-stating his own views as a way of bringing attention to the seriousness of them, just as he uses fantasy to hyper-focus on reality. Fair enough, but not always good reading.
Can you love enough? A question of character
There are five narrators in The Bone Clocks, each with their own goals and interests, and each with a set of terms and conditions under which they operate. No matter who they are, though — and in a Mitchell book, you can bet that they are not all merely humble humans — again and again, Mitchell reminds us that everything matters and everything is personal. I think he would argue that this universe, this world, this life, these people, and these unfolding moments are the responsibility of each one of us, however unimportant we may think we are in the greater scheme of things. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge that — to care and to act — is the central moral question on which his plots spin, like plates on a stick.
Mitchell writes like a capricious old-world god. On the one hand, when his characters are focusing too intensively on their personal needs to the exclusion of others, Mitchell puts them in difficult situations and forces them to choose: act or walk away. Make no mistake, there is one right answer and it is to do the right thing, even when it costs you something you’d rather not pay.
On the other hand, when a character becomes so expansive in his world view, so outward-focused that he loses sight of the personal and familial, here comes Mitchell again to remind him of his folly. For example, Mitchell might have said to Ed Brubeck, Holly’s friend and eventual life partner: Okay, Mr. Hot-Shot. People dying in foreign wars on an “industrial scale” is so BIG in your life that you cannot be bothered about the quotidian concerns of your family? Well then, here I come to remind you of a parent’s real worst nightmare: do you know where your child is? Sleeping next to you? I think not. Look again. (Yikes!)
On the other-other hand (because gods can have more than two hands, right?) the great god Mitchell offers his blessings too if he feels that his creations have earned it. In this way, the good get rewarded and the bad punished, and those middling ones end up in a kind of limbo, one supposes. Mitchell’s is a just universe, after all, and he is not above tossing in an act as bold and unlikely as a parting of seas to pull someone out of a crisis (while making fun of himself for doing so, of course).
Moving within this universe, too, are Mitchell’s version of angels and demons — the Horologists versus the Anchorites — whispering in at least some human ears and trying to persuade them to choose for good or evil, respectively. What is on the line here? Well, only your very soul, and collectively, the fate of the world. No pressure!
Mitchell’s Holly Sykes, the main character whose life arc we follow from when she is fifteen until she is in her mid-seventies, is an archetypal figure. I read someone somewhere referring to her as a stereotype of a teenage girl (as a criticism and a dismissal) but I think that she is an apt representative of female adolescents of that generation. I was a teen and young adult in the mid-eighties, too, and I recognised everything about her. She was an immediate and easy fit, like a set of clothes borrowed from your best girlfriend, despite this character growing up in the UK compared to my own American adolescence.
Holly is a fine anchor-point in the novel because her character is essentially unchanging. She is the standard candle. Holly’s most basic principle is that she chooses to love, always, and to hell with the consequences. This is not because she is stupid but because love is her highest value, and what gives her life meaning and purpose. I like very much that Holly is not an all-together brilliant and exceptional person, but rather an ordinary person caught up in a series of extraordinary events. It is true that she has some psychic ability, but this is only rarely helpful to her and more often puts her in danger. To me, her ordinariness made her more compelling as a character. If she has a super-heroine ability besides unreliable ESP, it is her capacity to love and be loved, which is the foundation of her courage and indomitable strength.
Hugo Lamb, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Holly, in that he always chooses what is best for Hugo — presented not so much as self-love but more a profound commitment to self-preservation — and to hell with the consequences. Having said that, Mitchell does not make him a fully dark figure. (Even devils have their moments.) But Hugo’s soul turns on a dime: he has one chance to choose for love and, after that, his fate is sealed. I have the impression that Mitchell is sending us a message here, too: that some choices which may seem small — the real choice Hugo faces, after all, is only whether to get in a car with some strangers, or to go meet his new lover, Holly, for breakfast — have profound and irreversible ramifications.
Between these two (morally if not actually) is Crispin Hershey, the writer who seems like Mitchell’s own alter ego — especially as the criticisms laid on Crispin’s latest novel are the very ones Mitchell must have anticipated he had coming his way. The Crispin Hershey narrative was my favourite part of The Bone Clocks, and I had to think about why for quite some time before the light bulb came on: Crispin is the only character who allows himself to be changed by love, and we get to bear witness to this change. Mitchell reveals Crispin bit by bit in all his aspirational greed, carnality, selfishness, and moments of utter depravity that should make us loathe him, perhaps, but does not. Crispin may be all those things, but he also loves his children — in his way — and can appreciate a loving and committed relationship with a good woman, even if he is unable to hold onto it. Though drowning-not-waving in the deep mire of his vanity and self-importance, Crispin never loses sight of the shore entirely. He can laugh at his own absurdity while acknowledging that he is who he is and wants what he wants.
We travel through Crispin’s life with him as he is humbled by his own destructiveness, and as he works to undo some of the damage he has wrought, but he never changes so utterly that he is unrecognisable: the sinner does not become a bona fide saint. Crispin knows precisely how far he will and will not go to undo the grievous wrong he has committed against a professional enemy. He has a conscience, and it pricks him, but not hard enough to change places with the person whose life and career he has destroyed. His care has its limits. Finally, though, we see in him a growing — if unrealised — love for Holly and a slow gentling of his spirit. Crispin seems to be redeemed by this love in a way that Hugo did not allow himself to be.
Take it personally, because it is personal
There is more to say about this book, as it is a long and involving world-capade* that I found fully engaging and loads of fun to read. But in the interest of keeping the review at least a bit shorter than the book, I will finish up now by talking about my final impressions. Mitchell’s tale, for all its fantastical elements, its humour, and its absurdity is nevertheless serious at its core, and its moral rallying cry sounds both urgent and sincere. The Bone Clocks implores us to choose love, to take personal responsibility, to care enough to act, and to do the right thing. In opposition to a popular internet meme, I think Mitchell is saying: This is your circus, these are your monkeys.
* Borrowed and altered from the Ice Capades, which was a live ice-skating variety show that I loved as a child, whose name is a pun on escapade.