This is the way the world ends
THE Bone Clocks is a crumbling Gormenghast of a novel — the fictional equivalent of that vast gothic castle from Mervyn Peake’s mid-century trilogy, home for millennia to the earls of Groan. Some of its thousands of rooms are grandly appointed while others have fallen into ruin, though all of them reflect a bizarre architectural mash-up of historical eras. The grounds are dilapidated and overgrown, the massive walls tumbledown, the castle’s numerous stone towers mainly home to owls.
Yet there is magnificence in the scale of the complex, its mad profusion of ivy and stone. Likewise, the narrative of The Bone Clocks, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is built to the proportions of an author’s outsized ambition. Its 600 pages, a teeming citystate of the imagination, house and sustain a multitude of ideas and inventions, not all of which survive the passage of time and narrative necessity.
Though it would be hard to glean all this from the radically ordinary manner and milieu of its opening in the Kentish town of Gravesend, one morning in 1984, in the bedroom of a teenage girl who has Talking Heads on the turntable and an older boyfriend on her mind.
It is to Holly Sykes’s consciousness we are grafted across the first 90 pages of the novel. And despite the kitchen-sink realism of the setup, a 15-year-old playing hooky after an argument with mum, the writing is anything but. Indeed, the swiftness with which David Mitchell captures our attention is some species of marvellous.
There is his bionic ear for idiolect, for starters. Mitchell can tint individual speech patterns in a thousand graded shades, from Estuary English to pure toff, bog Irish to southern white trash, and make you believe in every single one of them. Then there is the set designer’s eye for the tiny local detail that might save paragraphs of exposition: the leather biker’s jacket, say, studded with the words “Led Zep”, which explains more about Holly’s boyfriend than any sociological disquisition ever will. Finally, most rare and most welcome in terms of contemporary literature, Mitchell has a sense of narrative pace that ensures even the most banal happenings oil the larger story’s gears.
It should be said that this dull suburban surface does not remain undisturbed for long. Holly, we learn, heard voices when she was a little girl, a noisome host she dubbed the Radio People. She was also visited for a time by a beautiful woman who could materialise and dematerialise at will, who claimed to care for her but turned out to be a menacing presence. All parties had been silenced by a kindly doctor years before with a single acupuncture needle.
All this oddity Holly has long put away, though there is a brief renewed flicker when her much-loved younger brother gives her a map scrawled on a piece of cardboard the morning she leaves home. The fey little boy begs her to memorise it so well that she could navigate the labyrinthine passages with her eyes closed. She agrees distractedly, unaware that she will never see him again.
At which point, like some humble spud lost to the back of a kitchen pantry, the narrative The Bone Clocks By David Mitchell Sceptre, 600pp, $29.99 sprouts in every direction. The Bone Clocks soon reveals itself to be a novel apparently closer in spirit to the fantasy genre. And Holly’s domestic defection turns out to be the beginning of a battle between ancient forces for immense stakes.
The remainder of the book fades in and out of a chronological coma. We move by yearly degrees from Margaret Thatcher’s southeast England to Sheep’s Head, County Cork, during the “Endarkenment” of the 2040s, when climate change has finally closed the curtains on Western civilisation. In between we are shunted from Cambridge in the early 1990s to Iraq in its postmillennial collapse. We visit Western Australia’s Rottnest Island, Iceland’s volcanic plains and Manhattan’s more expensive enclaves, as though someone had invented a Google Earth random itinerary generator and then reverse engineered an epic from the resulting trip.
Early reviews of The Bone Clocks have taken issue with its genre slumming and frenetic journeying in time and place, which is unfair. When Mitchell performed these same demanding manoeuvres in earlier novels — works more identifiably “literary” — his imaginative scope was praised as something impressive. This time, when those same talents are blended with more prosaic elements, the shutters come down.
Critics are right, however, that there is an uneasy co-occupation of registers in the novel. Mitchell’s writing has so far divided between works that exult in ludic randomness ( Ghostwritten, Number9Dream), and those that show fealty to realism ( Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). More than any work Mitchell has attempted so far, The Bone Clocks combines these. The result, for all its joys, sometimes feels like pastiche, like bricolage.
So it is that we interrupt the supposed escapism of sections dealing with a centuries-old conflict — between “atemporals”, benign karmic journeymen and women who find themselves reborn after each mortal death, and vampires who harvest the living to preserve their longevity — with chapters devoted to the contemporary and still unfolding disaster of the Middle East. It is as if a photojournalist had turned every so often from recording the aftermath of a Fallujah truck bomb to click away at a distant nebula in the night sky.
More damningly, Mitchell stuffs in yet more traditional fictional tropes. Chapters are devoted to the waspish progress of an English man of letters — a low-rent Martin Amis copy named Crispin Hershey — whose bitterness at receiving a bad review leads him to pursue ends more appropriate to literary farce than po-faced fantasy fiction. It is smart, acidulous fun in isolation but, when combined with other aspects of the novel, somewhat incongruous.
We may be forgiven for feeling at times as though Mitchell has written several tremendous books, of which the blended result is khaki mush. But it would be wrong to condemn the book entirely on those terms. More attentive readers will note how all the characters portrayed here, irrespective of the particular narrative corner from which they come, flexing their pecs, are bent by the years towards some more sober and thoughtful examination of their place in the scheme of things. Time, as Gillian Welch sings, is a revelator. Indeed the expansive temporal scheme of the novel, which at first seems to draw us away from those to whom Mitchell asked us to pay closest attention, eventually returns all its children to the centre.
Holly Sykes may bob in and out of view but she remains stubbornly present throughout. There is something meaningful and precious about her that Mitchell hews to. No excursion into the colour-by-numbers incitements of genre extinguishes that fact.
What Mitchell understands and his various exegetes do not is plain. The novel may entertain, it may educate, it may even expand the realm of the senses; but in a moment where we are faced with the knowledge of our probable extinction as a species, neither the aesthetic nor the didactic approach properly fits. The world is beautiful, says the novel, with its power of communion of one mind with another. The world is screwed, says the newspaper editorial, harnessing facts to argument. But beauty is not enough, rhetoric is not enough.
The final sections of the book will doubtless draw the greatest ire, when an elderly Holly Sykes finds herself maintaining the remnants of a family in the light of societal breakdown. For some they will seem drastic, overblown. But as an act of creative futurism, they strike me as an awfully reasonable explication of our probable future. An elderly Holly grieves 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 government — all so we didn’t have to change our cosy lifestyles.
But the story has zoomed in and out enough times by now to balance the extravagance of Holly’s complaint against the dreary daily reality she describes. Mitchell has written a grand and furiously flawed novel at his sixth attempt. I would take it over the more elegantly obedient of its competitors any day.
David Mitchell has written a grand, fascinating and flawed novel full of oddity