Rise of the Über-book: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell
Published September, 2014
Readers familiar with the British novelist David Mitchell will find that The Bone Clocks (2014) bears many of the hallmarks of his work. It is structurally complex, readable and inventive. Its plot is ambitious in scope, crossing time periods and blurring genre categories. It is also impossible to summarise without making it sound completely ridiculous.
The story begins in 1984 with a section narrated by a teenager, Holly Sykes, who has fled her home town after arguing with her mother and being betrayed by her boyfriend. In the countryside, she encounters an eccentric older woman, who in exchange for a cup of tea extracts a promise from Holly that she will provide her with ‘sanctuary’ when she needs it. This rashly given promise draws Holly into a centuries-old conflict between two rival groups of powerful immortals, the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar, who achieve their longevity by decanting and consuming the souls of innocents, and the Atemporal Horologists, who are able to transfer their minds between bodies and are perpetually reborn after every death, whether they will it or not.
This might sound like the premise for a young adult fantasy novel (psychic vampires vs. vaguely Buddhist Timelords), but the otherworldly battle is largely kept in background. This is easily accomplished because both sets of immortals are able to ‘redact’ the memories of normal humans, or ‘suasion’ them into doing their bidding. Most of the narrative is given over to the lives and doings of mundane characters, the ‘bone clocks’ of the title, who are ticking their way towards their temporal end.
After Holly’s introduction, the next section of the novel is set in 1991 and is narrated by Hugo Lamb, a cheerfully amoral Cambridge undergraduate, who is being secretly vetted by the Anchorites for recruitment. He has a brief affair with Holly at ski resort in Switzerland. The following sections, set in 2004 and 2015, explore the perspectives of Holly’s eventual husband Ed Brubeck, a journalist reporting on the war in Iraq, and her unlikely friend Crispin Hershey, an acerbic middle-aged novelist. The penultimate section, set in 2025, brings the conflict between Anchorites and Horologists to a head and is narrated by Marinus, a Horologist who has exerted a largely unseen influence over Holly’s life. We finally return to Holly’s voice and perspective in a coda, set in 2043, as civilisation slides over the brink of a global collapse brought about by environmental disasters and resource shortages.
In her review of The Bone Clocks for the Guardian, Ursula Le Guin notes that despite Mitchell’s fantastical hops between genres, time periods and narrators, his work never feels ‘genuinely freewheeling’. Le Guin characterises Mitchell’s daring as ‘anxious’: ‘He watches his steps, always’. This quality could be taken as either Mitchell’s singular limitation or his greatest strength as a writer. Mitchell’s novels often have great scope, but are too tightly structured to truly sprawl. More like puzzle boxes than labyrinths, the seemingly disparate sections of Mitchell’s novels constantly wheel back to focus on recurrent themes, archetypes and scenarios. There are no dead ends; all the moving parts eventually fit together.
Elements of The Bone Clocks clearly mirror devices and preoccupations found in Mitchell’s earlier work. The multiple narrators and movements between time periods recall the structure of Cloud Atlas (2004), as does the dystopian vision he presents in The Bone Clocks’ final section. The body-hopping Horologists share some similarities with the disembodied mind or incorporum that narrates the ‘Mongolia’ chapter of Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten (1999), and the predatory nature of the Anchorites mirrors that of the villainous monks in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), who also exploit their victims in the pursuit of immortality. Mitchell is ‘obsessed with eternal recurrence’, as James Wood puts it in his review of The Thousand Autumns, and is constantly exploring how the same themes, archetypes and scenarios emerge again and again, across centuries of history and between genres of fiction.
The intricacies of cause and effect at both personal and global levels are a particular fixation. The narrative trajectories of Ghostwritten and The Thousand Autumns, in particular, develop from a combination chance encounters, hasty decisions, actions and inactions that have unexpected and far-reaching outcomes for both the characters concerned and the larger world beyond them. This stresses the importance of individual agency, as almost no action ever undertaken by any of Mitchell’s characters fails to result in lasting consequences. But it also reflects the narrowness of individual perspective, as few of them can predict or perceive the full impact of their choices. The Bone Clocks’ focus on the life of Holly Sykes repeats this theme within the convenient ‘chosen one’ convention of the fantasy genre: her hasty decisions at the start of the book intrude into an ancient conflict between good and evil forces.
The hidden savagery of civilisation is another thread that runs through much of Mitchell’s work. A key scene in The Bone Clocks involves a visit to a massacre site in Australia, mirroring the opening of Cloud Atlas, which begins with an examination of the genocide of the Moriori of the Chatham Islands at the hands of the Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama people, who are themselves re-enacting a version of the colonising process underway in New Zealand. At the chronological end point of Cloud Atlas, this movement is played out once again in a post-apocalyptic setting, where the apparent renewal of human civilisation begins with the violent conquest of peaceful tribes.
Whenever an order or system appears in Mitchell’s novels there is a good chance that it will be revealed to be corrupt and exploitative: from the Orwellian ‘Stability’ regime that reigns over the remnants of Ireland in the final section of The Bone Clocks, to the layers of government and law enforcement complicit in the human trafficking business of the Yakuza in Number9Dream (2001), to the brutal hierarchy of popularity in a rural British school in Black Swan Green (2006). To have faith in any of these systems is to be made complicit in one’s own subjugation. The power of the popular bullies in Black Swan Green is maintained not only through force, but through the false hope of approval and acceptance that they occasionally offer to their victims. In The Thousand Autumns, the abandoned workers of the Dutch trading outpost of Dejima naively entrust their interests to the distant officials of an increasingly corrupt company. They wait for relief and back wages that will never arrive, just as the women who are forced to serve as broodmares for the evil monks in the novel are not imprisoned by force, but by the promise that they will one day be reunited with the children who were taken from them, unaware that their children were murdered shortly after birth. In Cloud Atlas, the cowed residents of a contemporary nursing home are encouraged to view the humiliating authority that they live under as care rather than oppression, and in the future disposable clones are kept docile through the false belief that they will be rewarded for their service upon retirement. It is telling that in The Bone Clocks, which weaves Mitchell’s common themes into a dark fairytale, the victims of the Anchorites must go to their ends willingly, lured by flattery and empty promises. The words of Dr Henry Goose, the social Darwinist who appears in Cloud Atlas, echo throughout Mitchell’s entire corpus: ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’
Mitchell’s recurring themes receive their most overtly fantastical treatment in The Bone Clocks. This has been met with coolness from a number of critics. While generally positive in her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani describes the underlying conflict between Horologists and Anchorites as ‘mumbo-jumbo’ and ‘New-Age blather’. In the New Yorker, James Wood dismissively compares Mitchell’s descriptions of their powers and hidden plotting to the simple escapism of children’s literature. Even Le Guin, a veteran fantasy and science fiction author, is uncertain how to relate this thread of the novel to its more grounded and realistic elements, asking:
Am I to believe in the hocus-pocus of the secret cult of the Blind Cathar in the same way I am to believe in the realistic portrayal of the death agonies of corporate capitalism – or should I believe in them in different ways?
This is a valid question. While these elements of the novel explore similar ideas (the destructiveness of greed, exploitation and callous self-interest), they seem oddly detached. Ordinary venal human evil exists alongside theatrically malign supernatural evil, but the consideration of each is kept largely separate.
Wood objects to the supernatural elements because they steal focus from the human characters, robbing their lives of significance:
What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another has little impact on that otherworldly battle.
My reservation about the genre fiction elements in The Bone Clocks is the reverse of Wood’s. While the plots and counter-plots of Anchorites and Horologists are all exciting enough, I found them oddly empty when placed alongside the human characters and the artfully portrayed loves, losses, conflicts and friendships that have nothing to do with Apertures, psycho-voltages, chakra-eyes and redactions. The conflicting emotions of the adolescent Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb’s growing fear that unexpected love might puncture his self-protective cynicism, and Ed Brubeck’s guilty memories of war torn Iraq are more engaging than the histories and hierarchies of psychic wizardry. The narrator of the fourth section, the Martin Amis-like novelist Crispin Hershey, is arguably the character with the least connection to the fantastical elements of The Bone Clocks and it initially seems as if he will be used as a comic caricature for a spot of lightweight literary satire. But Mitchell manages to subvert this expectation, and Hershey emerges as a flawed yet sympathetic character, one who veers wildly between posturing, brazen confidence and profound self-doubt. The brief, calm friendship that he finds with Holly Sykes in the midst of this turbulence is one of the novel’s stronger elements.
By contrast, the Horologists and Anchorites, whose true nature is finally revealed in the section that follows, feel somewhat undercooked. This is not due to any failure of imagination on Mitchell’s part. He creates a terminology for his supernatural factions that could rival the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Manual in its arcane complexity. Le Guin justly praises his haunting description of ‘the Dusk’: a shadowy afterlife feared by Horologist and Anchorite alike. The problem, rather, is that these forces of absolute good and evil lack real depth and placing them in the same world as Holly, Hershey and the others doesn’t do them any favours. The Horologists are generally noble and self-sacrificing, unflinchingly dedicated to protecting ordinary humanity from their predatory counterparts for reasons that are never clearly articulated. The Anchorites appear too briefly to make much of an impression at all. The only member whose character is explored in any detail is Hugo Lamb and this is prior to his recruitment. Given that he fits with another of Mitchell’s favourite archetypes – the glib rogue who is perhaps not quite so callous as he would like to believe, like Yuzu Daimon in Number9Dream and Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas – Lamb’s eleventh hour redemption is entirely predictable.
The rest of the Anchorites are straightforward baddies, especially their leader Baptiste Pfenninger and his lieutenant, Miss Constantin, who not only show no remorse for their murderous existence, but also appear to take active pleasure in cruelty and can’t resist gloating like the Master from a 1970s episode of Dr Who whenever they believe they have someone at their mercy. Mitchell’s larger-than-life villains can be compelling and enjoyable (Suhbataar, the Mongolian assassin with ice water in his veins, for example, who appears in Ghostwritten and Number9Dream; or the diabolical Dr Goose from Cloud Atlas), but the Anchorites become harder to take seriously with every appearance. Their one-dimensional wickedness provides an awkward contrast to the complexity of the other characters. A potentially interesting idea – that they see themselves as self-made individuals in contrast to the aristocratically entitled and ‘naturally’ immortal Horologists – is introduced as an aside, and it feels like Mitchell misses an opportunity to more fully explore whatever layers of self-justification they might have.
This penultimate, immortal-dominated section passes in a blur of kinetics and psychoduels, and the novel continues after the conflict between Horologists and Anchorites has been resolved. The final (and possibly the best) section of The Bone Clocks sees Holly Sykes and what remains of her family eking out an existence in Ireland as the world slowly crumbles into chaos, with fuel and food becoming scarce, and the communication networks slowly darkening. The return to Holly’s narrative emphasises once again that it is the human characters who really matter. Mitchell’s sobering depiction of life during a total global collapse also works to deflate the battle royale between the Horologists and the Anchorites in the preceding section, making their centuries-old conflict over just a handful of lives seem trivial. In the end, the supernatural villainy of the Anchorites cannot match the depredations brought about by ordinary human greed.
The Bone Clocks, like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, suffers from an awkwardness created by its blend of the real and fantastical. The Thousand Autumns is a carefully researched and exhaustively detailed novel about the political, social and cultural ways of life for the Dutch traders at Dejima in the early nineteenth century, but embedded within this narrative is an outlandish adventure story featuring a 200-year-old, baby-murdering abbot who can kill insects with his mind. It is not so much the presence of the fantastical elements themselves that creates a problem for these two novels, but rather that they don’t feel meaningfully connected to the emotional, intellectual and psychological territories explored in the more ‘realistic’ content. The lives of Crispin Hershey and the Anchorites may intersect, but it is never easy to believe that they belong to the same world. Abbot Enomoto’s scheming (and gloating – he is another villain who is big on gloating) is rendered hollow when placed alongside the friendships, feuds, quiet yearning, and delicate points of protocol and translation that are examined in the Dejima passages. The human elements in both novels offer nuance and complexity, but whenever the narratives stray into supernatural territory the focus quickly shifts to depictions of uncomplicated evil, and both novels are weakened by these jarring movements.
Mitchell’s genre-blurring experiments have been more successful in the past. The interconnected stories in his first novel Ghostwritten move fluidly between natural, supernatural and science fiction elements, between ordinary lives and the drama of a high-stakes thriller, because the style and depth of characterisation remains consistent throughout. The uncertain, shifting boundaries between fantasy and reality in Number9Dream reflect the protagonist Eiji’s periodic retreats into escapism, as he uses the tropes of popular culture to make sense of his life and the death of his sister. Cloud Atlas follows the reincarnations of a soul not just across time periods but also between genres of fiction, exploring the possibilities offered by their different narrative and stylistic elements.
In all of these cases, a level of metafictional uncertainty is present. There is an implied possibility in Ghostwritten that its disparate stories are in fact the invention of a single character (the London-based ghost writer Marco) and its brief, mysterious final chapter suggests that the event that supposedly set this chain of connected narratives in motion may have never occurred at all. In Number9Dream, we are not always able to distinguish between the ‘real’ events of the novel and Eiji’s fantasies. The different sections of Cloud Atlas are all presented as written texts: journals, letters, interview transcripts, a novel within the novel, and readers are encouraged to reflect on their constructed and contradictory natures. James Wood notes that this uncertainty ‘actually strengthens the autonomous reality of these fictions’ rather than weakening them. Mitchell’s incorporation of different genre elements into Cloud Atlas and his other early novels is successful, not because they are all made to share a singular seamless reality, but because the differing views of reality that they present comment on, reflect and contest each other in interesting ways. This type of literary self-consciousness is largely absent in The Thousand Autumns and The Bone Clocks and these later novels suffer as a result.
Perhaps most troublingly, in The Bone Clocks Mitchell seems to be erasing or resolving many of the contradictions and ambiguities that made his earlier work so compelling. More overtly than any of his previous novels, it attempts to ground all of his diverse fiction within a shared setting and continuity. It is a massive act of ‘canon welding’ (to borrow a term from the website tvtropes.com). Mitchell has often returned to characters from earlier works. The mysterious Texan who hunts the renegade physicist Mo Muntervary in Ghostwritten is also mentioned in Number9Dream; Eva van Crommelynck plays a significant role in the 1920s section of Cloud Atlas, and then reappears as an elderly woman to help Jason Taylor with his poetry in Black Swan Green. These are often little more than cameos and when used to their best effect they raise further questions about the status of fiction, reality and storytelling, with the ghosts of past and future characters haunting the current work. The publisher Timothy Cavendish and the journalist Luisa Rey both make brief appearances in Ghostwritten, for example, so how is it possible in Cloud Atlas for Rey to be a fictional character in a thriller that has been submitted to Cavendish?
In The Bone Clocks, episodes with returning characters are deliberately constructed as sequels or prequels to the earlier works. Hugo Lamb was first introduced in Black Swan Green as Jason Taylor’s obnoxious cousin, so we naturally get an update on the post-1980s doings of the Taylor family in his section of the novel. A previous incarnation of the Horologist Marinus served as Jacob de Zoet’s sharp-tongued yet warm-hearted mentor The Thousand Autumns, so the events of that novel are briefly re-examined from an alternate perspective. War journalist Ed Brubeck works for Spyglass, the same magazine that employed Luisa Rey in the 1970s. Mo Muntervary from Ghostwritten plays a significant role in the final section of The Bone Clocks, and a few other familiar faces from Mitchell’s earlier novels crop up as well, such as the spiritualist Dwight Silverwind and the tyrannical aged care provider Nurse Noakes.
With each of these reappearances, it feels like the timeline and metaphysical rules that govern Mitchell’s fictional universe are becoming clearer. The connections and puzzle pieces click into place. But the stimulating sense of uncertainty is lost. We move from competing and contrasting stories to a singular magical reality. The wonderfully abrupt endings of Number9Dream (in which Eiji runs off into the novel’s empty and unknowable chapter nine) and Black Swan Green (which closes with this exchange between Jason and his sister: ‘It’ll be all right … in the end, Jace.’ ‘It doesn’t feel very all right.’ ‘That’s because it’s not the end.’), hint at the multitude of possibilities that await these characters in post-adolescent life. This uncertainty is undone, to a degree, in The Bone Clocks. I now know that their future likely involves the global collapse depicted in the novel’s final section, which may well be the same collapse that is set in motion by the rogue Artificial Intelligence named the Zookeeper in the penultimate chapter of Ghostwritten (as the presence of its creator, Mo Muntervary, would seem to imply). This probably then contributes to the rise to the Unanimity government featured in the futuristic sections of Cloud Atlas.
I won’t deny that there is pleasure to be found in making these links, but they work to close off some imaginative and speculative possibilities. As a novelist, Mitchell is remarkably good at endings, delivering satisfying resolutions while still leaving the burning yet enjoyable frustration of wanting to know more. Going ahead and telling us more, however, tends to weaken this affect. Eternal recurrence is all well and good, but not everybody needs to come back.
The resolution of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet also suffers from being revisited in The Bone Clocks. I was much less taken with Marinus the immortal Horologist than I was with Marinus the human being, as presented in The Thousand Autumns. Careful re-reading reveals hints that this development was always Mitchell’s long standing plan, but I still cannot find much that connects the two versions of the character in terms of personality, and the revelation that he is a body-hopping Atemporal robs his death in the earlier work of much of its poignancy. Furthermore, the resolution of the somewhat problematic Abbot Enomoto thread of The Thousand Autumns actually manages to be one of that novel’s highlights. It involves the sacrifice of a minor character, who had been depicted up until that point as little more than an inept functionary. The unexpected shift to their points of view reveals them to possess previously unknown reserves of dignity and nobility. The beauty of this moment is undone to a large degree in The Bone Clocks, when a minor immortal reveals that they had actually prompted this selfless act through ‘psycho-suasion’, as yet another covert movement in the war against carnivorous Atemporals. Yeah, that’s much better. Thanks, Horologists.
In his generally unfavourable review of The Bone Clocks, James Wood suggests that Mitchell’s impressive storytelling ability offers a narrative experience more like that of an extended dramatic television series than ‘the serious investigation into the human case’ that a novel should ideally provide.
The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is the game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better – where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.
This is a little unfair and Wood has started to take on a frustrated, hectoring tone in relation to Mitchell’s work (why won’t he put away his genre fiction toys and start realising his full potential?). But the idea that novels are becoming more like television, or television more like novels, is always interesting to engage with and is particularly pertinent in this case. Mitchell’s apparent attempt to merge all of his fiction into a single continuity reminds me of the popular internet theory that almost all dramatic American television series take place inside the imagination of Tommy Westphall, a minor character in the cult 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere. Its infamous finale revealed that the events of the entire series had been imagined by Tommy, an autistic child who spends his days staring into a snow globe. This ending is problematic for obsessive television fans because characters from St. Elsewhere also appeared in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, which would imply that the characters and events from that series had also been imagined by Tommy Westphall. A popular character from Homicide, Detective John Munch played by Richard Belzer, has since made crossover appearances on a host of other shows (from The X-Files to Arrested Development), and thus the ‘Tommy Westphall Universe’ keeps expanding, drawing more television shows into the snow globe, crossover by crossover, cameo by cameo.
Complex charts have been devised to trace the links and connections between all of these shows and demonstrate that if Detective John Munch can be seen meeting Agent Mulder from The X-Files and then later seen in the same bar as Jimmy McNulty from The Wire then that implies that Mulder and McNulty must walk in the same world and breath the same air, and could even hypothetically meet up at some point to chat about alien invasions, or about how the failure of the Baltimore public school system traps children in a cycle of poverty that inevitably funnels them into violent and drug-related crime.
In response, some admirably detailed and well-reasoned counter arguments have been presented to suggest that we should discount the Tommy Westphall universe entirely, which suggests that the idea that Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Dick Van Dyke Show might all share the same fictional continuity has given at least a few people some sleepless nights. For some, it is the implication that all these narratives are imagined by Tommy that rankles, as many viewers are off put by fictions within fictions and cannot abide another layer of separation from reality. For others (myself included), the objection stems from the sense that merging these fictions undermines their individual affect. Who can care about the Baltimore public school system while the planet is being invaded by aliens? (Or alternately: who cares about aliens while Baltimore’s public school system is crumbling?) The Tommy Westphall debate might seem absurd on the surface, but it resonates because successful fiction amounts to more than just what we see on the screen or read on the page; it also involves the connections, interpretations and imaginative speculations that we make as part of the act of viewing and reading.
The canon welding that Mitchell embarks upon in The Bone Clocks presents a similar problem to that of Tommy Westphall’s snow globe, in that the impact of some of his fiction is weakened when it is explicitly positioned within a shared continuity. The time-transcending antics of the Horologists and their fellow Atemporals makes some of the mundane action of Mitchell’s novels feel trivial. The fantastical elements can also appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.
In a recent interview with Kathryn Schultz, Mitchell stated that he now considers all of his fiction to constitute a single ‘Über-book’. I am at something of a loss as to what the overall purpose of this Über-book might be. Many novelists revisit old characters, of course, often as a way of paying tribute to past works and providing Easter eggs for constant readers. The brief mention of Francis Abernathy from The Secret History (1992) in Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch (2013), for example – or Robertson Davies wheeling out Dunstan Ramsey, the protagonist of Fifth Business (1970), for a winking cameo or two in his final novels. But Mitchell’s world-building in The Bone Clocks goes well beyond that. The subtle connections between Stephen King’s various fictions are initially used to great effect: hinting at a larger, darker and more threatening universe than the human imagination can properly comprehend, right up until the rules and structure of that universe are explicitly laid out in his Dark Tower series (1982-2004) and the entire endeavour collapses under the leaden weight of its own earnestness. Is the Über-book a multitude of stories that build into a singular internally consistent fiction like that found in Balzac’s Human Comedy, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic books, or Iain M. Banks’ Culture series? Or is it more like the Nathan Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth, where the uncertain and contradictory reappearances of characters between books are used to reflect overtly on the constructedness of the fiction?
Mitchell’s Über-book could still go in either direction, but I can’t shake the feeling that, whatever shape it eventually takes, this Über-book is likely to be less interesting than the remarkable individual novels that have constituted it up to this point, and that all the heavy lifting that The Bone Clocks performs in its service has resulted in Mitchell’s weakest work to date. It is also structurally looser than his earlier fiction as, unusually, it leaves several threads dangling. Crispin Hershey’s mysterious stalker Soleil Moore is never integrated into the larger plot (while clearly having some supernatural connection she appears to be neither Horologist nor Anchorite), so presumably her appearance here is laying the groundwork for some aspect of a future novel. Mitchell has confirmed that Marinus will reappear at some point, and the unresolved fate of Hugo Lamb suggests that we haven’t seen the last of him either.
So if all of this indicates that the Über-book is nigh and that we must accept the eternal recurrence of plots and characters in Mitchell’s fiction (and now possibly also a determined repetition of the same combination of triumphs and shortcomings seen in his last two novels), then could I at least put in a request for a bit more about Captain Penhaligon and the crew of the HMS Phoebus, who show up towards the end The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? I could happily read a whole series of nautical adventure novels about those guys. Horologists, though … I think I can take or leave the Horologists.
Michiko Kakutani, ‘A Lifetime Watching the World Devolve,’ New York Times (26 August 2014).
Ursula Le Guin, ‘The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – a dazzle of narrative fireworks,’ Guardian (2 September 2014).
Kathryn Schulz, ‘Boundaries are Conventions. And the Bone Clocks Author David Mitchell Transcends Them All,’ Vulture (25 August 2014).
James Wood, ‘The Floating Library,’ New Yorker (5 July 2010).
James Wood, ‘Soul Cycle,’ New Yorker (8 September 2014).