Book Review: The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a supernatural thriller with a chilling dystopian coda. It’s also a bit of a disappointment.

Imagine if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was alive and writing pop songs for Katy Perry or Robin Thicke. These tunes would have a masterly command of melody and a technical brilliance. But there would also be something not quite right about them.

You could feel, somewhere deep in the chord changes, Mozart straining to elevate the three-minute dance tune into something sublime. The problem is that the form itself resists such elevation.

A good pop song can be surprising and delightful and well-crafted. But it’s still just a pop tune, and if you try and force it beyond the natural limits of what it’s supposed to accomplish, you end up with music that may have moments of joy, but ultimately fails to satisfy.

That’s how I felt about The Bone Clocks. It tries to take its supernatural genre tropes and stretch them into something grand. Mitchell is a magnificent writer, but the supernatural world he’s created in The Bone Clocks feels less like the work of a master novelist, and more like an overheated D&D module.

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This isn’t the first time he’s incorporated elements of the supernatural into his work; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet played with telepsychic abilities and immortality cults. But the supernatural was only hinted at in that novel.

The Bone Clocks pulls away the veil and makes his supernatural system the centerpiece of the book. It includes souls that migrate into new bodies, mind control, and psychic powers. As a reader, I’m not opposed to this kind of thing. In fact, I love it.

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s system doesn’t benefit from closer inspection or deeper explanation. Despite his magnificent gifts as a writer, he fails to make his supernatural system palatable.

Instead, you get lots of cringe-inducing pronouncements about “the Deep Stream” and “the Shaded Way” and “Anchorites of the Dusk Temple of the Blind Cathar.”If you have to initial-cap a concept to give it weight and grandeur, you’re trying too hard.

Part of the problem might be the design of the novel. Then engine of the plot is a war between Horologists (good immortals) and Anchorites (psychic vampires).

The main character, Holly Sykes, is literally nothing more than a vessel for the Horologists. Holly’s role as a vessel links her to events that drive the plot, but she’s merely carried along, rather than driving the story forward herself.

Holly’s involvement with the Horologists and Anchorites is more of a contrivance than an organic result of the choices that she makes in her life. For me as a reader, Holly’s lack of agency in connection with the war that drives the plot lowered the stakes of the outcome of the conflict. It’s a structural weakness that makes it harder for the book to support all its grandiose nonsense.

The novel’s climax is a pyscho-kinetic dual between the Horologists and Anchorites. It’s got a lot of flash and bang, but it feels obligatory, and perhaps written with the film adaptation in mind. In short, it disappoints.

However, Mitchell redeems himself in the final section of the book, where he draws an all-too-probable sketch of the collapse of civilization.

The world isn’t undone by a spectacular apocalypse; instead, the fall was caused by oil running out. Without cheap fuel to drive consumer economies and support highly centralized food production and distribution, societies crumbled.

Holly Sykes, now an old woman, lives a pastoral existence in a small village in Ireland. Folks grow their own food, mend their clothes, and trade with one another in a basic barter economy. The global communications network has mostly collapsed. What little electricity there is comes from solar panels, and what little fuel there is goes into the community tractor.

Mitchell doesn’t romanticize this reversion to a pre-industrial existence; people work hard, suffer discomforts, chafe against the confines of the community, and go hungry. But folks seem to get by through their own labor and ingenuity.

At the start of this section there’s still a vestige of government order: a local council with a mayor, backed by a central authority. But that central authority collapses, and we see how fragile democracy, justice and human rights really are. Rule reverts to vicious men with weapons and the willingness to impose their own order through violence.

I would have much preferred Mitchell to spend more time here than elsewhere. He doesn’t need supernatural tropes to craft a great story. He could write a kick-ass post-civilization book that would be gripping and frightening because of its plausibility, not because Anchorite disciples of the Shaded Way lurk in dark corners waiting to drink your psychic essence.

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