Books

David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks

Since his first novel, Ghostwritten, which included chapters told from the points of view of a doomsday cultist, a disembodied spirit and eight narrators besides, David Mitchell has gleefully blended genre tropes into concoctions that feel literary with a capital L. He’s thrice been longlisted for the Booker Prize, including an advance listing for this novel.

The Bone Clocks is primarily the story of Holly Sykes, who starts off as a teenage runaway in a poor area of London and ends up in a place that is nowhere near worth spoiling, since a huge part of the joy in any of Mitchell’s books is not knowing the precise shape his ambitious schemas will take. Suffice to say the novel quickly puts our own decade behind us, leaving a little boy to ask, “But what is cola? A fruit or a herb or what?”

It’s Mitchell’s most boldly fantastic work. Larger-than-life characters show up early in the piece, saying initially unintelligible yet important-sounding things about “the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar” and “the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way”. The deep mythology is often fascinating, and the language always intoxicates. A substance that exists in a realm between life and death, for instance, “hums, not quite like bees, and mutters, not quite like a crowd, and susurrates, not quite like sand”.

Mitchell is also adept at building memorable characters quite quickly; we meet hundreds of fascinating people whom he shuffles and discards. A chapter about a ski holiday, narrated by a rich huckster named Hugo Lamb, begins: “Here an Alp, there an Alp, everywhere an Alp-Alp.” Scene set-up? Sorted, with bonus points for giving us the character’s laissez-faire attitude. It’s a catalogue of modern micro-archetypes, most of whom turn out to have unsuspected depth (as when that same flippant character reveals a graver philosophy: “Who is spared love is spared grief”).

In such a book with so much raw stuff, it can’t all be rewarding. The chapter set in the Bush administration is a little rote – if only because the views expressed about that era’s wars are so recent and therefore so familiar. A chapter parodying literary rivalries lasts about a hundred pages, and takes a good 50 before it charms. But The Bone Clocks is a fat book for a reason. Mitchell uses his epic page count to explore questions about meaning, fate, and life – and if, sometimes, the fireworks distract you from these questions, they also provide a spectacularly fun time.  CR

Sceptre, 608pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks ". Subscribe here.

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