Since reading Cloud Atlas a few years ago, I have been on the David Mitchell bandwagon. But there has always been a nagging sense of incompleteness, of rough edges in the novels I’ve read since. For as singular the storyline of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, it has a little trouble blending its viewpoints and thus building a holistic plot. Cloud Atlas is an superb mish-mash of fiction, but has some trouble distinguishing its character voices. Ghostwritten is an excellent debut, but has issues balancing exuberant prose against focused theme. With 2014’s The Bone Clocks, however, everything has finally come together, the edges smoothed, and a polished gem the result. An extremely satisfying read that would seem to fulfill all of Mitchell’s potential, it might just be a masterpiece.
Structured like a pinwheel, the story of teenage-runaway Holly Sykes forms the center pin of The Bone Clocks, while the stories of an unprincipled Cambridge student who eventually faces the most difficult choice of his life, a curmudgeonly British writer who must face declining sales, a war reporter who has trouble balancing his family life with being in the action, and a reincarnated therapist who must use her centuries of wisdom to combat an evil foe—all form the blades spiraling away from the center of the pinwheel. Sykes’ story (in old age) forms the final section of the novel, forming a cycle by spinning full circle the events and characters,. Mitchell using this structure to great effect in terms of both plot and theme, The Bone Clocks is innately a questioning of contemporary culture while telling the highly engaging story of one woman’s anything-but-normal life.
One of, if not the main draws to Mitchell, is his chewy, gravy-soaked prose. And The Bone Clocks brings a similar meal to the table. Perpetually dynamic, sentence after sentence, I didn’t want the novel to end, despite its 650+ pages. It flows in enlivening fashion, rendering what could be mundane affairs in a vibrant, often clever light. (Many turns of phrase are brilliant.) A criticism I had of Cloud Atlas is that Mitchell didn’t tailor his exuberant voice to suit character/scene. In The Bone Clocks, this is recitified. One of the characters, Crispin Hershey (“the wild child of British letters”), is perhaps the perfect outlet for Mitchell’s exuberance for language, while Ed Brubeck, the war reporter, has a suitably toned down voice yet one that remains involving, proving Mitchell has dug deeper to find another gear, a gear that is his own by style, but one more refined by flavor. Pure and simple, the writing crackles.
While the title is a metaphor for mortality (i.e. that our coils are winding down), the focus of the novel is actually: what are we/you doing with your mortality that allows for the existence of future generations of humanity? Way beyond procreation, it’s about human behavior as a whole today and how it is affecting the Earth and society, tomorrow. One of the main sub-plots of the novel pits a group of immortals (who sustain immortality by eating the souls of living) against a group of reincarnates—people who occupy mortal human bodies but are reincarnated in other bodies upon death. While it would be easy to read a Buddhist message in such a setup, it’s more advisable, given the other elements of the novel, to view the dichotomy as a metaphor for current business, economic, and political practice (i.e. super greed) in the West, as it compares with a more sustainable practices, behaviors, and worldviews that look beyond spending today what you won’t have tomorrow. What are we leaving/doing to ensure future generations have good lives? The immortal/reincarnate war forming only a sub-plot, that the main plot focuses on Holly Sykes’ life indicates the true core of Mitchell’s agenda.
In the end, The Bone Clocks features all of the elements which have come to distinguish a Mitchell novel—the staggered timeline, the variety of character viewpoints, the atypical structure, aand the superb, lively prose. But The Bone Clocks brings all of these pieces together into a entity that I daresay Mitchell has not yet achieved in his ouevre. Addressing the primary cause of the world’s current ills (rampant greed) in unassailable style that creates vivid, real characters, portrays the palpable passage of time through real world events (and some not yet real but portrayed just as), and rooted in the desire for something better from humanity, this is a novel worth all of the recognition and accolades it has received, and of course, reading. I’m thisclose to declaring it a masterpiece, but something tells me Mitchell can still write something even better. I’m happily waiting…