David Mitchell's magic-infused novel is flawed - but the writing is still brilliant, says Darragh McManus.
he Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. Sceptre, €23.99, 595pp HB.
Whether he's the finest talent of his generation is arguable, but David Mitchell is surely the most original. The 45-year-old Englishman - now living in West Cork - has released his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks.
It's been published to held-breath anticipation by the literary press, a Booker longlist nomination, heavy-hitters like the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani lined up for review.
A new Mitchell, in short, is a big event in publishing.
The funny thing is, he's attained this exalted position with books that aren't the usual, self-consciously 'important' awards-bait. The Bone Clocks, like Mitchell's other works, is funny, playful, fast-paced. It's packed with incident and driven by narrative and character, rather than theme or philosophy.
Mitchell also plays around a lot with genre, has fun with it (though as he told me in interview, he doesn't see it like that: the book becomes what it needs to become). His biggest-seller, the movie-adapted Cloud Atlas, was a dizzying blend of historical fiction, pulp thriller, pastiche, dystopian sci-fi, apocalyptic sci-fi.
The Bone Clocks - structured like Cloud Atlas in six connected 'novellas' - similarly plays fast and loose with literary convention.
The opening book-ette introduces main character, Gravesend teenager Holly Sykes, in 1984, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness 'diary' - bildungsroman, I suppose, is the genre here.
There follows a series of linked stories, leaping through time, sometimes by decades - again like Cloud Atlas, although here the connections are much clearer. Characters disappear and reappear, there are references and echoes back and forth, all the while with Holly as the thematic and moral centre.
The novel skips briskly on: in 1991 a charming, borderline-sociopath young man meets Holly at 23; her war-reporter husband can't adjust to civilian life in 2004; a hilariously acerbic novelist exerts terrible revenge on a book reviewer (gulp) who wronged him in 2015; two sets of immortal super-humans fight over human souls in 2025 (we'll come back to that presently); before finally, septuagenarian Holly watches the post-oil, post-industrial world crumble from a West Cork peninsula in 2043.
Through this is a supernatural undercurrent, which brings us back to that fifth novella: as a child Holly heard voices, and was visited by a creepily-seductive woman called Constantine.
She continued to suffer trippy fugue states, sometimes with future predictions, parlaying these into a bestselling memoir. The fifth section is where this storyline is resolved - and The Bone Clocks comes off the rails.
I didn't want to write that sentence - I wanted to love this book as much as every other Mitchell I've read. As much as I loved this one…until that fateful section. I won't go into details - it'd spoil the story, for one thing - but the whole chapter didn't work for me, at all.
Whereas the lead-up to this immortal showdown is oblique, suggestive and teases the reader - is this real or imagined - the showdown itself is too literal. The names, the terminology, the setting, the Big Bad, the mechanics of their to-the-death struggle: it's all faintly ridiculous.
I kept conjuring - no pun intended - images of Neo and the Matrix, Gandalf, various schlocky horror movies I've watched, even Harry Potter.
I appreciate why Mitchell incorporated this fantasy storyline, and in theory it's fine; in practice, it kind of kills the book. The final chapter is better, but by that stage the spell - again no pun intended - is broken.
Still, there's plenty to enjoy until that point. The writing is just so good - few authors can make six stories so stylistically unified but somehow each maintaining its own voice.
Mitchell's use of language is spectacular; like Anthony Burgess, there's a freewheeling brilliance here. At times his writing feels like an approximation of music, inducing that whole-body engagement with an art-form.
He relishes language on an almost tactile level, suffusing it with onomatopoeia, rhythm, pulse, melody. This is from a scene where the paranormal storyline is introduced: "Drips of water splash the thirsty planks of the jetty. The river slurps at the shore and splishes round the wooden pillars. ...The old woman sends the lead weight loopy-looping away, the reel makes its zithery noise..."
Besides that, The Bone Clocks is choc-a-bloc with action, ideas, jokes, turns of phrase, interesting conversations. There are lots of funny, post-modern references to other events in the Mitchell canon: Hugo from Black Swan Green, the Voorman story in number9dream, several nods to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Dr Marinus from that is a major character here). And the fourth chapter is a brilliantly sustained, laugh-out-loud satire on publishing. (Martin Amis, I think, will be squirming if he reads this.)
Is The Bone Clocks actually 'about' anything, aside from frequent, interesting little reflections on life? Does it reflect some elemental truth about existence, the way great novels often do? Indeed, does a novel need to do this, to be considered great?
I don't know about the last question. Regarding the first two, I don't think so. This book isn't about grand ideas so much as it captures the physical 'stuff' of life: the colours, shapes, light and dark, smells, the feel of things, and especially, the sounds.
The fantasy denouement holed this ship below the waterline for me. But two-thirds of it are tremendously enjoyable - and two-thirds of Mitchell is still better than 100pc of almost everyone else.
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350
Darragh McManus' novel Shiver The Whole Night Through is published on November 6.