The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I once wrote a novel like this.
My agent wisely advised me to split it up into two novellas.
I wish Mitchell's agent had given the same advice.
He or she didn't.
It's a tempting trap, this splicing together of novellas. I know, I've been caught in it myself. It makes the writer's job much easier. And it's clever, to boot. In the case of The Bone Clocks, however, this strategy backfired, creating a novel divided against itself.
I'll spare you the plot overview for three reasons: 1) others have already given fantastic overviews (see, particularly, reviews by AmberBug, Jenny (Reading Envy), and Greg). 2) Any plot outline is bound to contain inadvertent spoilers. 3) I'm feeling rather tired from other, writerly projects.
So let's focus on structure and characterization.
The internal schism in the book isn't about plot, anyway. It's about pacing, emphasis, and characterization, more than anything else. The first 2/3rds of the book were, frankly, overwrought. And by that, I don't mean that the language was overly purple or the syntactical structure too complex. In fact, I found quite the opposite. Mitchell was careful to portray salt-of-the-earth characters and jaded characters as if they were almost Jungian archetypes of naive teenagers and hedonistic twenty-somethings, respectively. Mitchell tried really, really hard to get these characterizations across.
You could tell that he was trying.
Time and again, I felt that Mitchell was trying so hard to make his characters - "trendy" or "hip" are the words that come to mind - that they ended up being pastiches of the very ideal for which the author was aiming. They became, in a word, distracting, like that guy who so wants to be the center of attention at a party that he wears a rainbow afro wig. Everyone sees him there, making everyone laugh. But guess who's not going home with the girl?
Now, I've read (and written) my share of annoying and despicable characters. But these characters, by and large, threw me out of the story. Later, when said characters returned (in later sections), I found it extremely difficult to accept them. My brain wanted to reject them, and I found myself becoming angry at the author for having screwed these characters up in an attempt to be "literary".
And there is the biggest structural problem with the book.
In the first 2/3rds, Mitchell seems to be making a conscious effort to appear "literary". I'm not sure why - it's obvious from his previous work that he has writing "chops". I don't know what he was trying to prove, but he tried so hard that he failed. He over-thought the first part of the book. Only in section 3, "The Wedding Bash" does Mitchell's auctorial *voice* sound genuine and natural.
This third section is exceptional, and would have made a brilliant novella by itself. As it stands in relation to the rest of the plot, however, it feels as if it has been awkwardly welded-on to the rest of the novel, weakening the overall product. Really, this section is some of the best writing I've read in a while. Mitchell's got chops . . . in doses.
The next section, "Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet" is indulgent, and not in a good way. Perhaps I'm missing some hidden humor about Mitchell's experience as a well-known writer. If so, the inside jokes are, well, a little *too* inside. And, like the third section, this bit seems tacked on, hardly relevant, except in a few small points which could have been distilled down to a few pages. In fact, I believe that the first 350 pages of this novel could have been brought down to about 100, and Mitchell would have not only a heck of a novella (in "The Wedding Bash," which I like to call the "Baghdad section"), but a great novel, as well.
Because, you see, it gets better. Much, much better. Had Mitchell not stretched out the first half of the book to three-times the length it should have been(to be fair, the blame might lay with the editor), you'd be reading a five star review. No kidding: The last half-ish of the book is THAT good.
It's in the tale of the Horologists, and beyond, that the author really hits his stride. Here things get weird and exciting, two things which I like very much in a novel. Gone is the pretense of trying to please The New Yorker crowd. The catering to angry teenagers has thankfully died away. And Mitchell reveals that he is a heck of a writer when he lets his hair down, takes off his tie, and gets down to really letting himself fly as a writer.
But, wait. "What", you ask, "is a Horologist"?
I'm not telling. I'll leave it as a surprise. But suffice it to say that once we understand a little bit about them, all hell breaks loose. Really, everything goes crazy. Not just for the characters directly in the path of the immediate action, the ones in a psychic conflict between superhuman beings, but for the whole planet. Now, before you go blaming the Horologists (after all, their organization sounds so . . . prostitutional - which isn't even a word, but you get my point), know that while they are powerful, they are far from all-powerful. They are at the mercy of mankind's collective bad decisions, just like the rest of the world. And while reading the last section of the book might make the reader feel that he is taking a beating from a pedantic stick wielded by Greenpeace, it does set things up for what I must admit is a very emotional ending. I found myself staying up late because I had to finish the book. Mitchell compelled me, by making me viscerally-involved and emotionally-invested in the characters at the end of the book. Finally, finally, I could forget the forced too-cool-to-be-true feeling of the first part of the book and enjoy myself, really let myself get steeped in the characters' thoughts and emotions, and feel their fear, love, and longing in my bones.
Yeah, I had to reach for the tissue. There were tears.
Still, there was a time when I wanted to stop reading the book. And I am not one to stop reading books, no matter how bad. But I was tempted to close this one up and take it to the used book store. Oh, I was sorely tempted. Thankfully, I pushed through and it was just a tiny bit after I peeked over that wall (and it was a big wall), that it got better. Ultimately, it was a victory. But a Pyrrhic victory. I may be recovering from this novel, both the good and the bad parts, for some time to come.
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