“A book can't be half-fantasy any more than a woman can be half-pregnant,” a literary agent tells a writer in David Mitchell’s staggeringly ambitious, genre-bending new novel, The Bone Clocks. Over the course of 600-plus pages, Mitchell comes very close to proving her wrong. “The Bone Clocks,” which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, chews through the years and the miles, spanning 1984 to 2043, as it follows the life of Holly Sykes, one of Mitchell’s most appealing characters yet, from 15-year-old runaway to grandmother.
Like his earlier “Cloud Atlas,” which was a finalist for the Booker Prize, “The Bone Clocks,” is a series of six interlinking novellas. It also racks up some serious frequent-flier miles, starting in England and visiting Switzerland, Iceland, Iraq, Argentina, and Western Australia before touching down in New York for the big epic fantasy showdown (more on that later) and winding up in Ireland.
Along the way, Mitchell divides up the novel by narrator and genre, including literary farce, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic. Holly narrates the first and last section, three men in her life get the middle three, and then there’s the next-to the last section, which is the book’s most problematic. With that one asterisk, Mitchell pulls them all off with aplomb and ample showmanship, tossing off one beautiful line after another.
“The Bone Clocks” opens in 1984, when Holly has decided to run away from home to live with her older boyfriend. After discovering – in a particularly painful fashion – that it might not be true love after all, she decides to hit the road for a few days anyway, to teach her parents (especially her mum) a lesson.
But in the background, something extra is percolating. It turns out Holly used to hear voices. “The Radio People, I called them, ’cause at first I thought there was a radio on in the next room,” she says.Despite its precise grounding in Margaret Thatcher's England, “The Bone Clocks” is a world, where, as the novel’s most cynical character puts it, “Portals appear in thin air. People have pause buttons. Telepathy is as real as telephones.”
Thanks to her abilities, Holly has attracted the attention of two groups of immortals. There are the Horologists, benevolent guardians who reincarnate in new bodies after death; and the – hang on a sec – “Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass.” (“Too long for business cards,” one of the Horologists sniffs.)
Like the True Knot in Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep,” the Anchorites acquire perpetual youth and immortality by imbibing the souls of children and teenagers with special psychic abilities. (Just don’t call them vampires.)
As if being serial-killing soul-drinkers weren’t bad enough, they are also racists. One of them had targeted Holly and was grooming her for “decanting” before a Horologist rendered her unappetizing by getting rid of those pesky voices in her head. Instead, her little brother disappears, leaving Holly and her family reeling.
The second section jumps to Switzerland in the early 1990s and is narrated by Hugo Lamb, a social climber who’s decided morals are for suckers.
The third section, which has echoes of Graham Greene, is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a high-school classmate of Holly’s who has grown into a foreign correspondent haunted by his reporting of the Iraq war.
The fourth, the book’s funniest section, is a biting literary send-up starring Crispin Hershey, a former wild child of British letters whose career is circling the drain. Hershey exacts a particularly nasty revenge on a critic who publishes a scathing review of his would-be comeback novel. He and Holly meet at a literary festival, where she’s become an unlikely bestseller after writing “The Radio People,” in an effort to reach out to her brother, if he’s still living. As with J.K. Rowling's "The Silkworm," (written as Robert Galbraith), where a real writer uses fictional characters to comment on the state of publishing, it's highly entertaining listening to the acidic Hershey's take on everything from literary festivals pullulating with punters, “securely pensioned metropolitans stuffed with artisanal fudge and organic cider” to adverbs: “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well."
And then the fantasy plot moves front and center. Unlike “The Magicians” trilogy, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” or “The Night Circus,” “The Bone Clocks” doesn’t seem to get much of a kick out of magic. There are sentences of arcana that, even in context, read almost like gobbledygook: “The generator prevents a psychosoteric from using an Act of Suasion to make me deactivate the N9D,” and “[S]he is chakra-latent, so she may react badly to scansion and redact her own memories, unraveling anyone who is in residence.” (To which I say, huh?)
And the big epic fantasy showdown is, it must be said, something of a letdown – coming as it does after hundreds of pages of build-up. One of the evildoers actually says, “Crush them like ants!”
Fortunately, it’s not the end of the novel. There’s still the final section to come, in which Mitchell's parallels between the parasitic Anchorites and modern consumerist society become more apparent. And in all of them, there's the warm presence of Holly, serving as the novel's emotional anchor.
To get hung up on the fifth section’s flaws would be to ignore hundreds of pages of ambitiously creative work and outstanding writing. And if “The Bone Clocks” might be a little messy, I’d rather re-read it than a too-tidy novel with less on its mind.
Mitchell told The New York Times that he sees all of his novels as part of a larger connected work. Characters from previous novels make appearances, such as Timothy Cavendish and Luisa Rey from “Cloud Atlas”; Hugo Lamb from “Black Swan Green,” which at the time didn’t have a whiff of fantasy; and Marinus, from “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” who has a key role to play.
In that sense, “The Bone Clocks” could be seen as a kind of fulcrum. And, I suspect, it probably can’t be adequately judged on its own without seeing what Mitchell has planned next.