I've had shingles for the past month and, in this busy AF AngstaGram world, have found time to reflect on some great stuff I've been reading. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is probably the best — easily the most technically ambitious — novel I’ve read this past year. And that includes Jane Smiley’s Century Trilogy, which I posted about on FaceBank a couple months back. Unlike, say, Welsh’s Trainspotting, which is ostensibly a suite of shorts stories loosely linked with a loud finale that blows everything up, The Bone Clocks is a tight package of first-person novellas that also could easily have been sold as one-off character studies. Their gender, class, age, even the time in recent history that you read about them are disparate as chalk and cheese and pus.
For instance, it opens with an utterly self-obsessed teenage girl from a working class ‘80s family in southern England who has the World Figured Out and is on a mission to show her parents what idiots they are. In other words, a teenager. But what could be a stand-alone novella deftly drops breadcrumbs for this book’s own explosive climax 600 pages later, though it’s more of an elaborate card trick than carelessly lobbed grenade.
The 3rd novella is my fave! Meta AF. A failing middle-aged English novelist whose career had started at the top — he was the bad boy of Brit Lit (see above) 15 years earlier — and you meet him on the messy ride down. The acid bile that Crispin Hershey — of course that’s he’s called that — loathingly muses about everyone, including himself, is exquisitely bitter. Imagine Oscar Wilde channeling Kurt Cobain.
Another favourite story within the story is the adrenaline-junkie foreign correspondent who inadvertently causes the death of his two fixers in Fallujah during the Gulf War. Two acronyms describe Ed’s section: PTSD ASAP!
However, these careful character studies are surprisingly just mechanized pieces within a larger tight and highly imaginative but utterly impossible plot. Which is where Mitchell goes genre (sic) bending!
On the surface, Mitchell is the sort of Ladies’ Tuesday Book Club fodder that Eleanor Wachtel interviews at Harbourfront to quiet applause. You know: Aht! Picture it: Lots of Cambridge bicycling chaps in black gowns with the clotted cream from crumpets staining well-thumbed books of poetry.
BUT then he goes all nerd sci-fi, bravely (or crazily) thumbing his nose at convention with immortal souls doing psycho-bolt battle in a 1000-year old invisible living Cathar temple. Yes, the invisible ancient temple is alive, albeit usually slumbering (only evil presences in nerd-fi slumber; the rest of sleep). The gowned Cambridge chaps are actually from Slytherin.
As Lindsay observed regarding The Bone Clocks, “It was so well observed and brilliant … except for where it was really stupid.” I concur with the first bit.
Back to genre bending. If Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood’s transatlantic bastard mindmelded with Hilary Mantel, you’d get Mitchell. If Salman Rushdie wrote The X-Men you’d get Mitchell.
Verdict? Let’s call it not sci-fi but Psy-Lit: aka Aht. People who read to understand the world through another’s eyes, become more empathetic, and elevate their soul will love The Bone Clocks. Dorks who won’t accept that GoT Season 8 and the Avengers’ universe have finally set will love The Bone Clocks too. Save Itchy Torso Boy a seat at both the Ladies’ Tuesday Book Club and the Elf Lords’ Virtual Round Table. Somehow, I doubt those subcultures will hook up anytime soon. But kudos to Mitchell laying the track-cum-breadcrumbs.