This is not so much a review, as it is a confession to my fellow reviewers, who tried to help me make this blog work this past summer and fall. Any review, by me, of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks must begin with the acknowledgement that I am a fan-boy of sort of the writer’s work. Over a decade ago, I discovered, in the “Briefly Noted” book review section of The New Yorker, a short paragraph about Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Something about the review caught my eye, and I sought out the novel. If my life were a movie, that little paragraph would signal the music swelling in the ‘meet-cute’ section of a rom-com, where I fell desperately in love with the work of a new writer. A few weeks later, while spending a quiet week on houseboat on a lake in British Columbia, I quickly devoured Cloud Atlas. Just as quickly I tracked down copies of Number 9 Dream and Ghostwritten, and I have spent every year since then anxiously hoping that a new David Mitchell novel would come out. I don’t reread much anymore, or at least, I don’t reread much outside of my professional obligations, but I have read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green three times, and I will likely revisit his other novels again at some other point. It’s difficult to pin down what it is about Mitchell’s writing that I enjoy the most. He mixes genres in a way that my mind—all too meta—probably finds satisfying. He has a sense of humor that suggests he could write purely comic novels if he so pleased. Those sections of Cloud Atlas that are unapologetically science-fiction, are, to my mind, some of the best science-fiction that has been written. His nods in Black Swan Green to his patroness of the genre, Ursula K. LeGuin, strike me as enormously appropriate.
But beyond those reasons, it is likely Mitchell’s use of the human voice that I find most intriguing. At times I think Mitchell is the reincarnation of Robert Browning, able to create a living a human voice ex nihlo, as it were, and make his audience believe in the reality of that character. Within a few lines of a Mitchell novel, much as you might find in “My Last Duchess,” or “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” a character comes to live before your eyes. What they are saying suggests everything about them: their body language as they say it, their personal history, their cultural history. The voice is the character, and you follow that voice for the sheer joy of following it.
So there it was, The Bone Clocks, last fall, delivered to me promptly after it was published, pre-ordered months in advance; the book I had been waiting almost four years to read. I’d read some advance reviews which were not kind: many seemed to think that Mitchell had fallen off his game. “It’s no Cloud Atlas” pouted one reviewer. Internally, the fan-boy in me pouted right back: “It’s not fair to chain an author to one piece of work for the rest of his life. Let the guy write some new things, for god’s sake, and don’t slam him for not writing the same damn thing over and over again.”
Still, I began reading somewhat more cautiously than I normally would. The opening chapter certainly did everything that I hoped it would: a teenage Irish girl, living in England in the 1980s, sprang to life before my eyes, boyfriend troubles and nagging Mother included. As the chapter closed, a surprisingly super-natural plot was also set up. The novel progressed through the decades, switching characters. Most of the chapters were nothing less than fantastic; favorite characters included a bad boy British novelist who seemed loosely based on Martin Amis, and a spoiled-rotten Cambridge university student. Mitchell, much like Browning, seems to be at his comic best when creating characters who have the dubious morality that all too often accompanies wealth and privilege. A lot of the other hallmarks of a Mitchell novel were there as well; there were sly allusions to his other novels, allusions that helped to suggest a larger universe in which all of the flotsam and jetsam of Mitchell’s mind exist. A sharp eye for current social trends, and the troubling places those trends might be taking us, was also present.
It all would have been good, perhaps, except for that one troubling chapter that just really sucked. Well, even then, it didn’t completely stink. It just didn’t quite work. And in as much as any artistic work must rely on the weakest links in its fictional chain to survive, it tore at the fabric of the whole. Why it didn’t work is difficult for me to say; I could say that the paranormal plot finally succeeded in stretching my suspension of disbelief too far, and I started looking behind the curtain at the ropes and pulleys that were making the Wizard of Oz appear. But why, exactly, did that chapter do that? Mitchell has taken me far into future dystopias; he has wrapped my head around paranoid, surreal Japanese mafia plots; he has made any number of fantastic and strange things living realities for me. Why did this weird chapter that seemed partially borrowed from a not especially inspired Harry Potter climax irritate me so much? To the point that the rest of the novel became somewhat difficult to swallow, and I snapped at family members who brought the subject up?
I was, in short, a disappointed little fan-boy. I needed to review the book for this blog, if for no other reason to keep providing content for the blog I had started. I procrastinated, not wanting to write the review. I tried to defend the novel to my wife; that very act is a sign of my pathetic defensiveness; she has never read Mitchell, and really couldn’t care less, and yet I harangued her with reasons we should all love Mitchell, bringing up the subject at completely inappropriate points during our dinner-time conversation. When my father sent me some texts asking about the novel, I sent defensive texts right back at him, typing in a manner—a manner that can really only be called shrill—typing into my cell phone that the critics were punishing Mitchell for being ambitious. December and January crawled by, and plumbing problems, work problems, Christmas, and any number of other petty concerns with life kept me from confronting the fact, in print, that I was a bit disappointed. Why take books this seriously? Why take any one author this seriously? The funny thing is that the very thing that would lead me to want to review books—a borderline obsession for fiction—is the very thing that killed it. I desperately wanted this book to be better than it was, and today, in a moment of clarity, it suddenly seems that I have been throwing a three-month fit about that fact. Fan-boys should not review the subjects of their affection. The Bone Clocks is still worth reading, by the way. That’s the ultimate joke here. You’ll read it, and you’ll probably like it, because you’re not anywhere near as emotionally invested in this book as I was before I even started reading it.
Nathan Elliott teaches composition and literature in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, using the powers of the internet. He spends the rest of his time consciously refraining from writing embarrassingly emotional fan letters to David Mitchell, Jess Walter, David James Duncan, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Sherman Alexie.