Cloud Atlas was a phenomenon. Not just for its success. Yes, everyone had heard of it, and recognised the blue-silver tracings on its purply jacket. But have you ever spoken to anyone that actually enjoyed it? Rarer than hen’s teeth.
As my review shows, I am one of this lesser-spotted endangered breed. We are a plot-hungry, time-travel-tolerant, easy-reading, multiple-character-accepting bunch. We roll with the punches and don’t mind if a narrative is disrupted for hundreds of pages. We read for themes, and are tolerant of being mildly baffled. But these Mitchell-reading credentials were not as strong as I thought. They simply could not take the onslaught of Mitchell’s latest, The Bone Clocks.
The novel has many typically Mitchell-like themes – which is to say, it’s a bit odd. It follows a range of linked (but it’s not immediately obvious how) characters from the past (the 1980s) to the future (the 2040s). A mysterious, fantasy angle comes in early but isn’t explained until well over halfway. There’s a lot going on, leading to a book that’s about many things – and can’t quite make up its mind which are important.
Perhaps successful authors get more editing slack, because The Bone Clocks is painfully baggy. It sags under the weight of extraneous characters. There are whole sections that don’t add to the story, whether it’s the fairly amusing portrait of a failing writer, Crispin, or an account of being a journalist in wartime Iraq. Both are well written, and the reader is taken along, but they don’t advance the narrative. The whole final section of the book is totally disjointed from the whole. It’s an intriguing, dramatic snapshot of a world falling into disarray, and it’s a good read – but it belongs to a different book. Yes, there’s some subtle thematic linking but only if you intellectualise it; as a reading experience it’s a splinter.
What about the core narrative? Well, if you read it to be the fantasy narrative which is at least present from start to finish, it is clever. But again, it overcomplicates. It becomes contorted and introverted, and at times Mitchell lapses into unforgiveable pages of psycho-lingo. Here’s just one offering:
“One, it’s against the Codex. Two, she is chakra-latent, so she may react badly to scansion and redact her own memories, unravelling anyone who is in residence. Three… Well, that’s enough for now. But we’ll need her goodwill. We should only suasion her as a last resort.”
And that’s not even mentioning the cellular subdivision fest at the icon of the Blind Cathar. Basically, it’s not great. The problem is it never attains the naturalness of true fantasy writers, whose worlds you totally buy into. It just sounds like competitive Dr Who off at a sci-fi convention.
Don’t think the book is unreadable, though. Mitchell’s skills are considerable. The characterisation is as strong as it is in Cloud Atlas, with each voice admirably depicted and distinguished. It’s a testament to his story-telling how much you’re drawn through the book despite the multiple disconnects. But – but. You find yourself wishing he’d give himself in to these skills, at the cost of all this experimentation. You yearn for him to settle slightly, be a little less virtuoso. There’s enough going on with changing characters, changing timeframe, psycho-fantastical elements… it just needs a kind hand to lathe it back to a smooth finish.
The Bone Clocks is a bristling, tinsel-spurting cracker, that’ll give you plenty to think about and lots of momentum. But chaos has overpowered craft, to the book’s detriment. I’ll keep reading you, Dave, but please – a little less next time?