Book Review

'The Bone Clocks': David Mitchell conjures a triumphant tale of mystics and desperate youth

Wizard of words and the thirst for experience.

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Tick-tock, you bone clock. Yeah, you’re a spirit stuck in time, tethered to a dying animal. The most inventive among us try to divine a way out of our skeletal boxes, hence world religions and fantasy writers.

By David Mitchell
Random House ($30).

David Mitchell, arguably the best novelist writing today, returns to the literature of mortality like a Babylonian to the epic of Gilgamesh. Why, why, why do we have to die? What Mr. Mitchell rendered subtly in “Cloud Atlas” — readers had to figure out for themselves what the birthmarks on some characters meant — he pounds out explicitly in the new narrative. Can you spell “reincarnation”?

Constructive critics always say what’s good before they qualify, so let me tell you what’s great about “The Bone Clocks.” First, it has some of the freshest characters in contemporary fiction. Consider Holly Sykes, a runaway teen, on the lam from love and her strict Irish mother: “I think about pinballs and how being a kid’s like being shot up the firing lane and there’s no veering left or right; you’re just sort of propelled. But once you clear the top, like once you’re sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, suddenly there’s a thousand different paths you can take, some amazing, others not. … Like a shiny silver pinball whizzing out of the firing lane, I’ve not got the faintest bloody clue where I’m going or what’ll happen next.”

If teen Holly isn’t sure what’s happening next, 21-year-old Hugo Lamb has the world all sussed out. He’s a Cambridge scholarship student, adept at fleecing his mates and seducing their mothers and girlfriends. I first met him in my favorite Mitchell novel, “Black Swan Green,” as a savvy, confident 15-year-old; in this incarnation, he’s the most exquisite character Mr. Mitchell’s ever drawn. A prince of narrative, Hugo gets the best riffs, like this flood of impressions as he pushes his way through a crowded student bar in 1991. He’s getting some drinks, en route to seducing his friend’s girl, Ness:

“The Buried Bishop’s a gridlocked scrum, an all-you-can-eat of youth: ‘Stephen Hawking and the Dalai Lama, right; they posit a unified truth’; short denim skirts, Gap and Next shirts, Kurt Cobain cardigans, black Levi’s; ‘Did you see that oversexed pig by the loos, undressing me with his eyes?’; that song by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl booms in my diaphragm and knees; ‘Like, my only charity shop bargains were headlice, scabies, and fleas’; a fug of hairspray, sweat and Lynx, Chanel No. 5, and smoke; well-tended teeth with zero fillings, revealed by the so-so joke — ‘Have you heard the news about Schrodinger’s Cat? It died today; wait — it didn’t, did, didn’t, did…’; high-volume discourse on who’s the best Bond … Sartre, Bart Simpson, Barthes’s myths; ‘Make mine a double’; George Michael’s stubble; ‘Like, music expired with the Smiths’; and futures all starry; fetal think-tankers, judges, and bankers…power and money, like Pooh Bear and honey, stick fast — I don’t knock it, it’s me; and speaking of loins, ‘Has anyone told you you look like Demi Moore from Ghost?’; roses are red and violets are blue, I’ve a surplus of butter and Ness is warm toast.”

James Joyce has nothing on Mitchell, nor does T.S. Eliot for that matter. There’s much more, scene after hilarious scene, filled with crackling dialogue and other great characters, all channeled through Machiavellian Hugo. And then he falls in love with Holly, which is the best bit yet. The biter bit. I read until my eyes hurt, and then I read some more. If only Mr. Mitchell hadn’t felt the need to get post-apocalyptic (again), this novel would surely bag him the Booker.

But Mr. Mitchell’s soul can’t transcend its cultural moment. He’s not alone. Vampires, zombies, clones and reincarnated souls attract not only Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, but also Kate Atkinson and Kazuo Ishiguro. Harry Potter’s in the groundwater, and the roots of J.R.R. Tolkien run deep. If there’s only one narrative, the best version of it will be subtle. Considering what Mr. Mitchell knows about autism, the labyrinth at the heart of his story should have suggested a metaphor of neural pathways, but instead he opted for the obvious, and the novel became comic-bookish.

We learn that “atemporals” are souls that manage to transfer themselves to new bodies without dying. Good ones, “horologists,” do it naturally; bad ones, “carnivores,” achieve their long lives by “decanting” other souls. “Psychosoterics of the Deep Stream” can “scansion” and “suasion” other spirits. Really, they need their own costumes. The last hundred pages of this narrative would have worked better as a graphic novel, and if this book gets made into a movie, one can only hope it’s animated.

Quibbles aside, David Mitchell has miles to go before he sleeps, and even his lesser efforts remain light-years ahead of other novelists.

Susan Balee’s illustrated memoir about a long trip to Italy will appear in the autumn issue of The Hudson Review.

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