The Bone Clocks: David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece

The Cloud Atlas author's new book is metaphysical, metamorphic, and maybe too meta for its own good.

If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented? He is, at his best, a superior writer to Jonathan Franzen, a better storyteller than Michael Chabon, more wickedly clever than Jennifer Egan, nearly as fluent as Junot Diaz in multiple dialects, and as gifted as Alice Munro at catching 10,000-pixel snapshots of characters in quick drive-bys. The showmanship is exhaustive, but like watching a circus ringmaster presiding over too many stunts and illusions, it can also be exhausting.

Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s most famous book, is a sextet of novellas—each told in their own literary genre in a different corner of the world—that connect in chronological, and then anti-chronological, order: 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell moored his roaming mind to a small port on the southwest coast of Japan, circa 1799, and conceived a rollicking historical romance that proceeded in one clear direction—toward a perfect, bittersweet finale.

For diehard Mitchell fans, The Bone Clocks is another six-part, globe-trotting, time-traveling performance in literary ventriloquism. For the unconverted, it offers everything you could possibly want from a conjurer at the height of his powers—a ludicrously ambitious, unstoppably clever epic told through a chorus of diverse narrators that is both outrageous in scope and meticulous in execution.

The story begins with Holly Sykes, a love-struck teenager gushing over her first boyfriend in 1984 England. After a vicious fight with her mother, Holly runs away from home and reveals that she has a history of hearing voices and seeing what may be ghosts. Wandering the countryside in self-exile, she encounters strangers whose clues, threats, and mystic wisdom hint at a fantasy universe that remains present but often unseen for the rest of the novel, coursing under the main narrative like an underground river.

When Holly hears that her younger brother has disappeared, she announces her intention to return home. Suddenly, the action, era, and writing style shift abruptly—the David Mitchell experience, ladies and gentlemen—to 1990s Cambridge. Hugo Lamb, our new narrator, is a university sophomore, who looks like a Tommy Hilfiger model and quips like a Tom Stoppard character, sweet-talking his way into bars, scams, and young women’s beds. Mitchell can impersonate just about any voice, but his mimicry of Hugo and his heady, horny Oxbridge classmates is exquisite.

Nothing if not self-aware, Mitchell can’t help but wink at readers with allusions to his prior books. Describing his idea for a novel, Cambridge classmate Richard Cheeseman proposes a story that sounds like a contrivance of Mitchell’s own formula:

“My hero is a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman. No one’s ever tried anything like it.”

“Cool,” says Johnny Penhaligon. “That’s sounds like—“

“A frothy pint of piss,” I announce, and Cheeseman looks at me with death in his eyes until I add, “is what’s in my bladder right now. The book sounds incredible, Richard."

Just as Holly and the mystical voices sweep into Hugo’s life, the action springs forward another decade to a Sykes family wedding, where Holly’s husband, an Iraq War reporter, is missing the adrenaline-rush of battle. One hundred pages later, another decade passes, and an over-the-hill novelist resumes the narration, offering a meditation on life’s anti-climaxes, sprinkled with curmudgeonly observations about the lit-crit world.

Holly grows and moves along the periphery of these scenes. So does the fantasy sub-plot, which is about a simmering battle between two species of immortals: benevolent Horologists, who reincarnate in mortal human bodies, and vampiric Anchorites, who preserve their youth by drinking the souls of the living. They torment Holly and seduce other main characters but generally remain bit players in the action, until part five …

Ah, part five. The fantasy core of the novel is many things, at once—a High Noon standoff between immortal time-wizards firing lasers from their foreheads, a compelling fable for our fears of mortality, 140 pages of mesmerizing drama, and a jambalaya of gobbledygook. Entire pages flow like this:

“Esther’s soul egresses from Oshima, transversing to one side, pulsing with her evocation of the Last Act.”

“A few feet away, the psychosedated body of Imhoff is licked into nonexistence by a tongue of the Dusk.”

“Shaded Way psychoincendiaries will fry our flesh.”

Reading the whole book only slightly improves one’s understanding of (a) what these sentences mean and (b) what they are doing in a David Mitchell book.

The fantasy through-line has too much ‘gressing altogether, but it is in service to one of the novel’s broader enchantments. Careful readers will notice that Marinus, one of the book’s heroeswas introduced in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. As characters from Cloud Atlas and earlier novels accumulate throughout the story, you begin to wonder whether The Bone Clocks is a mere sequel or perhaps a larger vessel. Mitchell has said that this novel is a keystone in a project that spans his entire fictional output—an “uber-book.” The modern master of Russian-nesting-doll novels has suggested that each of his novels are little porcelain babushkas hiding inside Mitchell’s meta-Russian-nesting-doll oeuvre, all along.

If that sounds like the sort of thing that makes you want to vomit from dizziness, you're not alone. For all Mitchell's acclaim, some readers say they’re aware of his genius more than they appreciate of it. Occasionally, even I had the feeling of being in a magic show where additional trickery yielded diminishing returns.

But the book’s closing vignette on the coast of Ireland, aching and lightly brushed with the supernatural, is enough to make one forget the metaphysical gibberish. It is a humble bow for a novel that otherwise displays just about every human quality except for humility. It is also a reminder that Mitchell is a writer who delights and excels in every altitude of literature, from his 50,000-foot macronovel ambitions to his microscopic attention to the perfect word in the smallest moment.

The Bone Clocks is altogether too much, but there is so much here that is so good, even transportingly great. I found myself in my own dream vortex in the middle of it. I blew past deadlines and ignored family calls to finish the second chapter. I canceled on friends and ignored a migraine to finish the sixth. For all its time- and continent-hopping, The Bone Clocks affords its readers the singular gift of reading—the wish to stay put and to be nowhere else but here.