Contributors Theodore McCombs and Lisa Mahoney recently read David Mitchell’s 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mitchell is known for sprawling novels composed of smaller story units, which move freely across time and space and even link to ideas and characters in his earlier novels.
As The Bone Clocks starts, Holly Sykes is just a temperamental teen in 1984’s working-class England. But her latent psychic ability makes her a pawn in a war between two kinds of immortals: the benevolent “Horologists,” who travel the globe in reincarnation after reincarnation, and the sinister “Anchorites,” whose fountain of youth is the souls of the living. Holly’s life intersects this secret world first in her own story and voice, then through the vantages of other characters in her life, including Ed, an Iraq war correspondent and the father of her child; Crispin Hershey, a bloviating literary author; and so on, until she ends up in a post-apocalyptic future where the environment has been destroyed by human wastefulness.
Lisa Mahoney: From the first chapter I was drawn in by the plot, but also by Mitchell’s artistry. I love the one-liners he inserts to sharpen scene and mood. For example, in the middle of a conversation between Holly and the rootless, loner boy she’ll pair up with, Ed Brubeck, Mitchell writes: “Far away, a lonely dog barks, or perhaps a fox.” Then we get: “A bat flaps by, like it’s on a string in a naff vampire film.” And, as the conversation ends, “There’s a moon sharp enough to cut your finger on.” These – all on one page, mind you – infuse the themes and the characters’ emotions into the scene, warn us what’s coming up plot-wise and provide strangely beautiful, energetic snippets of atmosphere. Brilliant.
TM: For me, the fantasy universe he created—the bodhisattva Horologists and ruthless, soul-eating Anchorites—was an utter joy to read. I think there’s always been this little, geeky kid inside the Serious Reader Reading Serious Authors who wants to see a well-crafted mind-laser battle. It’s more than that, though: Mitchell finds real beauty in the Horologists’ stories. I loved the scenes between Esther and Marinus in the Australian outback. Gorgeous and moving, never mind that they’re immortals talking nonsense about “Psychosoterica.”
LM: But you weren’t such a fan of “the Blind Cathar,” right? The book you’re working on is sprinkled with the history of the Cathars, a heretical sect from the Middle Ages. What did you think about Mitchell’s version of Catharism?
TM: Hold me back, Lisa, hold me back! The Cathars believed material creation was a curse, the work of a malevolent lesser god; only the spirit was divine. A Cathar would never have been interested in extending the Anchorites’ mortal lives at the expense of souls. So, -10 points for Mitchell on the philosophic accuracy of 13th-century heretics living disembodied in space churches.
LM: Then the Blind Cathar is a double apostate: heretical even within his own heresy.
TM: You know, I’ve been talking about the fantasy plot, the war between Horologists and Anchorites at the margins of human experience. And we started with Holly Sykes and her wonderfully written voice—Holly is the sort of powerfully human character that literary fiction strives to capture. How did you think these aspects of The Bone Clocks worked together? Do they work together?
LM: Yes and no. The book’s structure is almost six tightly-linked novellas moving across Holly’s lifetime. Mitchell has used a similar format before (in Cloud Atlas), but here, the themes and ideas don’t seem to carry through with the same emphasis from part to part. The fantasy elements are supreme in the Horologist Marinus’s section, but the Crispin Hershey section focuses on tirades against the publishing industry and jokes about genre fiction. The final chapter is a loud warning about humans’ wanton environmental destruction.
TM: It’s a shaggy, rattletrap construction, which I find rather wonderful and ambitious—but also careless. You and I both came to the question, what story does Mitchell really want to tell? Holly’s life of love and loss, or the Horologists’ cosmic battle? Obviously, the ideal is “both,” but do Mitchell’s choices line up with that?
LM: And especially his choices of voice and viewpoint. How should authors pick their point-of-view characters? Holly’s life (and the novel) would have been less rich without the acerbic Crispin Hershey, for example, but few turning points in the story depend upon his interactions with Holly or Horology.
TM: It’s the same question for Ed Brubeck, the war correspondent, right? I found his story in Iraq interesting, even compelling, but I’d have to stretch to link it to the fantasy plot. They’re both about wars, I guess.
LM: Which brings us back to the digressive structure of this lengthy novel. You liked Marinus’s flashbacks with Esther, but other digressions seemed to diminish the story’s tension. Supplying necessary background in fantasy is a delicate task. Badly done, it’s a painful “info dump.” Mitchell is quite talented though, of course, and the trips back into Marinus’s previous incarnations, even if digressive, provide background in an engaging way. We follow Mitchell down these side-paths willingly, but other digressions felt heavy-handed and non-essential to the plot: for example, Ed’s evaluations of the Iraq War, and the characters’ thoughts on environmental degradation.
TM: We end up back at “What story does he want to tell?” Is Esther Little’s life as an Aboriginal mystic the digression, or the plot? Is The Bone Clocks really a novel about environmental ruination—is humanity the worst Anchorite after all, consuming the earth’s soul for our meager pleasures? I have to say, that last post-apocalyptic section stressed me out to no end. Terrifying and moving. Tears, ruined mascara. I was not a pretty sight.
LM: So, we agree The Bone Clocks is a great blend of speculative and realist fiction, and is also of high literary quality. Is this the future of the novel? Do you sense novels moving beyond stifling realism and MFA dogma into a space where its readers can simply sit back and enjoy traveling to a new world? Does a book succeed whether or not all of its readers are sensitive to an author’s underlying themes or to the subtlety of her art?
TM: I think Mitchell is definitely taking fiction to a place it needs to go. Cloud Atlas did it better, perhaps, more seamlessly; and James Wood's biting New Yorker review of this book had some pretty fair points about the uneven tone that comes with mixing wild fantasy jargon with realist, close third-person voice. But I'd rather read an over-ambitious, careening rattletrap of Mitchell's than the sleek, spotless sentences of, say, John Banville—whose Booker-winner The Sea impressed me tremendously, and bored me. I put down The Bone Clocks impressed and breathlessly engaged. That's a pretty bright future for fiction!