Review: The Bone Clocks – shoulda been a contender?

Cards on the table: I am a massive David Mitchell fan. I’ve even met the bloke once or twice, and as well as being ridiculously talented, he’s also infuriatingly decent. A genuinely genuine person, who is impossible not to like. So it should be pretty clear already that this review is never going to make the shortlist for Hatchet Job of the Year. Mitchell’s own review, however, just might.

The novel, he writes, is ‘a decomposing hog’. Why? He counts the reasons. ‘One: [the author] is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’

It is a harsh judgement, passed at the start of the fourth section of The Bone Clocks’s six segments. Ostensibly it’s part of the story: an indictment of a fictional novel written by one of Mitchell’s five narrators. But Mitchell isn’t hiding away. Whether he is pre-empting the critical evaluation of his own book or voicing his innermost doubts (and every writer has them – if they didn’t they wouldn’t be much of a writer) it’s hard to say. If he was worried about how the critics would receive the novel, he needn’t have been. Reviews of The Bone Clocks have been adoring. ‘Mesmerising’, ‘glorious’, ‘dazzling’ ‘stunning’: pick your superlative. Readers, too, have so far voiced an overwhelmingly positive response. And yet . . .

And yet The Bone Clocks didn’t make the Booker shortlist. A ludicrous benchmark for us lesser writers, but there’s no question Mitchell, on some level, would have been disappointed. His publishers, too, of course. So is the book, by extension, a disappointment? How much of Mitchell’s own evaluation could be deemed valid?

Let’s take the criticisms he levels in order. The book, briefly stated, follows the life of Holly Sykes, from adolescence in the 1980s to old age in a Dystopian future. It is about family, war, death, love, mortality, morality: you name it. And there is indeed a fantasy element, an otherworldly battle in which Holly is forced to play a role. But one that ‘clashes . . . with the book’s State of the World pretensions’?

If another reader put forward that argument, I wouldn’t say they were wrong. I would, though, wholeheartedly disagree. For me, the fantasy element – the dazzling, dizzying inventiveness of the novel – is part of what makes The Bone Clocks so exceptional. It’s what Mitchell does so well: he writes about what’s important, but embedded in page-swallowing stories.

Which brings me to his prose, the other thing he does so well. Are his sentences ‘tortured’? Only in the sense that sometimes you can detect the hours Mitchell has spent agonising over the right choice of verb. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it, said Elmore Leonard, and generally this is infallible advice. But in Mitchell’s case, it’s the sheer inventiveness (that word again) of his prose that draws me in . . . and keeps me reading . . . and has me throwing out my own pale efforts in paroxysms of self-loathing and despair.

Oddly, perhaps, it’s only with Mitchell’s final criticism that I do have some small sympathy. I don’t like it when writers write writers. It strikes me as lazy, and not a little conceited. Now I know Mitchell is neither of these things, which makes me wonder why the section of The Bone Clocks narrated by writer Crispin Hershey made it the through the final edit. It contains some wonderful lines (and some very sound writing advice), but it was also the section of the novel I enjoyed the least. By some distance. It serves a purpose, I suppose, but it didn’t feel truly necessary, and is indeed the closest Mitchell comes to finally giving in to cliché.

And yet to criticise even this much feels almost churlish – akin to complaining about the soup course in a six-part feast prepared for you by Heston Blumenthal. The Bone Clocks is fabulous. It is funny, humane, intelligent, thrilling and, yes, inventive. Staggeringly so. That it didn’t make the Booker shortlist has me shaking my head in disbelief. He’ll win it one day. By my reckoning he has deserved to already three or four times over. Perhaps someone on the Booker committee feels there is better from Mitchell still to come. Talk about your ludicrous benchmarks. Given how Mitchell’s writing has progressed already, however, you wouldn’t bet against them being right.

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Posted on Friday, October 3rd, 2014 at 9:07 am

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