By David Mitchell
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Sometimes bad novels are so good.
I’ve just finished ‘The Bone Clocks‘, by David Mitchell. It was a bad book, but not the sort of bad book that you resent having started. It didn’t have the sort of badness which makes you angry at the author for trying, for his pretensions or mistakes. It was the kind of bad book you love, that you tear through. It was a Great Bad Book.
I’m not saying that David Mitchell is a bad novelist, or a bad writer (which are different things); he’s not necessarily either. He’s definitely not a bad writer: his prose ranges from competent enough to ignore to quite good, depending on the book and the time. I would say that he’s actually a decent writer.
And, though I have only read two of his other books, ‘Cloud Atlas‘ and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘, neither was a bad novel. ‘Cloud Atlas’, it’s true, hovered around the same kind of badness that ‘The Bone Clocks‘ possesses, but was original enough that, I think, managed to just avoid the downward spiral of real badness.
And ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘ was great. It was a lovely novel, moving and human, one of the very few books that has ever made me cry. I think, perhaps, the discrepancy between ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and both ‘The Bone Clocks‘ and ‘Cloud Atlas‘ has something to do with their genres. ‘The Thousand Autumns’ is simply a little love story; it isn’t science fiction or fantasy, which the other two are. I think that, perhaps, science fiction and fantasy (certainly fantasy) slide more easily into plotty badness. Something about the genre tempts authors to the sort of over-written theatrics which make books bad but fun to read. Novels grounded in reality tend to be a little bit tighter.
‘The Bone Clocks‘ is, in many ways, ‘Cloud Atlas‘s half-baked little brother. It is also a story which follows multiple characters, all supernaturally connected, through time. But while ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows what seem to be incarnations of one or two people through many, many generations, ‘The Bone Clocks’ is about one long human lifetime, namely the life of Holly Sykes, as it is crossed, intersected over and over, by a, uh, group of reincarnating mystics at war over the harvesting of human children to feed their eternal lives.
It’s exactly the sort of grandiose and silly premise that Great Bad Books are made of. ‘The Bone Clocks‘ is the story of a magical war between good and evil, and like all such stories, the joy of it is in the ludicrous, and yet somehow absorbing, details.
In the world of ‘The Bone Clocks‘, there exists a class of immortals, called Atemporals, souls which involuntarily reincarnate 49 days after their deaths into the body of a dying child. One group of these Atemporals, calling themselves the Horologists, are at ‘psychosoteric’ war with the Anchorites. The Anchorites were once just regular mortals, but they have used dark technologies, gifted to them by the Blind Cathar, to achieve immortality. However, in order to achieve this, they must routinely sacrifice a child.
Holly Sykes is a psychic, and so her life becomes tangled up in this psychosoteric war. ‘The Bone Clocks‘ takes places in six chapters over the course of her long life, starting in 1984 and ending in 2043, in a very different world than ours.
And it’s just silliness, from beginning to end: joyful, diverting silliness. David Mitchell has great strengths as a storyteller: he has a gift for the demotic (his characters sound and act like people on TV), and he’s great at constructing the elements of plot: pacing, building to a climax. He gives scenes texture, but doesn’t linger – he’s very plotty.
And he’s just the right amount trashy, at least in his sci-fi/fantasy novels. A multi-generational war of magic between the Evil Anchorites and the Good Horologists, which will culminate in a battle in the Temple of the Blind Cathar? Come on, that’s almost unspeakably cheesy!
You know what it made me think of? Do you remember that South Park episode, ‘Cartman’s Incredible Gift’, from Season 8, where Cartman pretends to be a psychic and ‘battles’ a bunch of other fake psychics? Where all the psychics stand opposite each other and touch their temples and go, ‘Wa na na na’?
The whole book is like that.
And it’s not that Mitchell is pretending that it isn’t cheesy – ‘The Bone Clocks‘ isn’t pretentious, not at all. Rather, he simply doesn’t seem to care whether or not it’s cheesy, which means that, in a weird way, you don’t. If he were looking down his nose, using the Anchorites and Horologists as some highbrow metaphor, then ‘The Bone Clocks’ would be insufferable. But I, at least, didn’t get the sense that that was what he was doing.
Rather, ‘The Bone Clocks‘ feels like David Mitchell got a neat idea for a story and decided to tell it: wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if reincarnation were true, but only some people had the ability to do it? And then some other people figured out how to do it, but they had to do something terrible in order to achieve it?
What terrible thing would you do to achieve immortality? That is an old question, one that we ask ourselves over and over. What price would be worth your boundless life? At what point during that evil eternity would it cease being your life? At what price, once paid, do you stop being yourself?
We are obsessed with that question not just because we are fixated on our own deaths, because we are devoted to avoiding them – we ask that question because it’s an essentially fun question to ask. It’s a fun problem to think about, and it’s fun to think about it here. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not ‘good’, but it is fun.
Sometimes, silly scenarios are the best way to explore the scariest and most important questions. Sometimes, silly meditations are the best meditations. But, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because they’re fun.