That a vessel of story so packed with story it seems to overflow with plenitude can feel half-empty after we shut the last page may be a central clue to what David Mitchell has been doing in The Bone Clocks in order to tell sooth; or not. A clue would be good. Reader responses to date have been taxingly various: submission to what seems a flow of genius; talmudic comparisons with earlier instalments in his uberseries (see below), in particular Ghostwritten (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2004); honourable refusals to accept that Mitchell has in fact this time round created a bullet to bite; all the way down to the ever-unwinded noli me tangere lucubrations of the semi-tortured but still ineffable James Wood, our own personal aliquot sample of the Culture Curator, who as usual when the great penis of fantastika raps upon his chamber door bristles like Dorothy Parker's virgin porcupine:
How amply armored, he, to fend
The fear of chase that haunts him!
How well prepared our little friend!—
And who the devil wants him?
The sad thing is that Wood almost gets it, or almost gets something, when he suggests that in The Bone Clocks "the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel". (The New Yorker, 8 September 2014). But no, not really. "Mere decoders" is in fact exactly wrong: as indeed one would have to expect of a critic tramlined by the conviction that "mere" storytelling—Wood excruciatingly allows Mitchell to be ranked as a "steady entertainer"—runs somehow counter, in a text like The Bone Clocks, to the real mission of the genuine true novel: which is to examine the human condition without conditions. "Pure storytelling", he says (or, as one might put it, the human condition when narrated), "seems to have triumphed here; the human case has disappeared". Damn! I had it just a minute ago. If on the other hand we presume that the human case can only be opened—that is, argued—through story's almost indescribably mysterious capacity to create outcomes in time—chronotope grammars to write Fate in—this kind of disjunctive thinking seems fatally abstractive, MLA-compliant jaw-jaw with a human face; and in the specific instance of Mitchell's perhaps over-delicately poised novel, simply, as I've suggested, upends it. The primal function of the "peculiar mystery that has befallen" the "human characters" of The Bone Clocks is to enable the tale—which may be noncorpum-told (see below)—to honour and to decode those human characters, not the other way round. The Bone Clocks is exactly about the case of being human. The "drivel" is in the eye of the beholder.
Having expected to see the phrase "bone clocks" appear again and again in The Bone Clocks, I failed to note their every occurrence, and am very probably wrong to think now that "bone clocks" are only mentioned four times in 600 pages, on each occasion but one as an expression of contempt for the human condition mouthed by one or another immortal Anchorite (both Anchorites and Horologists will be defined in a moment, as much as need be). The first occurrence is on page 58, during a conversation the reader can only parse properly in retrospect, hundreds of pages later, as we only learn then that Holly Sykes, the protagonist of this first of the novel's five long sections (and effectively the central protagonist of the story as a whole), is housing the psychic essence of the Horologist Esther Little, who has gone to ground after a great disaster (see below), and who will rest within Holly for decades, until it's safe to emerge. But on page 58, before all this comes out, a seemingly human figure manifests itself to young Holly. She remembers from a recent nightmare his "piranha's eyes, the curly black locks, the busted nose". He asks her who she is, promising her "a clean death" if she answers him. She identifies herself as Holly Sykes. The creature is uninterested. He addresses Esther directly (though we're not to know whom he's addressing until much later): "look what you're reduced to now, Horologist. Trying to hide in this slut-gashed bone clock". The bone clock is Holly. Which is to say bone clocks are us. We skip to page 424. Dr Irene Marinus, an Horologist and the second primary protagonist, receives a text message, possibly from the same Anchorite who had accosted Holly Sykes forty years earlier: "consciences r 4 bone clocks marinus, u r 1 beaten woman". We skip again, to the climactic comic-book conflict between the two opposing bands of immortals in 2025 (see below); as one of the Anchorites insists gloatingly, the human condition is simple:
The young hold out for a time, but eventually even the hardiest patient gets reduced to a desiccated embryo, a Strudlebug [sic] . . . a veined, scrawny, dribbling . . . bone clock, whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.
It is at this point—the most problematical in the book, as Mitchell sinks not wisely and too well perhaps into twentieth century pulp idioms, the sort of immersed parodic homage an author like Lavie Tidhar is rather better at carrying off—that we're told about the Anchorites and Horologists down to the last detail, two groups of theoretically immortal beings whose strategies for survival vary hugely. Anchorites vampirically suck the essence of mortals on traditional lines, a process conducted through rituals in which bone clocks are tricked out of what remains of their mortality; rather more originally, Horologists change their bone-clock vestments only when a human dies and they can enter the corpus, which they animate for a span (though Esther can go to ground in a live mortal, in extremis, if she stays still). All of this is a facilitating shorthand grammar, and is familiar to those with moderately wide reading experience. And once we accustom ourselves to the cartoonish extremes Mitchell allows himself in his attempts to capture the narcissistic excesses of Anchorite behaviour, we can begin to parse The Bone Clocks properly: for those who become Anchorites, not unlike neoliberal philosophers, ultimately lose their souls; their contempt for bone clocks is the deepest of all sins. So what we half-suspect, and what we know for sure by the end of the tale (though the ball never dropped for James Wood), is that the Anchorities and the Horologists, though we must take them literally, are not the heart of the matter; way less so than the very similar (and certainly related) noncorpum who narrates Ghostwritten. They do not cage the book; they elucidate it. The title is of course the heart of the matter.
Mortal human beings are bone clocks, creatures bound to flesh and time; and the very considerable noise that The Bone Clocks makes—with each section told from within the consciousness of an intensely interesting, intricately populated character—is itself central to the meaning of the book, which is us. The term bone clocks does not simply define the fates of those on whose behalf the novel enacts the grammar of time to enstory; it also describes the sounds we make, which is to say the sound the book makes. The human condition is full of noises; the more we sound off within ourselves, as do the protagonists so unceasingly in these pages, the more human we are. So the essence of The Bone Clocks lies in the blissful passage-work between tick and tock, the plethoric sussurus of bone-clocks eking their time here, riding the ratchets of their stories forward without knowing that these stories are exactly telling them, through eyes deep and sometimes compassionate. The deep dayspring of fantastika of The Bone Clocks may well be its assertion that it is possible to see us. That we are seeable.
As fast as possible, the six parts. Each is told in a narrative-present first person. There is no constructive clatter—no diaries, recording devices—between us and the protagonists, between us and the voices that they make.
1984.The teenaged Holly Sykes runs away from her Gravesend home and the lad who has deflowered her. Her brother Jacko gives her a flattened cardboard maze. Much later we learn that her brother died of the flu, and that his body became at point of death the dwelling place of an Horologist, who wishes her well. The maze will guide her to safety through the most garish moments of the novel, 400 pages later. She meets an old woman named Esther Little. She somehow encounters Dr Marinus, who will attempt to keep her alive for the next 60 years. She meets Ed Brubeck, who will later live with her. We are flooded with her fright, her exhilaration, the smell of her world, the planet just beginning (as it seems) to turn on mortals.
1991. In Cambridge, the highly personable, ferally attractive sociopath Hugo Lamb plays cat and mouse with fellow students, among them the future critic Richard Cheeseman, cheating and guying and seducing, his mind buzzing with raptor glee; encounters Immacule Constantin, who begins to recruit him into the ranks of the Anchorites; at a Swiss ski resort meets an English girl working at a bar, whose name is Holly Sykes, and they sleep together. He has a chance to share the sparkling population of her voice, but at the last moment the Anchorites seduce him into cartoon ritual, into mortal-deriding immortality, into eternal youth. Bone clocks are there to be eaten. We will never meet him again except from without, as he has no inside.
2004. Ed Brubeck, an extremity-junkie foreign correspondent, cannot continue to live in England with Holly Sykes and their child. The war in Iraq calls him. Holly continues intermittently to hear voices which give something like advice. Ed continues to flashback to events in Iraq (his description of the American presence is a description of gauleiters in Hell.) Their child suddenly disappears. A voice gives Holly a number. Ed finds his daughter in a hotel room with that number. After he has left us, for we have been within his poignantly masculine consciousness, he will die mortally, I mean for good, in Iraq.
2015. Crispin Hershey, a youngish author prematurely past his sell-by (Mitchell has denied basing him on Martin Amis), goes to a book event in Hay-on-Wye, is pleasantly surprised at the size of the crowd waiting for him to sign his new book, but finds that they're in fact queuing up for Holly Sykes, whose book on psychic visitations has become a surprise bestseller. Guardedly, they become friends. But it is too late for Holly (or her voices) to save Crispin. He is a bounder. He has framed Richard Cheeseman (from 1991), whose review of his last novel was devastating, and Cheeseman is trapped in a South American prison for years. We begin, all the same, almost to like Crispin. He is very funny, very very self-doomed. No saving him, no chance to braid his conversation into the future. He is deaf to the clocks; he is an island. He is shot dead.
2025. Plot thickening time. Holly Sykes has been saved from cancer, for at least another decade. Esther Little's long-laid-down hints and messages are delivered: after the 1984 debacle of their first attempt to eradicate the Anchorites (whose appetite for humans is huge), which occasioned her going to ground, it is time again for her and the Horologists to attempt to snuff their enemies out of existence. The story becomes complicated, manipulative, necessarily less focused on the bone clocks who are the reason for anything being told. The enemy stronghold is invested, in videogameish scenes rather more Monty Python than Voyage to Arcturus, though hints of some harsh gnostic outcome do slither like white sharks beneath the dark waters (see above). But the Horologists win in the end. The world is saved?
2043. No. In SF terms, the Horologists and the Anchorites are not Secret Masters but Pariah Elites: benignly or with malign intent, they do no more than tinker with the engine of the world. Global warming, apocalyptic colony collapse disorder not restricted to bees, balkanization of the northern world: by 2043 the handwriting on the wall in 2014, which we smear with amnesia slime nightly, has become the instruction manual for everyday life. In western Ireland, Holly Sykes, now dying of cancer for good, attempts to save her two grandchildren. It looks as though the collapse is too rapid for that. But Dr Marinus, who has constructed a kind of redoubt in America via Iceland, gets them onto a last ship westward bound. This is all that the immensely elaborated multivalencies between bone clocks and their monitors can achieve: individual acts of succour. For 600 pages we have been enstoried in voices, and now it must end. There is too much planet to save, Dr Ain's beloved woman is flaring out, cancer boils cover her. The ship leaves. Holly is left:
Incoming waves erase all traces of the vanishing boat, and I'm feeling erased myself, fading away into an invisible woman. For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.
It is the last sentence of the book. The dance of ironies of that last adamantine pregnable "sort of" seems beyond our sort of tears, yet.
Mitchell I think is dragging something of a red herring across the path of The Bone Clocks when he speaks of an uberseries to which this book belongs, as though there were some special reason for him to tell us so this time round: because after all the uberseries began with Ghostwritten and has continued in every book since. So we should expect that a large number of characters here—characters as important as Marinus herself—have appeared under various names and/or identities in those previous novels. In an appendix printed in some copies of The Bone Clocks sold through the Waterstones chain of bookshops in the UK, Mitchell provides some details of this sustained enterprise in connectivity, though not many. He mentions Marinus and some other shared characters (but not the noncorpum); and as far as shared characters make a series, then he describes bits of that series here. But Mitchell (who is as about as far from a fool as any author I have read) says nothing about any deeper level of consanguinity linking the six novels he has so far published: no revelation of the intention that must underly consanguinous storylines, revelatory twists hiding for the nonce behind arrases, strangers who are not strangers at all but bone clocks down here on a visit to this book. He says nothing of any lacrimae rerum fountain at the heart of the labyrinth weeping for us, nothing about any godgame magus at the end of time pulling monafilament strings invisible to the eye but rhadamantine. Perhaps—surely wisely—he thinks nothing of the sort will save us, and that all we can hope for is to connect, only connect. It might be dumb all the same to assume that The Bone Clocks is in the end a jeu d'esprit gaming with coincidences so as not to weep, but still the absence of any visible signification (that I caught either in the tale or in the appendix) is a tad perplexing all the same.
It does in fact give one a feeling that maybe Mitchell is winging it here: that maybe he means every word he's written but he doesn't know what every word means: that the semantic multipliers he is so astonshingly deft at loosing have gone walkabout. It is for instance in the words of another author, also at the high pitch of his twenty-first century craft, that I find anything like a bald statement pointing to the implications of the knowledge that we are bone clocks:
The wind-up orchestra had always meant . . . comfort, safety, peace. I had spent my entire life foolishly seduced by ticking clocks, never bothering the hear the horror underneath.
This passage from Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears (2012), a Little-Big tale partly about the discovery that grief is an engine which needs fuel, does not so much counter the weirdly entrancing gemutlich suavity of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks as suggest that both authors may be representing the same conclusion: that despite the loving-kindly interestedness of Mitchell's mesmeric, gossipy, Perils-of-Pauline, stoppeth-one-of-three storytelling genius, he is kind of secretly telling us something tocsin. Maybe what The Bone Clocks is telling us, in the end, is that the news is not good: that the wise Horologists of our dreams will be reduced to administering last rites.
It is only fifteen years since Ghostwritten, which now seems embedded in the old times, when history could be done. Here in these later pages some savage gaeity has hunkered down, the anguishes in the garden turn to bone, the sounds our stories make frazzle in the turn of the bone planet to its descriptors.