Another high-profile pan for David Mitchell’s newest. I think Mitchell is pretty seriously overrated, but most people in the media and the industry seem to love him. (I can still recall the enormous lines at BEA to grab a prized galley . . .) So it’s interesting that a book with this much hype and PR muscle behind it can have such a blemished debut. Doesn’t happen often.
What goes wrong? In part, The Bone Clocks falls apart in the same way all supernatural and horror stories fall apart: It shows the monster, and once it shows the monster, everything becomes less sinister, and more ludicrous. In Cloud Atlas, the mystery remained off-screen, subtle and spooky. It’s hard to even say what the magic in Cloud Atlas was, but every reader knew it was there. The Bone Clocks is explicit: The various neurological techniques of the immortals are described in precise and tedious detail. Its villains are comic-book-evil. The final showdown against the baddies even includes a force field. It’s blue! Everything is explained, which dissolves the mystery and guts the magic.
The Bone Clocks is a heavy book that should have been light. In some ways a better comparison than Cloud Atlas is Nick Harkaway’s 2012 novel Angelmaker, raved in Slate. Angelmaker also explored time, clocks, immortality, and magic with an epic sweep. But Angelmaker was genre fiction. It only wanted to have fun. Too often, Mitchell doesn’t. As he piles on the neologisms and capital letters, the metaphors and adjectives, you can almost hear him telling himself: I’m a Booker short-listed writer. He is burdened with portent. Everything Means Something. On Page 8, a child draws a labyrinth and urges another child to study it. Does it take a Horologist to figure out that labyrinth will reappear at a key moment later in the book?