Two Pans

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?

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It’s true that this is far from Mitchell’s best work, and that the epic good-versus-evil stuff isn’t well done at all, but what none of these reviews acknowledges is that the book doesn’t rely on that. The most interesting thing about the novel is that it focuses on a woman who’s peripherally involved in all that but then has to struggle on afterward back in normality. The bizarre cosmology is ultimately inconsequential, and Mitchell seems to know that.

At last with James Wood’s review, you get a sense that the man read it. But this Plotz “review” doesn’t reflect that at all. Complaining about capitalized names or plot without offering any specific beefs beyond snarky reductionism is not especially helpful for the reader and indicative of the disgraceful knee-jerk “cultural vegetables” frat boy hard line promulgated by morons like Dan Kois. And as James notes above, the book really succeeds near the end, where the notion of moving forward in a very difficult reality, where climate change is confronted in a way that you don’t often see in novels thee days, becomes an uncommon act of grace.

Dork lit. Metaphysical mumbo jumbo for people who like to take warm baths while listening to Sigur Ros. Mitchell is a one trick pony whose one trick is to convince you that he has more than one trick.


That is possibly my favorite comment that has ever been on this blog.


I gave up on page 70. I’m (not so) slightly offended that I’m supposed to take something like this seriously: “Using the brother as bait was clever, but look what you’re reduced to now, Horologist. Trying to hide in this slut-gashed bone clock. Xi Lo would shudder! Holokai would puke! If, of course, they were alive, which,” he sneers, “they are not, after your midnight raid went horribly, horribly awry. Did you think the Shaded Way has never heard of burglar alarms? Did you not know the Chapel is the Cathar and the Cathar is the Chapel? Holokai’s soul is ash. Xi Lo’s soul is nothing. And you, whichever you are, you fled. As per your sacred Script, no doubt. We love your Script. Thanks to your Script, Horology is finished. This is a great day for Carnivores everywhere. Without Xi Lo and Holokai, what are you? A troupe of conjurers, mind readers, and spoon benders.”


I pretty much agree, and feel the same way about Murakami. It’s just that sometimes, every once in a while, that’s the reading experience I want and I’ll find it very enjoyable without thinking he’s got another trick. I may not think much of it, but it’ll satisfy me before I return to books that matter more/do more.

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