Gimme Something to Read: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it, many of the sane crave it, but the wise worry about its long-term side effects. Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul. Power’s comings and goings, from host to host, via war, marriage, ballot box, diktat, and accident of birth, are the plot of history. The empowered may serve justice, remodel the Earth, transform lush nations into smoking battlefields, and bring down skyscrapers, but power itself is amoral.” Immaculée Constantin now looks up at me. “Power will notice you. Power is watching you now. Carry on as you are, and power will favor you. But power will also laugh at you, mercilessly, as you lie dying in a private clinic, a few fleeting decades from now. Power mocks all its illustrious favorites as they lie dying. ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’”

Metaphysics. Political intrigue. Mystery. Philosophy. Tragedy. Romance. All of this and more will you encounter as you tread carefully through the pervasive twilight of the labyrinthine narrative of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. The novel, long-listed for for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and awarded the World Fantasy Award in 2015, is a gripping, thrilling page-turner that seized my attention and never let go. It is an intricate tale of fear, power, and lust, one certain to appeal to the detail-oriented and cynical minds of metalheads the world over.

The Bone Clocks is in truth six tales woven together, each encompassing a pendulum swing of the life of protagonist Holly Sykes as she matures from a head strong, Led Zeppelin-loving teen in the British 1980s to a wizened, jaded old woman in a crumbling Irish stability zone in the 2040s. As Holly’s tale unfolds, her life is told through the eyes of one of several different characters. These characters range in morality, age, and relation to Holly, but central to each of their stories is a steadfast English woman and a bizarre, unnerving, ethereal world of mystic power and psychic terror. Each story is a different path through a psychic maze wherein two groups of immortals with differing views on the role of humanity wage bitter war against each other through the eons. Reality is consistently juxtaposed against fantasy, leading readers to constantly question the size and scale of events within the book and, consequently, their own perspectives. “What did that phrase mean?” I found myself leafing back through the pages to find a vague clue. “I wonder how that event will unfold in the future.” When atemporal metahumans can alter the flow of reality’s stream and influence events centuries in the making, readers will wonder what hope humans have in forging their own destinies. Are we all simply subject to the external, cosmic whims of amoral schemers?

That isn’t to say that the characters are unrelatable. Quite the opposite actually. Even the immortal spellweavers, sitting within their webs of lies and intrigue, have believable desires, fears, weaknesses. No character is a moral absolute. Mitchell deftly avoids the pitfalls of static characterization by writing relevant, unreliable, and familiar characters who deceive and steal to accomplish their ends but also rise to heights of greatness and beauty as their lives (or metalives in the case of the atemporals) encounter a simple British woman of exemplary character.

Bolstering this sense of realism in the face of fantasy are the historic time periods portrayed through each story. Though the book itself spans into the near future, the first four individual arcs encompass more recent time periods and historic events: the aforementioned 1980s in the UK, Cambridge University in the early 90s, a politically severed Iraq in the early 2000s, and a decadent literary convention in Columbia in the 2010s. David Mitchell has an agile mind capable of bestowing near infinite detail upon each story, grounding the fantasy in a believable and relevant reality.

From the realism and historic detail, a wellspring of philosophical questioning issues forth. Was Foucault’s definition of power correct? Is there absolute truth? Is there ever truly absolution for wrongdoing? Is power moral? Was Nietzsche wrong? Is modern life unsustainable? Does every choice we ever make matter in the grand scheme of eternity? By plotting all of these questions within both the cycle of a normal woman fighting desperately for her family and against the backdrop of a timeless, mystic war, we are given an infinite space to ponder both the small and the momentous implications of our own actions.

All of this would be meaningless, though, if Mitchell’s writing was terrible. I can gladly report, though, that the author’s tight, precise prose is some of the most compelling I’ve read in a long time. The characters are believable, the plot, both in the larger scale and individually in each of the six stories, is wholly engaging. The mystery is palpable, and the conflicts are grave. Moreover, Mitchell has a sharp, witty phrasing that avoids overwrought hyperbole in favor of careful, concise diction and syntax. Several times I found myself reading a line to my brother-in-law with an appreciative smirk. Most important, though, is Mitchell’s sense of structure. As I previously alluded, details mentioned in the very first story do not resolve until the very end; the author is content to allow the narrative to unfold organically, the cosmic importance of the mystic conflict only unveiling itself in bits and pieces at a time. It isn’t truly apparent what’s really transpiring until the fourth chapter or so, but the central story of Holly’s life (and those of the supporting actors) is so engaging that witnessing the mystery illuminate is part of the fun.

My only quibble with this book is that the denouement feels sluggish after the momentous climax in the fifth story, but the conclusion is satisfying. I have no other faults with this book, and even that one is only minor. The Bone Clocks is the first book in a good while that I have been utterly unable to put down, and for that, I award it 4.5/5 Literary Toilets ov Hell.

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Intriguingly, Mitchell leaves us with a playlist encompassing the varying humors of the novel. I’ve compiled a youtube playlist of those tracks for your aural stimulation.

You can find The Bone Clocks wherever fine literature is sold.

(Photos VIA and VIA)

  • YourLogicIsFlushed

    I have been hearing good things about this book. It is a little less daunting sounding than Cloud Atlas, so it will probably be next on my list after I finish the last major piece of David Foster Wallace’s bibliography. Gotta put those Amazon giftcards to good use! Thanks for the review W.

    • Dubs

      You’re welcome. I just read that Slade House, his novel from last night, follows the Anchorites, one of the groups of atemporals in this book, so I’m probably going to pick that up at some point.

      • YourLogicIsFlushed

        I have heard so many good things about all of his books, I have just been too obsessed with the postmodern classics to break out and read something new.

        • I brought Infinite Jest on my last trip. My assumption was that I would be forced to get through at least some of it due to a lack of external stimuli. I still didn’t make it through more than 15 pages.

          • YourLogicIsFlushed

            It’s tough, but once you get past like the first 200 pages, you usually end up wanting to finish it. I think it would be hard for me to finish nowadays, when I usually read in 30 minute bursts. You really need at least an hour a at time to really get anywhere. It’s easily in my top 3, probably at #1, and one of the very few books I have read twice. Anyone who dislikes it is a hipster contrarian asshole.

          • RJA

            Ulysses for me. I finished it, and maybe I’ll read it again one day but I need about a 20yr break!

          • Dubs

            I want to read Ulysses and War and Peace at some point.

  • Celtic Frosty

    I started reading this last night. It grabs you from page 1. I can’t wait to dig in.

    • Dubs

      This one was much easier to finish than a lot of novels of similar length, despite some heady themes. I think that owes largely to the natural flow of his prose.

  • Bosse de Hosse Rosse

    This sounds like a really good read. I like the idea of a full story comprised of 6 seperate accounts spanning a decent amount of time.
    Are the songs in the Playlist actually part of the story and are referenced in the book?

    • Dubs

      Most of them are. I think he said a couple are just songs he listened to while writing the book, but most of them are featured in the story itself.

      • Bosse de Hosse Rosse

        Very cool, thanks.

  • Are there pictures in the book? I like reading the pictures.

    • TrickleDownOvTacoKvltRiff

      he said “bone’…

  • Is this comparable to 1984 Dubs? I got a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble from my boss and this seems like a good bet to thrown down on.

    • Dubs

      I wouldn’t say so. You get a bit into societal collapse toward the end of this novel, but there’s far more metaphysics/fantasy in this book than 1984.

      • The opening bit on power had me thinking along those lines. I’ve started to view the super rich as people who are addicted to power and control. I thought maybe it might touch on something along this lines.

        • Dubs

          Ah, in that sense, yes. One of the groups of atemporals basically views power as a tool to live opulent, luxurious lives at the expense of mortals.

  • Seriously though, this should be a good break between all the fantasy/sci fi I have planned to read over the next few years. Sounds really interesting

      • TrickleDownOvTacoKvltRiff

        Pro tip: Scroll down so only the top of his hand is showing…then hehe.

    • Dubs

      You could say that it has a bit of magic to it. One of the characters mentions that all the atemporal stuff sounds a bit like magic.

      • Yeah but compared to the Wheel of Time, Middle Earth, and the Ender series… seems pretty tame in terms of unbridled high fantasy and sci fi

        • Dubs

          Definitely.

          • Have you read Ender’s Game?

          • Dubs

            My wife and I actually listened to it on audiotape a few years ago. I actually hadn’t read it before then. It’s great, though I heard the rest of his books are a bit rubbish.

          • sweetooth0

            I liked the second book better actually, Speaker for the Dead. It’s also interesting to check out at least the first of the “Shadow” series to see Bean’s perspective on the events of the first book. Turns out things happened a lot differently than in Ender’s mind.

          • Dubs

            Duly noted!

          • Bosse de Hosse Rosse

            Excellent read!

          • EsusMoose

            First is great, Speaker is alright, Xeno was dreadfully boring like skiing on ice treadmill boring (never actually got around to finishing it).

          • I quit after 100 pages, I couldn’t deal with Xenocide

          • EsusMoose

            You made it further than me, I think I reached 50, old people talking is the bane of me

          • They were still talking when I quit. Just sitting on a spaceship. Chilling. Discussing. DOING NOTHING. ONE HUNDRED PAGES.

          • EsusMoose

            Philosophical bullshit is shit, where was anything good!

  • BLACKBEARD UNFILTERED

    I knew this had to be W. Perhaps ill check it

    • Dubs

      I’m fine with being associated with book reports.

    • Hese the intellextool and smrt won ov the toylet.

    • W told me you think Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series

      • BLACKBEARD UNFILTERED

        Its the most polished. No framerate issues, no bugs.

      • BLACKBEARD UNFILTERED

        The combat mechanics are also where dks2 shines. The parry and backstab systems are better. More diversity in weapons, and gear.

        • So you just ignore the subpar lore, the total lack of any memorable bosses or NPC characters, the mostly terrible level design pre-DLC, the scatter-brained world layout, and cheap enemy encounters where the game uses quantity over quality?

          Okay

  • Nativian Taco

    Cool, I’m always looking for good books to read. Make this a regular thing.

  • Eliza

    The first sentence is a truly beautiful quote.

  • RepostedAvengedSevenfoldFan2

    some one help me i realy realy need to know were to buy the books i want they realy bad so help me tell me i can buy they thankz…

    – michelle shadows 777, March 15, 2012

    • YourLogicIsFlushed

      Blockbuster

    • RJA

      best one ever?

    • Janitor Jim Duggan

      Go to Books A Million.

    • CyberneticOrganism

      A7X has books now?

  • Random book recommendation: “The Shockwave Rider” by John Brunner

    • Dubs

      Looks interesting.

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

    “book learning”

  • More like The Bone COCKS, AMIRITE? Hawhawhaw, high five bros! Did you see when I roasted that stupid book just a minute ago? That was fucken awesome. My snaps are as on point as my lack of intellectual curiosity!

  • BTW, Happy Birthday Roy Batty!! (RFI)

    • Dubs

      Also David Bowie’s birthday.

      • coincidence? i think not. *MLG air horns*

        GL

      • Sir Tapir The Based

        BLACKSTAR 10/10

        • Janitor Jim Duggan

          It’s so good.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            For once I can agree with you.

        • Decent song, better video.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Song is fucking amazing. I’m talking about the whole album, tho.

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            It’s a very damn good.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            My local record store got it. It’s funny that a small record store can get it, but a larger chain can’t.

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            I didn’t pre-order it. But the nearesr Äx had some in stock.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Really? On their site it said they have none

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            They have, like 20 on the window rack alone. They might not show ’cause you gotta ask for them at the counter.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            So they got the albums but they didn’t send my pre-order? What the actual fuck?

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            That’s really, actually, very lol.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Btw, they have one of the Coil single reissues
            The original tracks from Coil’s 1985 Panic single plus compilation tracks from 1985, previously unreleased instrumental remixes and some demos. Thirteen tracks, 56 minutes.

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            Oh nice!
            They don’t anymore.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Btw, are you a Soldier of Odin?

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            You mean those foreigner-hating, kid-stabber led operators?
            Fharc no.
            I prefer to be openly a bad person, I don’t need no weak ass sauce “protect our women”-excuses to go around.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Lol they’re being led by a kid-stabber?

          • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

            Almost. The head guy has been convicted many times. One of the convictions was of threatening and/or attacking (don’t recall which) a child with a knife – in front of a restaurant.

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            Mmmmmmm I’m feeling so safe already.

        • Salvador Dalí Lama

          You punched me like a dude

          • Sir Tapir The Based

            ‘Tis a pity you are a whore

    • Bosse de Hosse Rosse

      One of the greatest Sci Fi characters.

    • TrickleDownOvTacoKvltRiff

      I still cant get the thumbs in the eyeballs scene outta my mind after all these years…

  • CyberneticOrganism

    Damn, gettin’ all literary up in here. I’m waiting for Children of Dune to show up on my porch next week.

    • EsusMoose

      That’s a great book, definitely better than messiah which also was fairly good

      • CyberneticOrganism

        I loved Messiah, the last third was really something else.

        • EsusMoose

          I love the first three dune books but Messiah was the slight lull in the adventure though I devoured it at mach speed. Just prepare for God Emperor of (bore)dune, it was a bore when I tried to get through it, ended up skipping most of it.

  • EsusMoose

    I’ll have to give it a try as Cloud Atlas was fantastic and I see he still is doing the time period skip and change in character perspective.

  • A.P.

    I read basically all the time, but I almost never read fiction and I know I’m missing out on some good shit. I’ve had a few things in mind to remedy this, but none of it remotely modern, so maybe I’ll add this to my list just to remedy that. I’ve spent a lot of time transposing D. Scarlatti’s music for guitar, so that was neat to see as part of the playlist, too.

    • Dubs

      I read academic journals constantly for work, so I tend to read fiction more often for enjoyment.

  • Ah. This sounds very interesting and readable, W. I don’t think I’ll ever get around to reading it, though, too much internet use has massacred my ability to sit down and read something.

  • Lacertilian

    Damn Dubs, you basically just sold me on this one.
    Side Note: The header image is rad.

  • Scrimm

    been trying to focus on reading again lately. I went from 1-2 novels a week to one a month over the past couple of years(this place and the FB group don’t help) and my own riding has been nonexistant in that time as well. That’s not okay for me.It’s hard without all my favorite bookstores. The ones that are left don’t stock much horror fiction either so it’s harder to keep up with what’s even out there anymore.

    • Dubs

      I need to do more reading this year than I did last year.

  • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

    I think I will read this, W.
    If I can find it.

    • Dubs

      Excellent

    • Sir Tapir The Based

      Bears can’t read