Biting Style: The Bone Clocks and Anti-fantasy

This is not a review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

I don’t even mean that in the self-consciously Magrittesque kind of way.  If this were a review I’d tell you to read the book, or not, which I don’t plan to do.  I mean, okay, for those of you who haven’t made up your minds on David Mitchell’s latest opus: while I had an excellent time on every individual page, the book landed strange for me, and this essay is me trying to figure out why.  Asking “Should I read this book” is like asking “Should I take up power lifting?” or “Should I learn Chinese?”  Answer: depending on your goals, your experience, your medical history, your ambitions, how much free time you have—Maybe?

I do, though, think this book succeeds at something really really cool and interesting, even if it fails as a unit.  And the shape of this cool interesting thing challenges the goals and underlying structures of modern science fiction and fantasy—especially fantasy.

Because Mitchell’s written a fantasy novel.  That point seems impossible to argue.  His world contains immortals who teleport, throw fireballs around, and kill people with a thought.  To call it anything else would be silly.  And yet…

Let’s face it: the science fiction and fantasy community tends to moan about the “genre divide,” the fact that, say, Gene Wolfe and Nnedi Okorafor don’t stand much chance of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.  That’s a fine conversation to have, but the more we have it the more we tend to overlook the fact that great writers on the literary side of the line are biting our style in the best possible way—taking genre markers and doing fabulous, weird things with them.

Yes, some literary writers reap praise for using the genre toolbox to create work that, on a genre shelf, would pass unnoticed or fall into the gap of “well-written but unremarkable”—but many make masterpieces.  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a science fictional retelling of Hamlet (or, more precisely, the parts of Hamlet that take place before Act I); Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is a lyric Trojan war tragedy complete with gods and ghosts.  (The reverse happens too: Karen Joy Fowler’s used science fictional techniques to write a killer literary novel in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves.)

So let’s talk about the The Bone Clocks.  The rest of this essay, my lawyer instructs me to tell you, includes spoilers for that book, as well as for The MagiciansCloud Atlas,  The Sandman, and the first thirty minutes of Secret of Mana.  Cool?  Cool.

As in Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, we’re treated here to a series of novellas that, very loosely speaking, follow a central character—Holly Sykes—through her life, from her teenage years in the 80s to her grandmotherhood in 2043.  The first and last novella star Holly, while the rest follow other characters who intersect her life.  A supernatural war takes place behind the novel’s scenes, between a group of basically peaceful immortals and another of spiritual carnivores: magicians who gain eternal life by eating human souls.

So far, so good.  Most fantasy novels, given this sort of backdrop, would naturally settle in to some sort of Hero’s Journey.  Holly’s first encounter with Magic Stuff happens after she’s run away from home; that will be her call to adventure, and we’ll follow as she learns the truth of the hidden world.  She’ll discover, amid earthshattering adventures, that the bourgeoise reality of Gravesend and her family pub is the tissue paper surface over a world of secret powers and transcendent danger.  She’ll beat the Bad Guys in a triumphant display of mystic acumen, or Love, or Whatever Our Target Virtue Is This Week, but she Can’t Go Home Again, or if she Can, her Going Home becomes a tragedy of magic, friends, and love abandoned.

This structure stands at the core of modern genre.  I’m not saying it’s bad, or even good, just that it’s there.  This is Star Wars, this is The Dark is Rising, this is Wizard of Earthsea, this is The Lord of the Rings and War for the Oaks.  (All stories, by the way, for which I have a deep affection.)

But this isn’t The Bone Clocks.  I’ll call what he’s doing anti-fantasy, and I think it’s wonderful.

See, that Hero’s Journey, when implemented weakly, has a glaring problem: the home village starts to seem awfully small and useless set against the background.  The village is the eggshell that contains and constrains our young Hero, until its destruction frees her.  After emerging wet and sticky as a fledgeling chick, she must clean herself of the (often perfunctorily handled) trauma before she, or more often he, can soar above the world, unbound by cruel gravity!  Etc.  So we who read stories of this kind over and over as children start to think, damn, I can’t wait for something to come and tear me away from this place, and these losers.  When will I hear the Call to Adventure?  When will I get my Hogwarts letter, or stumble into Narnia?  When will I turn out to be the Chosen One?

When will this illusion I’m living break open to confront me with the Real?

This is the mindset Lev Grossman skewers in The Magicians, where Quentin keeps waiting for existential satisfaction to descend on him from On High as if God Herself opened the Ineffable Faucet.  And of course the continually-repeated joke of that book is that it never happens, because you stay you, even when you can do magic.  It doesn’t help for Quentin to go to magic school, or master magic, or go to Fillory, or even to learn that basically the entire world has been arranged for his benefit.  We need to go hunt down meaning, or build it, rather than waiting in our discontent for the faucet to open.  (Reactions to The Magicians seem to vary widely depending on when the reader in question processed that particular insight.  Folks who figured it out earlier tend to have relatively little sympathy for Quentin.)

That’s the psychological picture.  Socially, in fantasy novels the “real” world can seem like a shadow when set against the magical Other.  (Sometimes it’s literally described that way: when you get to the Other World the colors are sharper, more vivid, etc.)  Some books reinforce this phenomenon by presenting the hero’s pre-magic life in cursory terms at best.  We’re supposed to believe the protagonist wants to get back to her home village—but do we really care?  In the first act of the SNES classic Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), when my Hero was banished from his home, my first reaction was: good riddance!  It was a boring village.

(This, at the risk of derailing into discussion of my own work, is part of the reason I try to focus on my characters’ relationships to their home towns, even when that relationship is an ambitious “get me the hell out of this dump, I want to rule the world!” as in Tara’s case—antipathy is interesting.  Anyway.)

If that’s fantasy, then the Bone Clocks is an anti-fantasy: it wrestles constantly with fantasia’s tendency to sap meaning from normal human life.  The fantasy element here is textbook cool, with all the weird names and strange language I love (though Mitchell’s lack of experience writing pure fantasy does him a slight disservice: some of the language he invents for fantastical concepts fits poorly in the mouth—psychosoterica and psychovoltage, for example and in my opinion), but it’s by far the least compelling part of the book.   It’s a classic case of cool as the enemy of caring.  Outside of the fantasy elements, the human stakes in each scene are masterfully drawn, the drama tight and elegant, the characters’ individual flaws and foibles clear and compelling, while the fantasy is a shadow-play at best.  I cared much more about whether the war reporter would go to his daughter’s school play or accept his next assignment, whether the teenage runaway would make it in the big world, whether the Bad Boy of British Letters would eventually become a decent human being, than about the soul carnivores’ machinations.

Ordinarily I have a kind of sick sadistic expectation when reading a fantasy (or for that matter horror) novel: when’s the cool stuff coming?  When will those pleasant peasants bite it?  But in The Bone Clocks I found myself dreading the very material for which I usually drool.  A bad guy pops out of a hole in the air to ruin the day of an acerbic novelist, and for once rather than saying “yeah, let’s see some action!” I’m scared for our novelist friend.  I don’t just want him to survive the confrontation with the evil wizard—I want the evil wizard never to show up.  That wizard’s intrusion feels like a disgusting joke—he’s an inhuman creature warping the reality of people I know and love.  And he does kill people.  And every death matters.

Rather than Magic appearing as a strange new world, a hidden reality, the Truth that’s Out There, here Magic is a choice that pulls people out of reality, that destroys the reality it encounters.  Embracing the Magic, heeding the Call to Adventure, again and again throughout The Bone Clocks, leads to abandoning love and wonder and everything that makes life worth living.  Sometimes the moral environment demands people make that sacrifice—for example, to fight for truth in the face of overwhelming lies and tragedy, as in the case of the war reporter deciding whether to return to the front.  But often people throw themselves out of the world, and out of the human community, for no good reason, due to promises of power, immortality, and wealth, or even for simple pique.  Sometimes those same choices can even be unmade, at least in part.  Souls can be saved.

And here’s the best part, sort of, from this angle: the magical plot turns out to be absolutely inconsequential!  The world in the final chapter of The Bone Clocks is falling apart Mad Max style in spite of the Good Guys’ victory.  Sure, one Good Guy stands against the darkness—but he barely matters.  In the world of the novel we ordinary humans have done a great job screwing up our world all on our own, with minimal Bad Guy intervention.  Holly Sykes’ ultimate significance is just, and more than just, that she’s a person, a human being with the capacity for dreams, growth, and love—in this book, for all its immortal war games, we bone clocks (the immortals’ word for humans) are ultimately what matters.

Gaiman, in The Doll’s House, has Dream of the Endless caution his sister Desire that “we” (the Endless, immortal god-type things) “are their dolls,their in this case referring to humanity.  In context, the line suggests that, much as Desire and Dream may feel human lives insignificant, humans are actually the ones that matter.  This is one of my favorite lines in The Doll’s House, in all of Sandman in fact, precisely because it turns the usual order of fantasy on its head.  Gaiman never quite follows through on the potential of this line IMO—the most meaningful moment in each human character’s life is always that character’s contact with the Endless—but it’s a great sentiment that illuminates the issue I’m hammering here.  The Bone Clocks follows through.  And while The Magicians does a great job of showing that magic doesn’t provide existential validation, The Bone Clocks shows that human life can.

Now.  All that said, I don’t know if the book works.  It certainly isn’t perfect.  For example, consider the final Mad Max-in-Ireland chapter, which returns to Holly Sykes’ point of view for the first time since she was fourteen.  There’s very little magical intervention here, just character—which fits perfectly with the anti-fantasy concept.  Ideally, though, for a character-driven story, this would be the chapter where we see how much Holly’s grown—where the climax of the Magic plot in the penultimate chapter is revealed to be a shadow of the actual human resolution.  That resolution should probably feature Holly doing something she never would have done if the events of the novel hadn’t happened—or at the very least, show some depth to Holly we never would have suspected earlier.  Mitchell doesn’t take either path, as far as I can tell.  Holly makes a sacrifice for another, but it’s no surprise that she does so; she would have made the same decision at fourteen, I think.  As such, for this reader at least, the final chapter felt a bit pointless, serving mostly to show how the world of The Bone Clocks becomes the future of Sonmi-451 (dammit, I just got that Bradbury reference.  Mitchell!!!!) and Sloosha’s Crossing from Cloud Atlas.  I closed the book, as a result, a bit at odds with myself.  I couldn’t really say what had just happened, in spite of enjoying every page turn.  This essay, among other things, has been my struggle to unravel that confusion.

I thought reading other analyses would help, but James Wood’s review in the New Yorker misses the anti-fantasy aspect of the book which I found so compelling—possibly because Wood’s lack of fluency with the fantasy canon (he describes this book as having the “demented intricacy of science fiction”) keeps him from appreciating The Bone Clocks’ relationship to the fantastic.  Wood complains that for him the human action’s meaningless because of the fantasy realm and the secret war; in fact, fantasy realm and secret war alike are constantly portrayed as slightly good at best when they observe and support human life, and demented when they impose themselves upon it.  Human activity, human choice, is the only realm important for Mitchell—every time a character turns from humanity to embrace the fantastic, it’s presented as a tragedy, while even the supernatural Good Guys end up murdering a sympathetic character for no good reason.  Fantasia, in this novel, is boys playing with toys, while the “mundane” world matters.

(Some other parts of that review rubbed me the wrong way, honestly such as Wood’s claim that Mitchell’s narrators all sound alike:

All the sections in “The Bone Clocks” are narrated in the first person, a mode whose natural volubility does Mitchell few favors. He uses first-person narration to seat himself in a comfy, rather bloke-ish realism; his characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike, because they are all involved in a figurative exaggeration that is at first amusing but which becomes tiresome and coarse. Here is Holly Sykes: “Guys are all sperm-guns. . . . Green tea’s great while you’re drinking it, but it makes you pee like a racehorse, and now my mouth feels like a dying rat crapped in it.” And here is Hugo Lamb, the Cambridge undergraduate who narrates the novel’s second section (set in 1991), describing his besotted friend Olly: “His pupils have morphed into love-hearts and, for the nth time squared, I wonder what love feels like on the inside because externally it turns you into the King of Tit Mountain. . . . Olly’s glowing; if he was six inches tall and fluffy, Toys R Us would ship him by the thousands.” And here is the adult Ed Brubeck, who narrates the third section, set in 2004. (Ed is now a distinguished war reporter; he and his partner, the adult Holly Sykes, have a six-year-old daughter, Aoife.) “Pete’s bat-eared and his hairline’s beating a hasty retreat, but Sharon’s marrying him for love, not hair follicles.” Here is Ed again, describing someone’s look of sheer surprise: “If Austin Webber wore a monocle, it would drop.” When Aoife goes missing, Ed is terrified: “Twenty thousand volts fry me into hyperalertness. . . . My bones turn to warm Blu Tack.” And here is Crispin Hershey, the middle-aged novelist who narrates the fourth—and excessively long—section, entitled “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”: “Miguel tries to look jokey-penitent, but misses and looks like a man in white jeans who underestimates a spot of flatulence.”

He’s absolutely right that Mitchell’s characters all play the figurative hyperbole game, and that is a limit to Mitchell’s supposed ventriloquism, but the imagery differs wildly from voice to voice, I think—the fourteen-year-old’s stumble into cliche, Lamb’s over-the-top Cambridge bro-ism in “the nth time squared” and “King of Tit Mountain,” Ed’s contempt for upper class twits of the year, Hershey’s scalpel scatologia.  I can see how the inventiveness, the push for unique imagery and literary fireworks, can grate, but they don’t “sound too alike” to me.  The different voices of these four brilliant, lingually dextrous people come through in their choice of imagery—though maybe it’s the use of imagery itself that bothers Wood.  I digress.)

To sum up: I read The Bone Clocks as a sophisticated unraveling of core tropes of the fantasy genre, a masterful pommel horse routine that two-foots the landing.  I wonder if fantasy will rise to the challenge I think this book presents, by embracing the power and tragedy of human relationships, by rendering the real world real—if fantasy will bite the lit-ra-ture’s style back.  If so, it’ll be fun to read.

13 Responses to “Biting Style: The Bone Clocks and Anti-fantasy”

  1. Paul Weimer

    I wonder if fantasy will rise to the challenge I think this book presents, by embracing the power and tragedy of human relationships, by rendering the real world real—if fantasy will bite the lit-ra-ture’s style back.

    Well, then, fantasy writers need to read it, in order to add this to the “long conversation” of genre literature, then. 🙂

  2. Kate Nepveu

    (Hi, we met super-briefly at Loncon, where I told you I’d cited your fellowships post on a MCU v. DCU panel.)

    Are you familiar with the categories of fantasy Farah Mendlesohn sets up in _Rhetorics of Fantasy_? It sounds to me like you’re arguing that _The Bone Clocks_ is an intrusion fantasy (magic enters the fictional world), which contrasts with the portal-quest fantasy (the character, and through them, the reader, enters a fantastical world). [*]

    At any rate–I don’t think either structure intrinsically contains a statement about the importance of magic v. human relationships, but it’s true that a lot of cliches have developed around portal-quest fantasies that tend in that direction if not examined.

    [*] The other two categories are the liminal fantasy (“magic hovers in the corner of our eye”); and the immersive fantasy (the fantastic is treated as the norm throughout)–which would be, at least based on the two I’ve read so far, your books.

    • max

      Hi! Good to hear from you again. I haven’t read Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (big oversight, I know)—but that’s a useful taxonomy!

      Just based on your description, it sounds like you’re right, that neither intrusion nor portal fantasy structure necessarily contains a statement about the value of magic vs. human relationships—which is part of the reason I think Mitchell’s operating on another axis in The Bone Clocks. Intrusion Fantasy can still treat Magic Stuff as more interesting / meaningful than Everyday Stuff; here the Everyday Stuff is a greater source of joy and meaning in the character’s lives than the Magic Stuff, which is a position I rarely see presented in fantasy.

      • Kate Nepveu

        . . . and now I want to know if it’s possible for someone to write an immersive fantasy in which Magic Stuff and Everyday Stuff are not distinguished from each other and the effect is that equal weight is given to both by the reader.

        Huh. *wanders off, pondering*

  3. Matt W

    At issue with using Mitchell’s success here as a rallying call to fantasy in general is the fact that Mitchell can write like a devil. If someone were to read capsule descriptions of Mitchell’s novellas (both this novel and Cloud Atlas are essentially collections of structurally linked novellas), there’s no way I could imagine them being interesting to read: “Rich asshole Oxfordites take an Alpine ski trip.” or “Struggling young composer becomes an assistant to a pretentious older composer.” They’re all like that. But, his books are impossible to put down. I am trembling with anticipation (<-slight hyperbole) as I turn each page to discover if Ed's going to find Aoife or if Holly's turn picking fruit will work out. I read an interview where Mitchell said that he feels like he's obligated to write things that readers would want to read. Which is handwaving, because I suspect David Mitchell could write about preparing tax forms and make it compelling. I read lots of books. Most authors would have trouble pulling this off. It's not necessarily a bad thing that interesting settings and situations can substitute.

    One thing you never touched on above, that I find a little annoying in The Bone Clocks is the attempt to wall off certain criticisms of his choice to write in genre by pre-empting them. Cheeseman's review of Hershey could easily be written about The Bone Clocks itself, and this sort of self-referential stuff occurs throughout Hershey's story. (He did the same with Cavendish's story in Cloud Atlas.) Yes, it's clever and humorous, but I feel like he's apologizing to his 'literary' readers (and critics) for stooping to genre.

    • max

      Hah! You have, of course, cottoned on to my secret evil plan of encouraging everyone to be as good a writer as David Mitchell. 🙂 One of the things I loved about The Bone Clocks was the strength of scene construction. I was rarely more than two lines into a scene before characters had objectives, problems, consequences, and something had gone horribly wrong—never in a formulaic way, either. It’s stunning.

      I read the self-referential pieces of both books in the opposite direction, as if he’s acknowledging and thumbing his nose at the ridiculous literary culture of which he’s a part. “Look at these pompous jerkwads!” I’m not sure which of us is right, though.

  4. Michael Alexander

    The interesting thing here is that for once it ISN’T just the old Quixote/Spaceman Spiff move of immersing you in too-meaningful fantasy and then punishing you for it. I’m definitely going to have to give this one a read.

    • max

      Do. It’s not perfect, but damn is it great.

      Also, find a print edition if you can. I’ve never felt paper like this in a work of fiction before.

  5. BDG

    I have yet to read to the Bone Clocks (though I now might) but I feel if this ‘challenge’ has already been responded to multiple time no? My personal example is the Malazan books, those books are rooted in humanistic thought, the anthropological sciences, and the mundane existence of humanity and the beauty of it despite also being about giant awe-inspiring war and carnage. More so than many literature books I’ve read. It may help that it has a stupid amount of POV and maybe one or two go through the traditional Hero’s Journey. I have yet to experience, outside of a handful First Nation writers, a series of books the so soundly speak to my own life as a settled person.

    That is not to refute the point of the non-review, I want more fantasy to reach across the way and steal everything that works so well from the literature genre, it just feels like many people have already done that, and have been doing it for at least twenty years.

    • max

      That’s a reasonable assertion—there are many fantasies with an overall humanist drive, though I haven’t yet read Erickson so I can’t speak to his approach. Still, I can’t remember reading a book that had me so thoroughly invested in The Village, as opposed to Big Cool Magic Adventure Stuff. Even Tolkien, who clearly loves the Shire, doesn’t make the Shire interesting the way Mitchell does. For me, at least, there’s a difference between valuing human life and interaction (which is pretty common) and portraying it as captivating and an end in itself. We feel compassion for, say, the Emond’s Field farmers in The Wheel of Time, and we don’t want them to die, but we’re also excited to get the hell out of dodge to the place where the neat stuff’s happening. Mitchell’s done the equivalent of making us excited to stay in Emond’s Field for the entire book, which I think is pretty amazing.

      • BDG

        If I’m reading you right, you view the Bone Clocks as a deconstruction of the values of most* straight fantasy fiction which is fair all said in done. In Malazan one of the main wells of compassion and understanding, and ultimately appreciation for human life is an assassin god who kills people with a magic rope so I assume that’s a few degrees removed from the Bone Clock. I’ve always viewed Malazan as an anthropological deconstruction of epic and military fantasy but still very much in those modes. I’m very interested in the Bone Clocks. Maybe I’ll spurged on it in a couple weeks.

        *I’m actually wholly under read in I guess what you’d call classical fantasy. Most of references for fantasy come either from Malazan, New Weird, Urban Fantasy, or the stuff that is a reaction to the classical fantasy. I’m come fantasy tropes mostly through games, though in this day and age that seems appropriate. Also just want to say thanks for the site, always the most interesting stuff here.

        • max

          Why, thank you! I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I like writing these essays, but they do take a lot of time, so it’s nice to get some appreciation!

          Re: Malazan, while, again, I haven’t read the series—speaking of holes in reading!—my sense, supported by your assassin god example, is that Erickson’s world is complicated enough that his story operates on a different axis. Based on your reading, it sounds to me like he’s playing a similar game to Terry Pratchettt, by using a magic-permeated world and cast to address deep resonant issues of human ethics and relationship from new angles. (I love this approach—one of the things I try to do in my own fiction FWIW.)

          Meanwhile, Mitchell, as I read him, is engaging with a kind of trad fantasy that relies on distinctions between an everyday “normal” world and a magical “world of adventure”—Narnia is a good example, but not all stories that use this mode are portal fantasies. Lord of the Rings gives us a pretty conventional English countryside in Hobbiton, and Frodo’s hardly the only “farmboy” protagonist in fantasy. Normal life is, in a great deal of fantasy, something from which Our Hero must be rescued—not so in The Bone Clocks.

          That said—you’re right that Bone Clocks is hardly the only example of this project. The Once and Future King works with this material, as does Little, Big, and I’m sure I could think of more books with similar approaches. Maybe I’ll even agree with you about Malazan, when I finally read it!

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