21st century literature, Book review, David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, 2014

David Mitchell’s novels defy categorisation. Anyone who has read Cloud Atlas, or seen the pretty trippy film version, will know that he is keen to break down the traditional structures of the novel. The Bone Clocks is no exception, and I am reasonably sure that if it had been published anonymously it would have been quite easy to have identified Mitchell as the author.
I’m quite torn in reviewing this novel. On the other hand, I read it in a few short days, consuming it and carrying on reading long after the point common sense was telling me to take a break and get some sleep. I am trying to avoid the cliché “unputdownable”, but this is the first book for a long time where that has happened, where I genuinely engaged with the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, how the author manages to tie together the strands.
But on the other hand this is really a very silly novel. Woven into the naturalistic strands, stories of a teenage runaway in the seventies, a boorish Cambridge graduate on a skiing holiday in the 80’s (I think) and so on, short stories really but all linked by characters that come in and out of focus, is a time travelling science fantasy thread which on its own would be utterly preposterous and almost certainly unpublished. I suspended critical judgment when reading because the naturalistic sections are so well done, but it undoubtedly makes a strange beast of a novel.
Bone Clocks, incidentally, is a euphemism for people. Quite nasty really. On balance I’d say Mitchell just about gets away with this, although his credit in the readers’ trust is eroded somewhat. But this was enough to get me reading some of his earlier novels, in particular the more recent “Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” which I am partway through at the moment. I’ve read some of the online commentary on Bone Clocks, and there are some fierce deconstructions of the text, notably on Amazon, that make good points. It is silly and self-caricaturing at points, and evidence of “dialling it in” aren’t hard to find. But I keep coming back to those “just another chapter” nights – am I that much of a sucker for an adventure story?