This 2014 work is a difficult novel to evaluate. Is it a straight novel, or a fantasy novel? For its first four of six sections, it is a realistic novel that tells the stories of real people, with a bit of fantasy hovering in the background. It is quite enjoyable. With the fifth section, however, it becomes a pure fantasy novel, with confusing characters whose unique powers relate more to each other than to the humans we know. And one concludes that creating this fantasy may be the real purpose of the novel.
What is revealed in the fifth section is that a war is going on between two different beings for the control of humanity. When one being, the Horologists, die, they are reborn forty-nine days later inside a child about to die. They thus live for many generations, many centuries. The others, the Anchorites, never age and never die, as long as they can kill and absorb a normal, living person. The former are the good guys, the latter the bad guys.
The confusion begins when the fantasy characters, throughout the novel, hide within either other fantasy characters or in the human characters. This occurs with Holly, an innocent young girl who will appear in many of the sections as she grows into an adult, even becoming famous when she writes about fantasy visions she sees of the future. Plus, early in the novel, she unwittingly agrees to have an Esther Little hide inside her. Eventually, this Little turns out to be an adored Horologist and a mentor to many others.
Each of the six sections is related by a different narrator. The first narrator is Holly, who, betrayed by her boy friend, runs away at 15, has visions, including of her beloved brother Jocko, then is assaulted, and finally is found by a schoolmate, Ed Brubaker. He says that Jocko has disappeared, and she must return home. The second section’s narrator is Hugo Block, a student and thief who flees to a Swiss resort, meets Holly as a bar girl, and falls temporarily in love; then, just as he believes the police are on his trail he meets two men who promise escape and eternal life. With the Anchorites.
The third narrator is Ed Brubaker, now married to Holly and with whom he has a child, Aoife. Ed is a war correspondent in Iraq, and the author contrasts his unworldly adventures there with the fantasy creatures who pop up at a sedate wedding at home. Ed finally accepts Holly’s visions when he naps, his daughter disappears, and he finds her in a hotel room with numbers that Holly speaks in a trance.
In the fourth section, the narrator is Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist who tours the world trying to resurrect his career. In his travels, he meets Holly, now a popular author because she has written of her mysterious visions. Crispin confronts his fate when an unknown poet declares that mysterious beings are taking over mankind, and she wants Crispin’s help in revealing this.
In the fifth section, the world of fantasy truly arrives. The narrator is Marinus, a Horologist who once cured Holly of her earlier visions. These fantasy characters live in our world, but there are new relationships, all seen from a different perspective. The result: confusion. Finally, Holly learns her brother Jocko has been possessed by a Horologist leader, Xi Lo, and to find Jocko she joins Marinus in his fantasy world effort to destroy the Anchorites.
In the sixth and final section, the narrator is again Holly. She is now in her seventies, living in Ireland, and the world around her has collapsed. Global warming and authoritarian governments have brought flooding, storms, the rationing of power, and the failure of communications, world manufacturing, and world trade. And most disappointing, this author, a grand story teller, does nothing but describe Holly’s adjustment to this new and unsettled world of deprivation and violence.
Except, a deus ex machina arrives, deciding the fate of some human characters. But one asks: why this ending? Its sentimentality seems out of place, as we read about these human we followed but never identified with. And one also asks the point of the war in this world of fantasy. Yes, one side won, but the entire world soon collapsed in on itself. How did this happen, and what does it mean? One suggestion is that concern for the present led to the failure of the future. But the human witnesses did not affect this war, and this reader is left with a novel that seems to have no human rationale.
Yes, this is an absorbing novel, even if long and confusing. Because Mitchell has created a resonant world of reality, and brought it alive through the richness of his writing. Critics have even cited an additional level of richness. As Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times: “Characters and themes from Mr. Mitchell’s previous books also recur here…hints that all his novels somehow link together in a kind of ‘uberbook,’ though at this point, the reverberations and cross-references tend to feel more like clever high jinks.”
But while this approach adds connections, it also adds complexity. And adds neither richness nor depth. Moreover, James Woods cites in The New Yorker an additional distraction—from the humanity of this novel. “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle…. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters.”
And this, I believe, identifies the problem at the heart of this novel. We read it for the story, but without any concern for the characters. Certainly we cannot identify with the all-powerful fantasy characters, but neither can we with the human characters. For they have no real relationship with one another, as they react only to the fantasy world, not to one another. Even the title of this novel separates the reader from these humans. The fantasy creatures call humans the bone clocks to remind them of their inferiority, because they are made only of bone and are subject to time and to death.
In sum, I will hesitate at reading more of David Mitchell’s fiction, unless he reverts more closely to the world of reality. (October, 2017)