The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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)

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

This 1814 novel would be much better at about half its length. The first half merely sets up this extended family, how three sisters married at different levels of society and how various relationships developed among their children. There is no story and no tension, and at various points in the first 200 pages I was tempted to set down this novel and seek one with more interesting characters, people who were not just living but were interacting at cross purposes. That is, a story.

But it is difficult to set aside a work by such a distinguished author, an author I was reading to broaden my literary knowledge. And so I persevered. But it required considerable concentration to bring into focus the relationship among the various characters. The three sisters are Mary, who marries Sir Thomas and becomes Lady Bertram; Miss Ward, no first name, who marries Rev. Mr. Norris and is very mean-spirited; and Frances who marries a hardy naval officer named Price. It was also not easy to follow characters who are called at times by their first name and at other times by their last name.

But the novel evolves around their children. There are Thomas, Maria, Julia, and Edmund Bertram, and William, Fanny, and Susan Price. Plus there are siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford, who belong to the Bertram social circle. The first half establishes the ambitions, characteristics, and relationships among these young people, how class plays a part in their lives, how morality plays a part, and how finding a spouse plays a part. It provides an opportunity for Austen’s wit and her own social consciousness. But there is still no story.

Instead, there is preparation. Fanny is transferred to Mansfield Park to relieve Frances of one of her many children. There is Fanny’s slow acceptance into this wealthy family. There is a compatibility between Fanny and Edmund, as they discover they share important values. There is a discussion to redesign a mansion, during which Edmund and Caroline are lost. There is the rehearsal of a play that a returning Sir Thomas views as immoral and stops.

Finally, there is a hint of a story when the cavalier Henry Crawford charms daughters Maria and Julia but fails to propose, resulting in Maria marrying a boor on the rebound, and Crawford turning his attention to young Fanny. He has confided to his sister Mary that he intends to play with her affections, and then leave her. But Fanny has seen how he treated her sisters and rejects him, while he discovers that in his “pursuit” he has fallen in love with her.

So finally the novel has tension, has a story. Will she or won’t she? We read the rest of the novel to find out. Like Fanny, we don’t trust Crawford, because we also have seen him with her sisters, plus heard his plotting with his own sister, Mary. And Austen loads the dice by having Mary, Edmund, Sir Thomas, and others encouraging Fanny to accept Crawford.

But the basic problem for me is that when Crawford, ironically, falls in love with Fanny, I could not accept it. He seemed too shallow to feel so deeply, despite all the favors he does to win her over. I could not accept this irony, even if his favors do persuade Fanny to see him in a better light. In counterpoint, note, is the romance between Edmund and Crawford’s sister. He has fallen for her, and is sure he can persuade her to marry him. Meanwhile, Fanny, politely but painfully, listens to the failures of his courtship, for he is the one she truly loves.

The resolution to these courtships not only comes too suddenly for me, it also betrays the manipulation of the author. It concerns two couples who run away offstage, and the repercussions among those left behind. That it is two couples seems to be overdoing it, as if Austen needed to make sure the impact is convincing. And, lo and behold, those repercussions pave the way to happy resolutions for Austen’s main characters. Indeed, she does not even dramatize those repercussions. She simply narrates them, and quickly winds up her novel.

Austen obviously understood family relationships, small town life, and the interaction among different levels of society. But in our modern age, one has to get used to her basic technique in conveying a story such as this. First is the use of narration instead of a dramatization. One must also get used to her circumlocutions that stretch out the meaning she wishes to convey. It is Henry Jamesish before James came along, although more concerned with precision than with nuance. And while paragraphs of conversation are limited, it is not always clear who is saying what.

Some modern critics have complained about Fanny’s passive character, but I have no problem with her. She had her own standard of personal conduct, and I was comfortable with it. She also reflects the reluctance of women in Austen’s era to deal aggressively with men in a male society. One can understand how today’s feminists are uncomfortable with this; but she is honest, loyal, and sensitive, all fine qualities even today.

For me, the most interesting character is the charming Mary Crawford. She is kind and understanding with Fanny, except when Fanny refuses to accept her brother. She is also fun to be with and is idealized by Edmund, who does not see her practical bent—and that she prefers sophisticated (immoral?) London to the quiet of rural Mansfield. She is interesting because she has more contradictions than Fanny.

Just as the reader’s view of Mary keeps changing, so does it of Henry. For Austen wants us to accept her irony, that Henry is truly in love with Fanny. But it is difficult to accept that he is indeed in love with her, especially if he runs away with another woman. Fortunately, even as Fanny’s feelings change, even as she begins to see his good side, she is patient until he eventually reveals his true self.

This is low on my list of Austen novels, but I need to return to her. One day. (May, 2015)