When I was recommended The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot. It’s been too long for me to remember the last time I read a work of fiction written after the turn of the millennium and what I had been hearing about books, at least popular ones for adults, wasn’t very encouraging. A trend towards literary-fiction, I was told. Authors writing fiction for the sake of the writing and not for the sake of telling a story. So with some reluctance and trepidation, I accepted a Facebook friend’s challenge of reading The Bone Clocks to see if it could indeed be one of the best things I’d read in a long time.

Let’s start with the writing. David Mitchell, who wrote Cloud Atlas, not the comedian, displays an amazing gift in composing scenery in this book. Throughout most of the book, I felt like I was there in the field, or out on the snow, or in whatever building we happened to find ourselves. It was almost, but not quite, Gormenghast level atmospheric. The descriptions of landscapes and settings went beyond just putting me in the place of the characters, but in the same mindset, the same disposition. Mr. Mitchell completely and utterly understands his characters such that he can transpose their niggling feelings and emotions into culturally relevant descriptions that let me stand behind the character’s face. It is a pleasure to read, in that regard.

But only in that regard. Mr. Mitchell’s writing ability, while Tolkien-esque when it comes to setting and while he is internationally acclaimed, still manages to fail when it comes to a coherent plot, or even simply telling a story. Normally, I would begin the review with a little story overview, to wet the pallet of the reader before discussing shortcomings. However, in the case of The Bone Clocks, the story itself is so brief, so short, and so lacking, that I felt like giving a synopsis, even in a paragraph, would essentially spoil the entirety of the book. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. The core plot of the book takes up, perhaps a tenth of the overall length of the book. There’s a few pages of it in the first section, one page in the second, a few in the third, and just about none in the fourth. Its not until the fifth section of the book that the plot actually takes center stage. That’s two thirds of the way through the book, or 200 pages, to get to where something is happening. The climax of the novel builds over the course of about ten pages to a confrontation that is both predictable and brief with almost no participation from the “main” character. I was warned it would “start slow,” but this borders on hardly starting at all.

The writing also suffers from character jumping. When I was made aware that Mr. Mitchell also wrote Cloud Atlas, this issue started to make sense. The entirety of the book is written from first person perspective, a perspective that is hard to pull off well, and even harder to pull off effectively. The Bone Clocks is split up into several sections, each taking place from the perspective of a new and, until the beginning of that section, either unknown or insignificant character. The time jumps as well, one section per decade, roughly. The only thread tying these sections together is the “main” character of Holly Sykes who appears in all of the sections, but rarely as the main focus. The sectioning is disjointing, which may be the point of the fiction, but it was not enjoyable as the trick is easily understood for what it is while also being extremely frustrating.

It does not help the time and spacial jumping when we’re forced to bear witness to some of the worst character cast  I’ve ever read. While I admit above that Mr. Mitchell pulled me into the character’s world, it its not a world worth watching. Not a single character elicited sympathy from me. Holly, when we meet her, is a stupid and arrogant teenager doing stupid and idiotic things. The next character from whom we hear is an incredibly self-absorbed bastard. The next a character I felt pity for, but not much else. Then a pretentious writer who thinks too much of himself and does horrible things to people, a character I could not ultimately decide whether he was a self-insert or self-parody of Mr. Mitchell or just unintentionally so. Then an actual plot actor and mover, though also the blandest of the bunch. And finally Holly again who is by now just an obnoxious old woman. I could never find myself liking these characters, for the simple reason of none of them had redeeming qualities either in terms of their humanity or their usefulness in the book. The author-character, for example, contributes absolutely nothing to the narrative yet consumes perhaps the largest section of the novel. The other characters make barely a dent, except for Holly and the plot actor.

Lastly, there is the glaring issue of Mr. Mitchell’s imagination as displayed in this book. I’ll not go into too much plot detail, but a lot of The Bone Clocks revolves around the existence of genuine psychic powers and immortality. I completely understand that some concepts in-universe need to have terms and names, but the kitschiness of the terms used in this book are just mind boggling. “Psychosoterics,” “psychovoltage,” “psychodecanter,” “psycoslaughter,” “psychosedate,” (you get the idea), are all terms used by characters who, supposedly, have lived hundreds or thousands of years from all over the world, most in isolation, yet they all use trite and cliche-sounding names for these abilities. It’s maddening, but that’s something I feel most people can look past. Something I can’t look past is the final chapter, depicting a dystopian Earth. The manner of the fall of Britain and the West is chalked up to global warming and the internet failing in ways it couldn’t actually fail. I’m not sure how Mr. Mitchell thinks that all of Western society would descend into Mad Max anarchy in a matter of a decade simply because no one has WiFi anymore… Actually, no, on second consideration, this part of the book makes sense.

There so much more I could cover, however I feel that those were subjects Mr. Mitchell wanted to explore in this book, but felt more obligated to flesh out poor characters than to actually delve into the big questions. Subjects like: god and spirituality in the face of the confirmation of the afterlife, immortality’s strain on the soul, and redemption. Unfortunately, too much time was spent building characters who did nothing, became nothing, or were ultimately nothing. Too much effort was giving to setting instead of substance. And too much time devoted to prose instead of plot. The Bone Clocks is a beautiful disaster, a train wreck of fantasy and literary-fiction, that I could not recommend to anyone.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆