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Why the Bone Clocks was one of 2014’s cleverest new novels

All but the most arrogant among us understand that our lives are shaped by forces far outside of our control: your government, the global economy, socio-economic hierarchies, wars, technology, evolution, and the broader panoply of Things That Matter But No One Is In Charge Of.

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is a novel about those things. But it doesn't feel like one. Told from the perspective of five different people over the course of about 60 years, the novel is intensely personal. Mitchell ties them together by way of a time-spanning magical war — which is, by my lights, the novel's cleverest thematic and literary asset.

But if that's not your bag, there's still plenty in The Bone Clocks for you. The prose is masterful; the characters are heart-wrenching; the self-aware sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny. And it has a point to make.

Meet Holly Sykes

The Bone Clocks is made up of six different stories. The first and last are told from the point of view of Holly Sykes, an English woman with an unhealthy relationship with what she calls "the weird shit" — the supernatural. The middle four stories are told from the points of view of, respectively, a conniving British student, a war correspondent, a grumpy novelist, and a doctor.

Most of these stories are about the real fabric of their lives. Hugo Lamb, the student, is a quietly monstrous sociopath. His story is about the damage he inflicts on the lives of everyone he meets. The journalist, Ed Brubeck, tenuously balances reporting on the collapsing American occupation of Iraq with his obligations to his family.

But Holly lurks at the corner of all of these stories and eventually comes to the fore of them. Hugo falls in love with Holly, provoking a surprisingly compelling crisis of conscience over his sociopathy. Ed marries Holly. The novelist, Crispin Hershey, becomes Holly's closest adult friend. And the doctor, Marinus, well ... Marinus is the key to the book's more fantastical story.

Marinus is an immortal, and a member of a group called the Horologists. The Horologists have been at war with the Anchorites, another — very different — magical sect. In the first chapter, Holly is drawn into their war. As, eventually, are those closest to her.

That's absolutely everything I can tell you without revealing some of the novel's many surprises, the pursuit of which proves one of the novel's chief, but also most frustrating, pleasures. But the book's greatest pleasure is the way the magical plot interweaves, almost seamlessly, with the stories of individual people's lives.

Magical realism

At first blush, it seems hard to see how what essentially two books — a collection of time-spanning short stories and a fantasy yarn about a magical war — fit together in one coherent whole. Some reviewers, as in The New York Times and The New Yorker, felt that the pulpiness of the fantasy element degraded the "seriousness" of the rest of the novel.

This reaction is utterly predictable, so much so that Mitchell actually wrote it into the novel. "The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look," a fictional reviewer writes of the fictional novelist's newest book.

But the clash between the Horologists and Anchorites actually serves to strengthen the novel's more traditional literary elements. At their best, Mitchell's stories are wonderfully empathetic tales about identity crises. How does teenage Holly's life change after her first love cheats in the worst way imaginable? Several years later, does Hugo embrace his Nietzschean disdain for the rest of humanity, or explore his growing connection with Holly?

The fantasy plot amplifies these emotional stakes. A crisis of identity, after all, is not just a crisis about ourselves. We cannot think about who we are without questioning our place in the world. So the characters' decisions about who they are, and what they want out of life, end up being connected — in ways both obvious and subtle — to an epic magical war. It's a way of literally depicting the phenomenology of an existential crisis.

And interestingly, the magic here is somewhat subdued. For all of the zip-bam-boom of the (deeply enjoyable) combat scenes, the magic only ends up affecting a handful of characters. As compared to, say, the environmental catastrophe in the book's final chapter, the impact on the world is relatively minor. The stakes are epic, but not world-shattering.

That said, the magical plot also builds on Mitchell's more political ambitions. His handling of big problems, like the Iraq War and climate change, is often crude. But he's quite good at showing how these enormous forces buffet individual people, small and weak as we are. Throughout The Bone Clocks, events beyond the control of individual characters put them in terrible situations. They're then forced to deal with them as best they can.

The magical war, initially, seems similar. Holly is drawn into a war for reasons she barely understands, for reasons she can't control. But the model here is just a touch more hopeful. Holly writes a bestselling-novel based on her magical experiences; ultimately, she plays an important role in the magical war's resolution. Humans are not helpless: while the world may be controlled by forces bigger than ourselves, it's still possible, Mitchell suggests, to seize a modicum of control.

The David Mitchell multiverse

Mitchell's prose is, as ever, sterling. He's a novelist with an extraordinary talent for mimicry, for writing in dozens of impossibly different voices and making them all sing. That occasionally fails him — for example, the American soldiers in Ed's story are cartoonishly callous. (It didn't help that I had finished Phil Klay's Redeployment, a book that handled the Iraq War in immensely superior fashion, right before reading this.)

The Bone Clocks, however, has grander ambitions: it wants to unify Mitchell's disparate voices into one story. The novel is stuffed with characters (some major, some minor) from Mitchell's other novels.

These stories were occasionally peppered with mystical overtones: think the hint of reincarnation in Cloud Atlas or the mysterious Abbot Enomoto in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The magical plot in The Bone Clocks explains much of that, firmly establishing that all of the novels take place in one universe (which Mitchell calls an "Über-book").

For devoted Mitchell fans, this exercise in unification has a distinctly comic book feel. I'm thinking here of mega-events like DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which attempted to reconcile the long and contradictory series of stories about Batman, Superman, and the like.

And that's awesome! Watching characters move around a massive shared universe is one of comics' great joys. Seeing a similar thing performed in novels, by one of the best prose stylists of our time — well, that's a project I'm on board for.

Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.

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