THE BONE CLOCKS, by David Mitchell. Random House, 624 pp., $30.
About two-thirds of the way through "The Bone Clocks," David Mitchell's sixth novel -- but let's stop there for a moment. It's misleading to refer to this book as just one novel. At more than 600 pages, it weighs as much as two. Read it and you'll discover, effectively, six. And though the book is often singularly immersive, it contains multitudes: a coming-of-age tale, a war story, satires of the literary and moneyed classes, a paranormal saga, and, finally, a harrowing vision of apocalypse.
All of which, you'll notice, are stories we already have plenty of. But a sorcerer's gift for reimagining and combining familiar tropes is what brings fans to Mitchell, who may have done more to flatten the barriers between realism and fantasy than any author this side of Margaret Atwood. Connecting the book's myriad threads is Holly Sykes, who we meet as a 15-year-old girl in England in 1984. She's run away from home, and her interactions on the road remind her of the "weird" stuff in her past, including waking nightmares involving "Horologists" and "Anchorites" and "bone clocks."
Mitchell will demystify that lingo eventually, but early on he hints at the novel's theme in a more earthbound way. Holly is briefly taken in by a pair of do-good socialists, one of whom tells her, "An invisible war's going on. ... The working classes are kept in a state of repression by a mixture of force and lies." "The Bone Clocks" isn't a Victorian class novel, with each character carefully planted on a particular rung. But throughout the book, Mitchell draws clear distinctions between heroic figures who can fluidly navigate different types of people, and more nefarious souls who greedily cling to their privilege.
Holly's one of the good ones: Her no-nonsense demeanor lets her rise from a barmaid at an alpine resort to a bestselling author to a key player in the novel's climactic metaphysical battle royal. Same goes for her husband, Ed, a compassionate, workaholic journalist covering the Iraq insurgency circa 2004. Wearing the black hats are Hugo, a wealthy college student who soullessly bilks the elderly and his own friends, and Crispin, a former "Wild Child of British literature" who frames a critic for drug possession, but whose remorse never transforms into a confession. "Ethics are Newtonian," he horridly muses.
Mitchell is a propulsive writer, using the present tense for added narrative thrust, and his characters are lively regardless of their moral positions. Indeed, Hugo's capacity to manipulate is as entertaining as Holly's redemption tale: "Persuasion is not about force," he thinks. "It's about showing a person a door, and making him or her desperate to open it."
Which brings us two-thirds into the novel, when the otherworldly characters are revealed in full. Holly, Hugo and company, it turns out, are literal proxies in a long war between Horologists, who can survive for centuries genially bouncing from human body to human body, and more vampiric Anchorites, who occupy singular persons and must "decant" other souls to stay alive and ageless. We mere mortals? We're the "bone clocks," wearing age on our faces.
It's an entertaining notion to think about, whether our workaday struggles between generosity and selfishness are implicated in a more supernatural battle. But describing all this in the climactic fifth section does a number on Mitchell's prose, which becomes clotted with "psychovoltage" used to "psychoslaughter" or "psycholasso" enemies with the power of a "force-ten psychoferno." The thrill of earlier Mitchell novels like "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" was the way he could, Holly-like, shift gears from high to low, swashbuckling to meditative. For a good while in "The Bone Clocks," he's stuck with the homely lingo of the dungeon master.
"A book can't be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant," Crispin's agent insists midway through the book, a line Mitchell must have relished writing given how eagerly he labors to disprove it. He does get to have it both ways in the closing scenes of our coming "Endarkenment" circa 2043, when global warming's effects become horrifyingly concrete. Holly, in her 70s, is in a very different world, but with a glimmer of hope thanks to her metaphysical support beams. Let's hope, Mitchell suggests, that there's something here in our world that offers a similar escape hatch.