War in Pieces: Violence and Conflict in David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”

By Glyn MorganOctober 30, 2015

War in Pieces: Violence and Conflict in David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

DAVID MITCHELL started his writing career as a British author living in Japan, where he published his award-winning debut novel Ghostwritten (1999) and its psychedelic follow-up Number9Dream (2001). He has long since traded Japan for Ireland, where he now lives on the southwest coast outside of Cork with his wife and two children. As we chatted informally before an interview I conducted with him in Liverpool, he told me excitedly about the taxi driver who brought him from the airport: a man who had served in the army through all of the tumultuous events of the recent decades. “Aren’t people interesting!” he enthused.

Throughout our brief time together he was constantly gathering stories and anecdotes, asking people about their own lives with genuine interest. I was particularly curious about his conversations with the taxi-driving former soldier: war and violence are prominent themes in Mitchell’s work, from the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in Ghostwritten to the tribal massacres in the Sloosha’s Crossing section of Cloud Atlas (2004). Crucially, these themes are always expressed through the intimate narratives of specific characters that Mitchell brings to life with honesty and realism. The semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green (2006), for example, follows Jason, a stammering, bookish 13-year-old who resides in the titular Worcestershire town analogous to the Mitchell’s own Malvern. In this story, which is set in 1982, Jason becomes obsessed with the Falklands War, not only because of what he witnesses in the media, but also because of the death of a schoolmate’s brother. In response to the all-absorbing nature of the conflict, Jason keeps a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine cuttings:

Neal Brose is keeping one too. He reckons it’ll be worth a fortune twenty or thirty years from now, when the Falklands War has turned into history. But all this excitement’ll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People’ll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world.

If the scrapbook is neither an act of memorial (such an act having been rendered unnecessary by Jason’s insistence on the eternally unforgettable war) nor an act of entrepreneurialism, then the collection of clippings instead becomes an attempt at comprehension: Jason is seeking meaning in the violence and loss of life that has occurred in the Falklands War.  Although Jason is surprised and disgusted at how quickly the Daily Mail abandons the story to move on to other matters, he himself is also soon swept along by the urgencies of teenage life; his need for comprehension fades, and Mitchell invites us to reflect upon the delicate nature of our own concern for distant conflicts.

Themes of war and violence, including a crucial focus on ecological violence, are also central to Mitchell’s recent novel The Bone Clocks (2014). This book is divided into chapters that focus on different characters connected to one central protagonist, Holly Sykes, during successive historical moments.  In the opening section, which takes place in 1984, a student and part-time distributor of The Socialist Worker tells Holly that “An invisible war’s going on […] all through history.” She’s explicitly referring to class war, although her comments also hint mysteriously at the war between hidden immortals that occurs throughout The Bone Clocks and Mitchell’s other novels. This opening (which emphasizes the class conflicts central to Thatcherite England in the 1980s) inaugurates a meditation on the subtle and explicit intersections of violence that form the foundation of the novel as a whole.

The narrator of the third section, “The Wedding Bash,” is Ed Brubeck: a war reporter for Spyglass Magazine who is Holly’s partner and the father of their six-year old daughter, Aoife. In the present moment of the chapter, set in 2004, he is attending a family wedding in a Brighton hotel, but this narrative is disturbed by flashbacks of his experiences as a journalist in Iraq. The flashbacks illuminate an inner-conflict for Brubeck: his career has been forged reporting from warzones, but the danger this puts him in is unacceptable for Holly. Throughout the chapter, Brubeck is asked why he does what he does and whether or not he’s addicted to conflict, and he continuously wrestles with these questions. During the flashbacks, we see that on some level Brubeck is addicted to what he does, but he’s also traumatised by it. He tells his inquisitors:

[I]f an atrocity isn’t written about, it stops existing when the last witnesses die. That’s what I can’t stand. If a mass shooting, a bomb, a whatever, is written about, then at least it’s made a tiny dent in the world’s memory. Someone, somewhere, sometime has a chance of learning what happened. And. Just maybe, acting on it. Or not. But at least it’s there.

As the chapter unfurls, it becomes more apparent that Brubeck is driven as much by the future as by the past. Like Jason from Black Swan Green, he is archiving stories for the sake of comprehension. Late in the chapter, Brubeck confesses to Holly that he survived a bomb attack on a journalists’ hotel in Baghdad that cost the lives of two Iraqi colleagues:

Nasser’s daughters don’t have a daddy now because Nasser dropped me off late, at car-bombing time, at a Westerners’ hotel. […] [I]t’s 9/11, it’s Bush and Blair, it’s militant Islam, the occupation, Nasser’s career choices, Olive Sun and Spyglass, a clapped-out Corolla that wouldn’t start, tragic timing, oh, a million little switches — but also me. Ed Brubeck hired them. Nasser needed to feed his family. I am why he and Aziz were there […] I’m an addict, Holly. Life is flat and stale when I’m not working. […] [I]t’s true. The whole truth, nothing but the truth. I … I’m a war-zone junkie. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Mitchell tells the stories of the parent, the journalist, and the civilian in war time; the story of soldiers is peripheral at best. By telling stories of war-zone addiction, he underlines how war touches the bodies, minds, and souls of those caught up in it. The mental alterations undergone by these characters — through parallel processes of addiction and trauma — express the difficulty (and perhaps futility) of attempting to detach from conflict. War is part of a larger psychological, economic, sociological, and political process; it is an engine of [post]modernity, and it affects all those caught up in it, from those who witness war firsthand to those who consume the reportage in safer climes.

Brubeck achieves a form of closure at the end of this chapter by conversing about his experience with Holly, echoing the “talking it through” approaches of trauma therapy. It is appropriate then that Marinus, the narrator of the fifth section of the novel, is a psychiatrist by trade. “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” evokes the “invisible war” referenced in the opening chapter and unveils two types of immortals (or atemporals) locked in an eternal struggle for the souls of humanity. At core, however, all of the sections of The Bone Clocks deal with recurrent themes at the heart of Mitchell’s work: the spirit and reincarnation, human predation, and mortality. This section of the novel contributes the most to Mitchell’s sense that The Bone Clocks is his “midlife crisis book.” In our interview he describes the central premise of this section as an exploration of a Faustian pact:

If you could not grow old, if you could keep the looks you have when you’re young, if you could have an endless, squanderable bank account of days, what would you be prepared to pay for that? Would you, for example, be willing to amputate your conscience? Would you be willing to have all that if someone else had to pay? […] It’s a real theme, not the Faustian pact they’re offered, but a need to come to a working accommodation with aging, with the fact kids are being born the whole time: people are moving into their twenties and thirties as we’re moving into our forties and fifties. The moment you’re on the centre stage of the world, the world begins nudging you towards the wings. It’s [Harry Harrison’s] Make Room! Make Room! or the old kids song “and the little one said: roll over, roll over”. As we become members of an older generation to be superseded by a younger one. This is a social realist topic, it isn’t fantasy. This is something we need to do. We need a healthier relationship with aging than fear! And so the jiggery-pokery with genre is in service of all this.

The Anchorites are the group of immortals who have succumbed to the Faustian pact, who live forever at the expense of the innocent souls they sacrifice. They are the continuation of Cloud Atlas’s Dr. Henry Goose and Abbot Enomoto from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010); they are glimpses of the dark potentiality of human exploitation, so self-serving in its use and abuse of fellow individuals that it transcends mere selfishness.

As sinister as the Anchorites are, their selfishness is relatively minor within the context of the overarching plot of The Bone Clocks. Only at the end of the novel do we realize that the Anchorites require a collective diet of four minds — preferably children — of psychic potential every year to keep them all eternally young. As readers, we react to this with the disgust and horror Mitchell intends, but after the climactic battle, the novel doesn’t end. As Mitchell says in our interview:

It would have followed quite an identifiable Hollywood template where you have the apocalyptic battle and then stop, but actually there’s been this other thing going on the whole time that Holly’s life has been following its course, as our lives are following their courses now, our civilisation is on borrowed time.

By threading the plot of the novel through the Thatcherite 1980s, through the sociopathic prism of Hugo Lamb (the novel’s amoral narrator of chapter two), and through Brubeck’s experiences of the Iraq War, it’s difficult not to see the novel as an indictment not just of the Anchorites, whose impact on humanity (if not on Holly Sykes) has been relatively small, but on the politics and leadership of our age. Of a Thatcherite-Neoliberal capitalist consensus which has led us into conflict and driven us to consume, consume, consume. Indeed the amorality of the Anchorites, a perversity encountered again in the antagonists of Mitchell’s latest fiction, Slade House (2015), holds a mirror to our own habits as they consume human lives without empathy whilst humanity consumes everything else without thought for the impact of our lifestyle on either the globe, or each other.

In a recent lecture, Dr. Sarah Dillon, a reader of English at Cambridge University, suggested that the final chapter of The Bone Clocks could be considered an example of an emerging genre: Post-Anthropocene Horror. She suggests that alongside texts such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), horror as it is represented in the novel’s final chapter may be the genre best suited to the conditions of the 21st century. Specifically, this genre could be a response to the anxiety that we have carved ourselves a new geological niche (the Anthropocene) defined by our use and abuse of nature’s limited resources, and that this era, like those resources, must inevitably come to an end. The willful blindness with which humanity hurtles toward this endpoint means that horror is particularly appropriate to anticipate what comes next.

The final chapter of The Bone Clocks is both affecting and effective. Now an old woman living on the west coast of Ireland in 2043, Holly thinks to herself:

People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing — while denying — that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

In the final chapter, you realize that the most selfish and destructive people in The Bone Clocks are not actually the scenery-chewing sociopathic Anchorites, but the countless generations of normal people the Anchorites have lived among. Generations who were, as we are, complicit in unleashing this fresh, potentially endless Dark Age onto the world. The Bone Clocks is actually a new type of fin-de-siècle for a new age.

Dr. Caroline Edwards, a lecturer in contemporary literature at Birkbeck University, also highlights the importance of the novel in terms of its use of a “Post-Oil” setting, tracing its genealogy back to the anxieties of the 1970s and George Miller’s first Mad Max film (1979). Edwards points out that another key theme of the novel is the eternally cyclical nature of time (which is suggested by Holly as she listens to the sea at night) thrown into contrast with the illusion of time as progressive and linear, an illusion aided by the structure of the novel until this final chapter:

The juxtaposition of clock time with natural time […] offers a stark warning about the dangers of subscribing to a model of linear progressive time which assumes the inevitable and ongoing teleology of ever-perfected modes of production and consumption predicated upon an oil-based ‘petroculture.’ This measurable linear time of the capitalist extraction of profit within a world of fast-dwindling non-renewable resources is explicitly addressed by Holly in the novel’s closing near-future dystopia […]

Given the manner in which Mitchell structures his most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, by placing a mirror at the end of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), it should come as no surprise that he is not entirely beholden to the linear progression of narrative which the majority of novels will follow.

None of this is to suggest that Mitchell makes light of the individual deaths or the violence inflicted upon individuals. Rather, with the novel’s final chapter he is unveiling the greater violence that we are inflicting upon the Earth and the following generations. Returning to the theme of addiction, he remarks to me:

Our civilisation is in trouble. Let alone climate change, let alone what that’s doing to our planet’s life support system and its ability to keep safe our civilisation, to preserve it, our civilisation is itself an addict of a drug which there is an ever dwindling supply of.

Brubeck’s addiction to conflict in this context invites supposition about the extent to which the thirst for oil was a motivator for the Iraq War. Regardless, the truth remains that war is a thirsty enterprise and that control of oil, or energy more broadly, has been and will continue to be the source of conflict, displacing other historical concerns.

These issues are near the heart of Mitchell’s recent writing, but they are not the heart of his work. That remains the privilege of character voice. During our interview in Liverpool, I asked him how he feels about the term ventriloquist being used as a compliment to his adept skill at capturing diverse voices within a single text, and he replied with typical self-effacing honesty:

This might sound like a weird combination of false modesty and colleague bashing, but I feel like complimenting a writer on his ability to do voices is a bit like saying to an actor: “Wow! When you played that role, I thought you were someone else. I didn’t think you were you!” Isn’t that part of the job? I know different writers have different specialities, and some have skills that maybe writers who can’t do voice as perhaps less dextrously have that I don’t have, so I get that, but I think it should come with the job: It’s part of the craft, and you develop it if you want to develop your craft. The second thing is, it’s maybe necessitated more in my case: I like the first person, it’s my home style, it’s my square one. I become someone else and then I know what they’re going to say and what they’re going to do, and that’s the plot and the dialogue taken care of for starters. I also like the Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse multiplicity of points of view and once you have those two things, a fondness for the first person and a fondness for multiplicity, then you better be a half-way decent “ventriloquist,” otherwise your novel will blow up on the runway.

It may be part of the job, but it’s a part that Mitchell does remarkably well. One cannot deny he has a rare talent; it’s almost certainly because of his perfectionism, working over the words until they sing in the right key. But no small part of Mitchell’s capacity for ventriloquism comes from the genuine thirst he has for other people’s stories, the attention he pays to the things they tell him, and of course, the conviction that lies behind the rhetoric: “Aren’t people interesting?”


Glyn Morgan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Liverpool and co-editor of Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Glyn Morgan obtained his PhD from the University of Liverpool studying the Holocaust in Non-Mimetic Anglo-American Fiction. He is also the co-founder of the annual Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference.


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