In the September 8, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, James Wood reviews David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks. Though he praises Mitchell’s storytelling abilities, overall Wood is not a fan. I am not going to engage with the details of Wood’s assessment — to do so would require divulging too many plot points of the novel. I read it knowing next to nothing about the plot and enjoyed it all the more for the uncertainty I experienced about what was coming next. You can also find plenty of positive assessments of the book elsewhere.
Instead, I want to take issue with Wood’s mini-history of the novel, which concludes his review:
"But didn’t the epic hand off to the novel, in the last book of ‘Paradise Lost,’…? The novel takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement….The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced too."
Wood here (in my humble opinion) misreads Milton, Mitchell, and the history of the novel. He characterizes epics like Paradise Lost as “battles involving men and gods,” suggesting that this type of story excludes “inwardness,” even though Milton’s epic contains a great deal of human psychological exploration in the characters of Adam and Eve, not to mention the fully realized psychological complexity of Satan. From Zofloya to Frankenstein to His Dark Materials, novelists have continued to draw upon Paradise Lost for inspiration, suggesting continuity rather than rupture with the tradition Wood is calling “theological allegory.”
Wood disdains Mitchell’s use of the fantastic because he equates the novel as a form with realism as a novelistic mode. Critics from Georg Lukács to Ian Watt to Lennard Davis have made this argument time and time again, and there is much validity to it. Yet other critics like Margaret Doody have pushed back against this narrative, stressing the continuance of romance and fantastic elements in the long history of the novel. To do so is to challenge the dominance of a male, realist canon in favor of women authors, subgenres like the gothic, non-Western modes of storytelling, and popular fiction more generally.
In Wood’s account of Mitchell’s previous books, he attempts to characterize Mitchell as a realist who occasionally strays into non-realist modes. He first praises Black Swan Green, Mitchell’s most realistic novel. He describes The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as “a more or less traditional historical novel,” while adding a little further down in the review that its gothic plot of “a shadowy nunnery and an evil abbot” is “something out of Japanese anime” that spoils the achievement of the book. He seems to want Mitchell to be a different sort of novelist altogether, which makes me wonder why the New Yorker gave him the task of reviewing Mitchell’s latest.
Wood’s critique of Mitchell’s interest in modes beyond straightforward realism, as well as the Man Booker committee’s recent non-inclusion of The Bone Clocks on their shortlist, hint at a larger problem in the world of modern letters. Though things are changing a bit, the literary establishment still valorizes realism and looks down upon novels that work within the genre conventions of crime, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and young adult literature. Wood even begins his review with what seems to be an odd swipe at George R. R. Martin: “The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them.” Works that traffic in fantasy or — heaven help us — popularity are to be scorned because they’re not serious or weighty enough. And yet, if the novel is to have a future, Mitchell seems to be pointing the way forward. I have taught Cloud Atlas in a 200-level literature course and can attest to the way it engaged, excited, and challenged students. People like David Mitchell’s novels. And maybe that’s what worries critics.