No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, November 02, 2014

2014/37: The Bone Clocks -- David Mitchell

...a terrible wasting disease called mortality. There’s a lot of it about. The young hold out for a time, but eventually even the hardiest patient gets reduced to a desiccated embryo, a Strudlebug … a veined, scrawny, dribbling … bone clock, whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.

I have bounced off a few of Mitchell's novels, but now am inclined to try them again, because I adored this – and I'm fairly sure, given a few references I recognised (to Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), that it's entwined with at least some of his previous work.

It does feature one of the elements that exasperated me in Cloud Atlas: a section told by a pompous and petty-minded middle-class, middle-aged male novelist. Crispin Hershey, at least, has enough of a nasty streak that he affects events quite drastically -- and I do feel some kinship with a man whose idea of a vicious takedown is to expose a fellow novelist as having purchased a Dan Brown novel. "‘And don’t say it was “just for research”, Aphra, because it won’t wash.'" Plenty of roman a clef here, too, with thinly-disguised literary figures popping up all over the place.

The Bone Clocks deals, in part, with Dan Brown territory (ancient wisdom! Cathars! Labyrinths! Conspiracies! Weird thingies!) but with a wholly different affect: the mystical elements are presented as matter-of-factly as Holly Sykes' argument with her mum, and with considerably less fireworks than Hugo Lamb's splendidly-rhymed visits to assorted (imaginary) Cambridge pubs.

The novel begins in 1984 with Holly Sykes, 16, who discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her and runs away from the pub in Gravesend where she lives, out along the Thames estuary towards the distant sea. It ends sixty years later, on the west coast of Ireland, in a credibly dystopian, post-oil future. Holly is a constant: so are others (Hugo Lamb, Marinus, Esther Little), though they may not always be wearing the same faces or using the same names.

The Bone Clocks weaves together several different characters and their stories, exploring many different themes: the war reporter who puts his work before his family, the novelist who plays a trivial joke on a colleague with unexpected repercussions, the sociopath who accidentally acquires the knowledge that will save him, the poet who believes that Crispin Hershey's patronage can help her save the world … Everything is connected, everything is part of the larger story, and even the cryptic utterances of Esther and her colleagues ("When Sibelius is smashed into little pieces, at three on the Day of the Star of Riga, you’ll know I’m near …") slot neatly into place in a great, inhumanly long Game. If there's an overarcing theme, it might be 'what we sacrifice to remain human'... or possibly just 'what we sacrifice to remain'.

SF or fantasy? Hard to say. The near future, the Endarkenment, that Mitchell predicts, with its gigastorms and pandemics and refugees, certainly has elements of the former: the Anchorites and the Sojourners seem more fantastical, though their origins are explained clearly enough. That said, it's no less Sfnal than, for instance, Iain no-M Banks' Transition. Mitchell's not afraid to coin neologisms, though I'm not convinced 'device' as a verb (to replace 'phone' and possibly 'email') will ever catch on. But what do I know? I live in the present.

Why did I like The Bone Clocks so much? Possibly simply because it's jammed -- no, packed tightly and neatly, Tetris-style -- with cool ideas, well-rounded characters and thoughtful examination, leavened with plenty of humour. (A character seeks his daughter in a Brighton hotel and inadvertently finds himself in the midst of an SF convention: "I pass a Dalek blasting out the lines ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’".) Not every thread is neatly tied off; some themes aren't examined in sufficient depth; some plot elements remain unexplained. Amidst the fine writing, wordplay and innovation are metaphors that puzzle me ('the wood is Bluetoothed with birdsong': er, what?) But … I loved it: I found it moving at times, annoying at others (see above under 'Crispin Hershey') and unexpectedly chilling. And, as a writer, inspirational because it reminded me of how words can be wielded.

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