Sunday, November 15, 2015

"The Bone Clocks" is Mitchell (almost) at his best

I feel the need to report on "The Bone Clocks",  the latest offering from the always excellent and provocative David Mitchell, which I have just finished reading.
Mitchell is probably unrivalled in his ability to tease and braid subtly interconnected plot lines across a series of different chronological periods, as he does to great effect in "Cloud Atlas" (which I have reviewed elsewhere). "The Bone Clocks" is another such feat of interweaving, involution and genre-blurring.
The book begins with an apparently mundane and distinctly earth-bound story about 15-year old working class schoolgirl Holly, her rather banal and prosaic family life in banal and prosaic 1980s Gravesend, Kent, her decision to run away from home after a tiff with her boyfriend, and the sudden disappearance of her little brother. Gradually, though, and increasingly, some less mundane, not to say downright inexplicable, elements begin to intrude into this workaday story.
But, before anything starts to make sense, this plot-line unceremoniously sputters to a halt, and a completely new, and apparently unrelated, story takes over. Here, we are immersed in the decadent lifestyle of the spoilt rich kids of early 1990s Cambridge University, with their devil-may-care nihilistic schemes and their dissolute jaunts to swish European resorts. Except that, here too, unexpected elements of the paranormal begin to intrude. And eventually Holly-from-Gravesend briefly resurfaces in a story that is decidedly not her own. A little more of the fantastic reality underlying the unexplainable incidents is allowed to trickle out, before ... SKREEEKK! ... unconnected plot-line three abruptly takes over. Mr. Mitchell clearly does not want us to get too comfortable.
In 2004, Holly is now married to old school friend Ed Brubeck and, in between Ed's reminiscences of life on journalistic assignment in war-torn Iraq and more homely scenes from a family wedding, their 6-year old daughter mysteriously goes missing, and is only found through Holly's unconscious channelling of unknown and incomprehensible powers ... SKREEEKK!
2015's story arc follows a dry and cynical writer's travels on the international literary festival circuit, with cameo appearances from Holly, who is herself now a celebrated author thanks to her account of her own earlier brushes with the supernatural.
As the story begins to stretch into the near future, it criss-crosses the globe ever more frantically, lurching from England to Norway to New York and beyond. Plot strands begin to entangle further, previously-introduced characters discover increasingly complex and unexpected interconnections, and the paranormal becomes increasingly the norm. Some explanations do also start to unfold at this point, with lots of rather deep and turgid talk of capitalized concepts like Atemporals, Anchorites, Sojourners, Horologists, the Aperture, etc. It is only here, in 2024, that the story becomes a fully-fledged fantasy tale, and it turns out that unassuming Holly Sykes still has a key role to play. But, alas, this is neither the time nor the place to give away too much more of the plot.
Functioning as a kind of epilogue, the final story arc, dated 2043, is a grim, although ultimately hopeful, post-apocalyptic tale. In a world beset by catastrophic climate change, drastic fuel shortages, mercenary globalized capitalism, and social and technological breakdown, Holly and her grandchildren hunker down in rural Ireland, living a hard life of fearful resignation and humble prospects, until an unexpected visit brings thing full circle.
As with "Cloud Atlas", Mitchell's conceit of tenuously-connected, time-disjointed stories allows him to display his prowess at writing in a series of quite different styles, with different voices and tones, all within one novel. A few short quotations from different sections might illustrate this.
Plotline 1984 is written in teen demotic Estuary English:
"The summer holidays'll be here before the truancy officer can fart, and I'm sixteen in September, and then it's stuff you Windmill Hill Comprehensive."
1991 showcases Cambridge-elite erudition mixed with a debauched and irreverent machismo:
"The gents smells well fermented and the only free urinal is blocked and ready to brim over with the amber liquid so I have to queue, like a girl."
The 2004 subplot spends much of its time in the war zones of Iraq, featuring journalistic passages like:
"Through a hole blasted in a dry block wall, Aziz snapped a family hurrying across the wasteland north of the doctors' compound. An Arabic Grapes of Wrath, on foot."
In the world-weary back-stabbing literary environment of the 2015 segment, the tone changes abruptly once again:
"I, the Festival Elf, Publicity Girl, and Editor Oliver traverse the wooden walkways over the sodden sod past booths selling gluten-free cupcakes, solar panels, natural sponges, porcelain mermaids, wind chimes tuned to your own chi aura, biodegradable trays of GM-free green curry, eReaders, and hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts."
In 2024, Mitchell delves into full fantasy mode, complete with an apocalyptic battle on a kind of astral plane:
"The psychoduel becomes too magnesium-bright to look at, so it is through my chakra-eye that I see the long table rise ten feet into the air, hang there for a second like a bird of prey, then hurtle straight at Arkady and Unalaq."
And finally, the 2043 epilogue visits the genre of the post-apocalyptic novel, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World":
"People talk about the Endarkenment like out 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."
All in all, it's not "Cloud Atlas" - what could be? - but "The Bone Clocks" is nevertheless a very worthy and welcome addition to David Mitchell's oeuvre. And, looked at as six novels in one, over 620 pages, it's a bargain.

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