Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.

With regards to the fantasy/science fiction elements of the novel, people have criticized The Bone Clocks for trying to...I'm not sure exactly. Shoehorn a genre Mitchell doesn't write into his work? Feel plodding, boring, or forced? I think the former of these accusations is a bit ridiculous--how dare anyone be angry that a writer is trying something new. As for the latter, I just disagree wholeheartedly. The book is quite subtle with the Radio People for most of the book; you can feel it bubbling in the background, except for section 5, where it takes center stage. There are moments in this "chapter" where there is info-dumping, sure, but that's implicit in the fantasy genre. It's impossible to build a world different from our own and slip every detail in sneakily so as to not disturb the reader. At some point, we're going to need a character to vomit up some info or we'll never understand what's happening.

I genuinely enjoyed Mitchell's system of build-up and pay-off with regards to the fantasy aspect because it doesn't force the story to be entirely about this war between immortals (which sounds like one of my worst nightmares from the adult fantasy section of the bookstore). We have plenty of time to talk about it (indeed, the section that is most heavily dedicated to it is the longest in the book), so it's nice to think about other things. The concept is present enough in the rest of the novel to not feel artificially tacked on, which would be a travesty indeed.

Besides, the whole concept of the Radio People adds a delicious ability for us to think. Holly spends the entire book aging--after all, it's one thing that everyone does--but in the meantime, there are groups of people out there who aren't aging at all. What does it mean to live forever, what does it mean to live a thousand lives? Is one life enough? For Holly Sykes, it has to be, and it's painful and poignant to watch her life get better and get worse and better and worse.

Which brings me to what is probably my favorite part about The Bone Clocks: Holly herself. I have often said I hate books that make big leaps in time, become obsessed with chronicling so many years and so many events. Authors who want to write bildungsromans seem to favor scope over depth, and that's not a sacrifice I like to make when I read. Giving us Holly over many decades allows us to watch her evolve--bratty teenager to worried grandmother--in a way that feels as natural as it should. Putting her in the background is a bold choice, but it's a smart one because it gives us a chance to breathe. There aren't many characters in this world that stand up to hundreds of pages of first-person-narrator scrutiny, so giving us hefty breaks, sometimes 100 pages without her even showing up, works surprisingly well.

I apologize. I'm having a difficult time expressing how I feel about the book because I enjoyed it so much. It feels futile to explain all the reasons I love Mitchell, because it works better if you find those reasons yourself. In summation, this is a stunner of a book. It's a David Mitchell book. There's feelings and characters and settings so vividly-realized it puts other stories to shame. There's fantasy (or sci-fi?), weird narrative structure, and more than 600 pages. It's worth it.

My rating: 5/5
The Bone Clocks on Goodreads
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