Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review of David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

David Mitchell is a smart man. He’s written six novels, and like any good postmodernist, all of them have both small and large connections with each other. (More astute readers than I have found them all – check out this Good Reads review for a summary.) Decrypting these puzzling connections both within and between his books, and pondering what they mean, is a lot of the fun of reading Mitchell. And unlike, say, the puzzles of Christopher Nolan’s films, where amazing characterization –being caught in another’s thoughts and voice IS the meaning – Mitchell strives for more. His last book, The Bone Clocks, just leaves me wondering just what exactly that more is.

The hyper connectedness of his novels hints at some kind of vague spirituality, of a (benevolent?) energy making order out of the universe’s chaos. It’s what seemed to be behind the various reincarnations of the characters in Cloud Atlas, for example. But in TBC the connections are revealed to not be the result of a mysteriously divine process, or even the whims of an obscure deity; rather it’s a shadow society of supernatural beings. And, naturally, there’s a good group and an evil group of these characters. Make no doubt about it, by the 3rd quarter of the book, Mitchell has fully embraced fantasy. At first I thought Mitchell might be writing a parody, but no: the TBC is in earnest, writing about astral battles with the same conviction and energy as the “real world.” He even comes up with his own obscure and confusing terminology (Horologists! Anchorites! Psychosoterica!). And while an author like Thomas Pynchon might play with the genre to make it serve his own purposes, creating an ironic detachment while commenting on the meaning of it all, Mitchell makes it the driving force of his story.

I found this approach to be reductive and unsatisfying, taking away the power of what came before. By reducing the hints of a larger pattern to the universe in favor of good vs. evil, it abdicates the field he set up by reframing it midway through the game. And I write this as a fan of fantasy novels, one who believes that, say , Neil Gaiman or Ursula LeGuin have a lot of meaningful things to say about our world. So fantasy is not in and of itself a bad thing. So why does Mitchell’s fantasy not work for me while others do? I suspect it’s because authors like Gaiman and LeGuin present those elements of their stories from the beginning, and so you’re on constant footing throughout.  But when Mitchell, who has written so insightfully and beautifully about the nature of reality and our perceptions of it, introduces fantastic elements into an interconnected world previously without it, – well, I felt let down. Like he belittled what came before it.  (Which is a funny thing to say about a book like Cloud Atlas that did include SciFi and Fantasy elements, but I felt the two books dealt with it differently.)

Now, all of this isn't to say that TBC is not an excellent book. On the contrary, the novel contains the same furiously addictive prose, the excellent characterization, diving into motivation, seamless weaving of historical events and trends into the plot as the best of his work. I was thoroughly entertained. But by the end of the book, the edge was taken away. In the final section, I never was too concerned with Holly and her children, despite the mounting tension and danger – you just KNEW Marinus would appear and save the day. And my ambivalence of TBC stems from my mourning of that mystery. I’m curious to see if he continues the fantasy in his next book, supposedly “set in the same universe” as The Bone Clocks. Because regardless of what I've written above, he’s still one of the best authors writing today. I can’t wait for more.

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience