Friday, August 22, 2014

David Mitchell loses the plot: The Bone Clocks

English author David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame, has just released his sixth novel the Booker long-listed The Bone Clocks.
Unfortunately, and I say this as a great fan of Mitchell's, it is up there with his first novel Ghostwritten as one of his weakest. I'd be surprised if it makes the Booker short list, but if it does, it has no chance of winning.

Mitchell has huge strengths and huge weaknesses as a novelist. In fact, he doesn't really write novels at all. He writes stories, and strings them together, mostly tangentially. His last work The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was an exception and in my view his best.

His armoury includes large dollops of fantasy. He creates supernatural, science-fictiony spirit worlds which are rarely integrated satisfactorily with the intense real world drama of his major narratives.

There are six separate stories in The Bone Clocks, linked by the main character's journey through life, a feisty Holly Sykes. We go from the year 1984 to 2043. Each is roughly 100 pages long.

The stories are more quotidian than is usual for Mitchell. They're more family-oriented, even homey. But they are, each in their own way, fascinating and gripping. 

The problem is the fantasy element. It threads its way into each story and has a whole story of its own towards the end. And it's fundamentally absurd, even puerile. We meet 'atemporal sojourners', 'psychosoterics', and the 'Horologists': these are the goodies. The baddies are the 'Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomosite Monastery of Sidlehorn Pass'. This gives you some idea as to how silly the whole thing is. And it goes on for 130 pages! (I was reminded of Umberto Eco's tiresome history of the Templars in his unreadable Foucault's Pendulum, and even Harry Potter and his tedious stoushes with Voldemort).

Some readers will no doubt like the fantasy dimension. They'll say it's brilliantly inventive and dramatic, something that a only a master like Mitchell can pull off. I beg to differ. Mitchell's weakness as a literary novelist is fully on display here.

In many of his novels he switches stories and abandons the characters all together. We often never hear from them again. And annoyingly he does it just prior to the needed resolution. It's as if he's strung together a collection and hasn't bothered to connect them into a coherent whole to make a satisfying novel. The fantasy element in The Bone Clocks is at least an attempt to more substantially  resolve and link the stories, but it weakens rather than strengthens them.

The main character Holly has been continually interfered with throughout her lifelong journey by these bat-crazy spirits so how can we take her real world travails seriously?

Each of the five real world stories display Mitchell's enormous gifts as a writer magnificently, even the least satisfying final one which is just a mishmash of our current apocalyptic anxieties - it's 2043 and isolated human colonies are suffering the destruction reeked by global warming, the military aggression of superpower China, leaked radiation, constant food, power, water and medicine shortages, growing religious crankery, the collapse of law and order, the rise of state totalitarianism - there's hardly one missing. It's the Age of 'Endarkenment'. As Holly says at one point 'Let's take it one apocalypse at a time'. And there's a massive Deus ex Machina at the end - Mitchell's favourite story resolution. 

But I love him because of the huge amount of dramatic tension he builds into each of his stories, and the muscular, visceral quality of his prose and dialogue. He's witty, iconoclastic, caustic and savage. Simply a superb writer. He flings delicious prose around like a wild thang.

But a novelist? Not so much.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party. (Not a party you want to go to).

This is the new novel by author of The Clothes on their Backs, which was short listed for the Booker in 2008.

It's a story of ordinary students doing ordinary things at a new British university, and most of them having ordinary uneventful work lives afterwards.

The time is the early seventies, so the women are all reading The Female Eunuch and some of them are discovering politics and railing against capitalism and the ruling class. One boy is actually 'homosexual', who, you guessed it, subsequently dies of AIDS.

This novel fails on virtually all levels. It never engages the reader. It never takers off. It is tedium writ large. TEDIUM.

There is absolutely nothing going on in this book that does not reflect the plain, boring, ordinary, average lives and experiences of all students, like me, who attended university at that time. In the UK they weren't even obsessed with the Vietnam war like we were in Australia because the British weren't participants. The most passionately political of these students became Trotskyites for God's sake. Something absurd they abandoned straight after university.

There is a lot of talk but the dialogue isn't real dialogue at all. When they're not being rude and accusatory to each other the characters are all declarative, articulating social and political ideas like no real people do. This seems to be the author's intention - to convey some sense of social development in Britain over the last 40 years or so. But the narrative just plods on offering little insight or critique. What's sacrificed is building characters who matter and structuring some plot lines with a bit of drama and tension in them. We get a taste of that in the final 20 pages, offered as some sort of climax, but it's simply not enough.

Why on earth this very ordinary novel was published is beyond me.

Monday, August 4, 2014

DBC Pierre's latest novel Breakfast with the Borgias

I bought this in Paris not knowing a thing about it. I'd read no reviews, and the rave review snippets on the cover were obviously referring to Pierre's Booker winner of 2003Vernon God Little (which I enjoyed immensely). 

Thankfully my hunch paid off. This book is simply marvellous. It's a superb, high quality read.

Part mystery, part love story, part family drama, it is beautifully written, and has a maturity of theme and treatment that will surprise most readers familiar with this rather larrikin Australian-born and seemingly madcap writer.

It's only 248 pages long and is the sort of gripping read that most readers will polish off in one sitting. It's that absorbing. When I finished it I started back at the beginning and read most of it again. I wanted to know what clues I'd missed, but I particularly wanted to re-read the rich and thrilling dialogue and Pierre's sparkling, lively prose. 

I can thoroughly recommend this.