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.

No comments:

Post a Comment