Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Illustration by Pieter van Eenoge for the
NY Times review of '
The Bone Clocks'
I adore David Mitchell. Each of his novels has left me flabbergasted, and I'm wondering what ailed the Man Booker Prize committee this year when they left The Bone Clocks off the short list.  (Mind you, I haven't yet read any of the novels that did make it onto the short list, so this is unadulterated, uninformed favouritism on my part.)  If they are as or more stunning than this book, I'd better get to reading them.

As with most of his previous novels, The Bone Clocks is a stunning example of literary architecture. In an interview on the radio show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Mr. Mitchell says he is basically a writer of novellas. By breaking his novels into short pieces that span centuries and continents, he's able to indulge this need to write shorter, very diverse bits of fiction, which he then links together with overlapping themes or characters.  The link in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, who appears as a teen-aged runaway when the book opens in 1984 and as an elderly grandmother in a very grim 2043 when it ends.  Various characters -- some human, others supernatural and "atemporal" -- come into and leave Holly's life in the book's seven chapters.

All of David Mitchell's architectural wizardry would seem contrived and pedantic if he didn't people his stories with characters who reel us in. The voice of Holly, who's run away from her working-class family in Gravesend, is so real that it makes me wonder where the persona of David Mitchell went when he was channeling her. Holly, after finding her older boyfriend in bed with her best friend, takes off on foot and ends up finding work on a strawberry farm.
Blue sky, fresh air, aching back but three pounds richer than I was when I picked my first strawberry. At eight-fifty, we start picking again. At school right now, Miss Swann our form teacher'll be taking the register, and when she reads out my name, there'll be no reply. "She's not here, miss," someone'll say, and Stella Yearwood should start to sweat, if she's got half a brain, which she has. If she's bragged about nicking my boyfriend, people'll guess why I'm not at school, and sooner or later the teachers'll hear and Stella's going to get summoned to Mr. Nixon's office. Maybe a copper'll be there too. If she's kept schtum about nicking Vinny, she'll be acting all cool like she knows nothing but she'll be panicking inside. So'll Vinny. Sex with a bit of young fluff's all well and good, I s'pose, as long as nothing goes wrong, but things'll look pretty different pretty quickly if I stay at Black Elm Farm for a couple more days. Suddenly I'm an underage schoolgirl whom Vincent Costello seduced with presents and alcohol for four weeks before she vanished without a trace; and Vincent Costello, twenty-five-year-old car salesman of Peacock Street, Gravesend, becomes a chief suspect. I'm not an evil person or anything, and I don't want Jacko or Dad or Sharon to lose sleep over me, specially Jacko, but putting Vinny and Stella through the mangle at least a bit is very, very tempting."

In the second section, we make an abrupt shift to Cambridge, and the narrator is a sociopathic student named Hugo Lamb. He's brilliant and amoral, a hedonist and womaniser. Perhaps it's his lack of empathy that makes him completely oblivious to the fact that the gorgeous woman who materialises in a pew across the aisle is not quite... normal. In any sense. They will meet again, but not under the sort of circumstances Hugo might have wished for.

Benjamin Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' launches, chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists and students sitting there in the chancel in our damp coats. For me, Britten's a hit-and-miss composer; prolix on occasion but, when pumped and primed, the old queen binds your quivering soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity...
The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle. She wasn't there when I last looked. Her eyes are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties --vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolais lips, cheekbones you'd slice your thumb on.
Hugo jets off for a ski holiday at the Swiss chateau of one of his wealthier classmates. The four young Cambridge men haunt the posh clubs and bars at night, which is where Hugo meets a bar maid named Holly (with whom he's inexplicably smitten) and scores some first-class cocaine from the club owner.
I deposit the last of my coke in a swirl on the mirror and -- kids, don't try this at home, don't try it anywhere, Drugs Are Bad -- toke it up my left nostril in a powerful snort. For five seconds it stings like a nettle being threaded down my throat via my nose, until -- We have liftoff. The bass is reverberating in my bones and godalmightythat'sgood ...
Tiny lights I can't quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone, and inspect myself in the mirror -- all good, even if my pupils are more Varanus komodoensis than Homo sapiens.
(Yes, that is a reference to a Komodo dragon. Hold that thought.)  Meanwhile, Hugo returns to his group's table to find that his three companions have found some lovely African women to keep them company. They deride him for declining the company of a fourth one, but he, for once, steers clear. The following morning, his intuition proves to have been keen as the women demand enormous sums of cash in payment. When the three lads get stroppy about it, the women ring up their pimps.  Hugo pockets the cash he'd won from them in poker games (ignoring their calls up the stairs to him to give the money back to pay off the knife-wielding goons) and jumps out the window.  Back in the village, he buys a paper, orders a coffee and watches the scene at the ATM machine across the street from his seat at the cafe where Holly works.
Here Quinn makes three withdrawals with three different cards, before being frog-marched back. I hide behind a conveniently to-hand newspaper. A Normal would feel guilt or vindication; I feel as if I just watched a middle-of-the-road episode of Inspector Morse. "Morning, Poshboy," says Holly,
What did you do to your ankle? You're limping."
"I left my old accommodation a la Spiderman."
"And landed a la sack-of-Spudsman."
"My Scout pack did the Leaping from Buildings to Escape Violent Pimps badge the week I was away."
Holly, although she sees through Hugo's flirtations, somewhat grudgingly offers him shelter during the approaching blizzard. What she does not see at first is that, for once, Hugo's interest is genuine.
I watch her fingers, her loopable black hair, how her face hides and shows her inner weather. This isn't lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love's a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You You just the same, and there's bugger-all I can do about it. The wind attacks the window.
Unfortunately, the associates of the beautiful woman in the Cambridge chapel are also genuinely interested in Hugo, and he disappears before he can pursue any rings or joint accounts with Holly.

The following chapter is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a childhood friend of Holly's, now the father of their young daughter, Aoife. Ed is a war reporter, and he and Holly are at odds -- he's addicted to his work, and she wants him to spend more time at home. Aoife, not surprisingly, is precocious and articulate. Much like David Mitchell, who blithely tosses a Komodo dragon into another chapter.
"Mummy wants to be a dolphin," says Aoife,"because they swim, talk a lot, smile, and they're loyal. Uncle Brendan wants to be a Komodo dragon, 'cause there're people on Gravesend Council he'd like to bite and shake to pieces, which is how Komodo dragons make their food smaller. Aunty Sharon wants to be an owl because owls are wise, and Aunt Ruth wants to be a sea otter so she can spend all day floating on her back in California and meet David Attenborough."
While attending a family wedding in the UK, Ed's thoughts continually flash back to the war in Iraq, which he describes with a clarity that was notably lacking in the politicians who organised it. Lacking, in fact, in some of the "soldiers"who fought it remotely.
A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we'd be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue.
Making his way back to Baghdad after a trip to Fallujah with his Iraqi photographer and fixer, Ed detours to see an American helicopter that's just been shot down. Arriving just after them, a group of Marines orders all the onlookers flat onto the ground, and Ed fears for his Iraqi colleagues' lives. He announces himself as a British journalist, and the commanding officer gives him a dressing-down that's a pointed warning against black & white sympathies.
Major Hackensack looked at the black marine and shook his head, then turned a malevolent gaze my way. "You just see a sewer-mouthed military man, don't you? You just see a cartoon character and a platoon of grunts. You think we deserve this" -- he nods at the wreckage -- "just for being here. But the dead, they had children, they had family, same as you. They wanted to make something of their lives, same as you. Hell, they were lied to about this war, same as you. But unlike you, British journalist, they paid for other peoples' bullshit with their lives. They were braver than you. They were better than you. They deserve more than you. So you and Batman and Robin there, get the fuck out of my sight."
Now we jump to a literary festival at which irascible "bad boy of English letters" Crispin Hershey is at war with reviewer Richard Cheeseman who has just flamed his latest novel.  Hershey is a bitter, angry egomaniac who can rarely be bothered to learn anyone's name, but at the signing he learns -- and will never forget -- the name of the fellow author at the next table.
The place is pullulant with punters, cordoned by festival heavies into a snaking queue of Crispin Hershey faithful. Look on my works, Richard Cheeseman, and despair! They'll be reprinting Echo Must Die by the weekend and a V2 of money is headed straight for the House of Hershey! Victoriously, I gain my table, sit down, knock back the glass of white wine served by the Festival Elf, unsheathe the Sharpie -- and realize that all these people are here not for me, God sod it, but for a woman sitting at a table ten feet away. My own queue numbers fifteen. Or ten. More frumpet than crumpet. Editor Oliver has turned the colour of elderly chicken slices, so I scowl at Publicity Girl for an explanation. "That's, um, Holly Sykes." Oliver's color returns. "That's Holly Sykes? Jesus."
I growl, "Who in the name of buggery is Holey Spikes?"
"Holly Sykes,"says Publicity Girl, falling down the sar-chasm.
Over the years, Crispin develops an odd friendship with Holly, who seems to fill his own sar-chasm with a heightened sense of humanity. He accepts a position at a college in upstate New York, teaching creative writing. Suddenly, I wondered, is David Mitchell channeling the voice of Crispin, or vice versa?
For most digital-age writers, writing is rewriting. We grope, cut, block, paste, and twitch, panning for gold onscreen by deleting bucketloads of crap. Our analog ancestors had to polish every line mentally before hammering it out mechanically. Rewrites cost them months, meters of ink ribbon, and pints of Tippex. Poor sods. ...
"A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned." My ten postgrads look sober. So they should. "Art feasts upon its maker," I tell them.
The sixth chapter is narrated by one of the Horologists, the small group of atemporals who find themselves reincarnated repeatedly throughout time. It's always a bit shocking to them to run into each other again in later incarnations. The narrator, Dr. Marinus, is a middle-aged female psychiatrist. Another character remembers having met her in 16th century Japan, which is, coincidentally, where a Dr. Marinus appeared in very different form in one of David Mitchell's earlier novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
"God's blood! Marinus -- the doctor, on Dejima. Big man, red face, white hair, Dutch, an irascible know-it-all. You were there when HMS Phoebus blasted the place to matchwood."
I experienced a feeling akin to vertigo. "You were there?"
"I watched it happen. From the magistrate's pavilion."
"But -- who were you?"
Although this sort of play is great fun, The Bone Clocks is not pure whimsy. The interviewer on To the Best of Our Knowledge asked David Mitchell why he chose to mix genres in this novel (and most of his others), and why he elected to introduce supernatural aspects. This proved to be a question that Mitchell has heard all too often and is weary of. I don't care about sticking to one genre or another, he replied. I just want to write the best novel I can. If it crosses genre lines, so be it.

By introducing atemporals -- beings who are either immortal or reincarnated repeatedly -- he was able to consider how we might treat the world if we knew we were going to be in it for longer than one human lifetime. We would certainly not, he suggested, treat it with such callous disregard. His vision of the 'Endarkenment' makes the 14th century look like a picnic, and worse, it feels all too plausible.

An elderly Holly narrates this final chapter, set in 2043.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It's not just that I can't hold Aoife again, it's everything: It's grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office -- all so we didn't have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our 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. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth's Riches knowing -- while denying -- that we'd be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.