Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Counterscript: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

The best way I can think of to both summarize and recommend David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is to compare it to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Both are sublime fantasies that plumb the depths of human experience, encouraging our nascent desire to believe that there are worlds and powers unknown to us, hiding behind the curtain of everyday life. Both narratives swirl around the nexus of a girl, who perseveres through hardship and sacrifice to emerge as a woman on the other side. And both represent a level of skill and craft in storytelling that are, in my eyes, unrivaled in fiction.

When Holly Sykes, introduced as a teenager in 1980s Britain, finally becomes a vessel for a supernatural war, it comes as no surprise. Her beginnings in Kent give no indication that she will be brought together in the Swiss Alps with Hugo Lamb, Cambridge “poshboy” and all-around cad, and go on to start a family with war correspondent Ed Brubeck, and a friendship with has-been novelist Crispin Hershey. None of these intricate inter-relationships suggest the larger story at play, but you – and Holly – know that it is waiting there at the edge of sight, burning slowly, biding its time. When it does arrive, and The Bone Clocks fully embraces its outlandish core narrative, it feels inevitable, and as natural as breathing. The characters are the true focus of Mitchell’s talent, the sentinels standing astride the story, and they are imbued with seductive power. Through Holly’s eyes, the world is bright and immediate and difficult, hard to trust and harder to love; through Hugo’s, it’s a panoply of charades and facades, of use and misuse, of Ayn Randian self-interest and unwelcome conscience; through Crispin’s, it’s humourous and self-obsessed and cynical, full of vanity, loneliness, and the cruelties of age. Any one of these perspectives would be enough to carry a solid novel – but Mitchell gives us these and more, and they never cloy or overstay their welcome. Each is a world that is delightful to inhabit, even in its darkest and ugliest moments, that feels so fantastical and real that it can only be true.

The Bone Clocks resembles nothing so much as Mitchell’s previous effort, the ambitious and marvelous Cloud Atlas, but it refines and matures the formula established there. The Russian-doll narrative structure of Cloud Atlas is condensed, and smoothed, and made less jarring, like a vintage wine that grows more subtle and delicious with age. There are multiple protagonists here, as there, but their stories are connected by more than symbolism and suggestion. Cloud Atlas explored the possibilities of reincarnation; The Bone Clocks refines and reshapes this idea into something more akin to immortality. Cloud Atlas felt like reading six separate novellas set in the same canon, and The Bone Clocks feels like one unified and coherent tome, in which a myriad of characters flit in and out of the story like friends who fall out of touch and then reunite after years of aching separation. Cloud Atlas is The Godfather, all style and innovation and thrilling performance, and The Bone Clocks is The Godfather Part II, which refines the craft, focuses the story like a laser, and digs much deeper into the emotion and psychology of its predecessor. (Not that The Bone Clocks acts as a sequel to Cloud Atlas, although Mitchell has said that his stories exist in a singular universe he calls an “uber-novel” – they are simply comparable by virtue of the evolution that took place between them.)

Author David Mitchell.
The more out-and-out “fantasy” traits displayed by the novel, especially in its late-game stages, might grate on a reader unaccustomed to a glossary of terms like “Atemporal”, “psychosoteric”, “Dusk Chapel”, “Script & Counterscript”, “Anchorite”, and “psychovoltage”, but the boundaries of the unreality being described are made very clear, and the prose never loses its humanistic bent. Mitchell’s style is nested in the exquisitely comfortable space between artfulness and legibility. A sentence will be built bric-à-brac with half-imaginary adjectives and unusual syntax, but the truth of its narrative or emotional payload spears through the style and you hardly notice how strangely it’s written until you stop and go back to read it again. You don’t need to be told what “an Act of Suasion” is, because by the time you hear it named you’ve seen the act performed several times already. Many novelists can communicate with efficiency, and many can craft artful prose, but few can achieve both, seemingly without effort. In the same way that the human nose contains receptors for specific scent molecules to fill, Mitchell’s words jump from the page and into your mind as though your brain had been anxiously waiting to decode them. The Bone Clocks has a way of awakening the machinery of a dormant mental infrastructure that you may not have known was there, which combines meticulous left-brain form with passionate right-brain emotion. It’s pleasing to both mind and soul, by every measure I can think of.

Mitchell’s common theme of multiculturalism, and his love for Asian culture in particular, are exercised here too. From Shanghai hotels to an ageless psychic named Xi Lo to a future in which China has forcibly taken control of the world stage, Mitchell’s Asian influences – both from his previous work, such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and his personal life – are allowed to flourish. Without revealing too much of the captivating underbelly of The Bone Clocks, I can say that issues of race, while an irrelevant social construct to the tapestry of humanity that the novel calls the Horologists, also informs their characterization. Holly Sykes, bred in ramshackle conservative Kent, cares far less about skin colour than privileged, educated Hugo Lamb (for whom African ancestry is an exotic sexual flavouring rather than an identity).

The Bone Clocks is a cleaner and more accessible experience than some of Mitchell’s previous works, and this is in part due to a more traditional narrative structure, which moves forward in time in a linear fashion, and employs rather commonplace methods of foreshadowing and symbolism (when seven-year-old Holly is introduced to the ethereal Miss Constantin, there’s never a shadow of a doubt that she will become a major player later on). This is unusual for the genre-bending Mitchell, who has made a career out of eschewing these tropes, but the emotional force of The Bone Clocks and the ornamentally detailed characters at its centre validate any lapses Mitchell makes into more pedestrian modes of fiction – plus, the novel’s ending is wholly unpredictable, and deeply affecting as a result. The novel has the cast of a story that the author needed to tell – I get the sense it’s been slow-cooking in his brainpan for years – and that sense of honest expression is why I agree with the critics in saying it’s Mitchell’s best work to date. It seems impossible that the author could have lived long and well enough to speak about such varied human experiences with such sincere candor, but this is his power as a storyteller – even the most unbelievable parts of The Bone Clocks feel real.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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