Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 1)

I’ve not read much ‘proper’ fiction in recent months (or years, come to think of it) but recently, in the space of a few weeks, I finished a couple of excellent novels published in 2014: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. They have some interesting similarities — and some interesting differences. In the UK at least, both can be found in the main ‘literary’ fiction section of your local bookshop, but both defy easy genre classification and stray into science fictional territory (and in the case of The Bone Clocks, fantasy as well). Caution: what follows may be spoiler-y.

Firstly, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.  I’ve read two or three of his novels before and enjoyed them, notably the well received and superficially similarly-constructed Cloud Atlas. Essentially  The Bone Clocks is a composite of six novellas with some shared characters, themes and strands. Each is written in the first person, though not always by the same character. The principal linking character is Holly Sykes, who we first meet in 1984 as a fifteen year old girl running away from her home in Gravesend. While there are some fantastical elements in this part of the story, it is the authenticity  of character and scene— Holly feels brilliantly real and rounded here— and the building concern we feel for her and her welfare that really drives this section along.

Then we jump into the 1990s for story 2, where we meet a (*spoiler*) psychopathic Cambridge undergraduate who cynically cheats his friends and is inducted into a mysterious cabal— although again, the genre elements sit in the background. It’s Mitchell’s masterful management of gradual character revelation that stands out here.

Another decade or so further on, and Holly and her relationships take centre stage again. In the third section, she has a young daughter and a strained but clearly loving de facto marriage with the father (the narrator, who we’ve met briefly in story 1). Contemporary concerns over post-9/11 Western military adventures in the Middle East are cleverly exercised here, and like the rest of the novel it is exceedingly well-written— we feel genuine concern and fear for Holly and her and her family’s future happiness— but this segment is perhaps less self contained than the preceding two. It feels a little filler-y, although it does contain necessary linking story elements for the novel as a whole.

Then we move to story 4: the  extremely entertaining Crispin Hershey section. Here we follow the career of an acid-tongued, previously successful-but-now-struggling-and-bitter author through the late 2010s, through ups and downs and the extended consequences of a mean-minded act of petty revenge. Perhaps having a character who is a well-known contemporary novelist narrating this segment might be considered risky and/or self-referential on Mitchell’s part, but if there were any knowing novelist references or in-jokes here, I didn’t notice them  and wouldn’t have cared if I did: Crispin’s transformation from unpleasant cynic to flawed though profoundly sympathetic protagonist is brilliantly done. Holly’s there too, and the otherworldly stuff intrudes again on several occasions. This persistent story element is starting to demand fuller explanation.

Which is fortunate, because the fifth section is all about the Weird Stuff. Suddenly we’re thrown into full-throttle urban fantasy. By the end of it, we know about Blind Cathars and decanted souls, find out what a Horologist is, and have experienced a vicious psychosoteric battle (don’t ask) won by the good guys thanks, in no small part, to Holly’s interventions past and present.

If the fifth section is near-pure fantasy, the final one veers abruptly onto solid post-apocalyptic science fictional ground. It’s very well done, but strikes a very different tone from the rest of the book. While there were occasional references and allusions towards ‘bad times to come’ earlier in the novel, here the impending doom is realised. Holly is an old woman by this time, and all our investment in her personal/family history and emotional life is thrillingly threatened by the (Jared) Diamond-ian collapse of global civilisation (Iceland and China excepted). While this final segment feels somewhat separate and coda-like, the links with earlier characters and story elements feel natural and unforced. Any sense of jarring dislocation is entirely appropriate to the story arc: this is the situation the characters find themselves in, and we sense they are just as stunned as we are by the turn of world events. It’s an impressive and thought-provoking conclusion; and one that left me with that all-important ‘I don’t want this story to end’ feeling at the turn of the final page.

That said: my immediate post-reading satisfaction didn’t endure longer than a few hours. While it’s a great novel —a grippingly well-told story, strong characters and a satisfying sense of connectedness that runs through all the constituent parts — for me, it didn’t take very long for questions and quibbles to surface. (The fact that they didn’t surface whilst I was reading is a sign that at the basic storytelling level, Mitchell has succeeded admirably.)  These quibbles were mostly related to one of two things: the structuring of the novel, and genre confusion.

In terms of its composite structure, The Bone Clocks just doesn’t work as neatly as the comparably constructed Cloud Atlas. While most of the sections would stand up very well as single novellas based around a single character and/or theme (ie leaving home, can psychopaths love, flawed person does something regrettable and searches for redemption, the collapse of western civilisation)— albeit connected and with some elements that wouldn’t make sense without the rest of the novel— there are two stories (3 and 5) that I’m not sure could work at all without sitting within the context of the broader whole. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it introduces an asymmetry that feels at odds with Mitchell’s usually fastidious story construction; an uncomfortable uncertainty about what kind of book we’re really dealing with. These sections are well written and certainly help glue things together, fill gaps and go some way to addressing what would otherwise be frustratingly unanswered questions (and #5 of course delivers the whole-novel ‘meta’ climax)— but somehow they still leave us with plenty of unknowns.

This is where the genre confusion comes in, I think. I suspect most readers of literary novels are quite comfortable with ambiguity, ambivalence and unanswered questions. The other David Mitchell books I’ve read have had elements of science fiction or fantasy (Cloud Atlas again being the obvious example), but don’t feel dominated by them. These elements add something, in my opinion— something interesting and ‘other’— but within the context of a literary novel, full exposition of these elements doesn’t seem necessary or even particularly helpful. The Bone Clocks, however, tips the balance further towards genre fiction, which poses some difficulties. The climax of the novel is delivered with full-on soul transmigration, secret societies meeting on rooftop garden hideaways, and a telekinetic showdown in a gothic chapel. It reads and feels like fantasy. The trouble with fantasy is that it needs lots of descriptive world-building to engage the reader (why those fantasy epics always seem to run to long series of hefty door stoppers). Unseen forces and weirdness of all kinds are positively encouraged within the genre, but they must exist within an internally consistent framework which takes lots of book-space to fill out. It’s a big task to deliver this largely in one section/’novella’ within The Bone Clocks; even with the fragments of relevant information gleaned from the other sections of the book, I’m not sure Mitchell quite pulls it off. The fantasy elements just feel a bit too thin and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’.

And of course the final section strays deeply into science fiction. Here, there’s another problem: I suspect I’m not alone in getting a bit nerdy and nitpicky when I’m in science fiction reading mode. It starts to matter what a giga storm is,  whether the solar panels being left on the cottage roof ends up being important to the plot, the plausibility and relevance of the threatened nuclear meltdown, etc. I hate myself for doing it, but there it is.

It seems a little churlish to mention these issues when one of the really impressive things about The Bone Clocks is how, given its composite structure and genre-bending tendencies, it actually still feels so well-crafted and coherent. The fact that I’m still thinking about the book several weeks later, and it’s only after fairly deep reflection that I’m concluding that it doesn’t quite gel— it just bites off a bit too much— should say something. I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading it: in fact, quite the reverse.

Not long after finishing The Bone Clocks I read— for the first time— a novel by Michael Faber. It was called The Book of Strange New Things, and I think I’ll need a part 2 to mull it over properly— and compare and contrast with The Bone Clocks.

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