Monday, July 13, 2015

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)

(About a month ago, a group of our friends gathered together and formed a book club.  This was our first book.  I just read the last few words about thirty minutes ago; it's taken me nearly a month to read the book.  I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it.  For the first time in this blog, I'm going to be having a book discussion beyond the confines of myself.  I need to gather my thoughts about this book into one place.)

My gut reaction to finishing this book was slightly warmer than "meh."  I finished the book, which, dear blog, you know doesn't always happen.  I think even if I didn't have to finish the book, I would have.  Parts of it are really interesting.  But, as I often do, I'm going back to the sentiment expressed high on a hill in Austria in The Sound of Music - "But it doesnt MEAN anything."  A book doesn't HAVE to mean anything or even be about anything other than an engaging plot and great characters.  I've read hundreds of books like that.  Have I re-read any books like that?  I would hazard a guess that every book that I've enjoyed immensely, those five star gems of books, has some sort of take away, some "aha" moment, dare I say a "Eureka" book?  The Bone Clocks is (mostly) engaging and fun, but other than an almost superhero plot point of good verses evil, I don't have a huge takeaway.  It didn't move me or make me think, it didn't change my life in any way.  A book doesn't have to do that; even a good  book doesn't have to do that.  A great book has to do that, and The Bone Clocks is not a great book. has a handy dandy little article called "read a book like a professor" which I'm now going to use to explore this book.  The book itself has a reader's guide at the end (which maybe is a little pretentious for this book) that I'm going to explore too.  Regardless of how much or little I enjoyed the book, it's intellectually fun to do this!

"Are the characters convincing?"   Why yes!  Mitchell has created very convincing characters.  They do indeed "come alive"  Holly, who I guess you could call the main character, the protagonist, is likable, sympathetic, intelligent, strong.  Her teenage self, the first narrator, is very believable; I thought she talked and acted like an 80s teenager would.  Her variously aged selves throughout acted and reacted in believable ways.  When she learned about the existence of the Horologists, I thought she responded in a believable way as well.  Mitchell's other characters were believable too.  It was really clever and dare I say "cool" for Mitchell to tell part of the story through the eyes of a villain, or in Hugo's case a no good dirty dog on the cusp of becoming a despicable minion of evil.  I thought the author perfectly captured Hugo's suave underhanded dealings, his petty white collar criminality, and the tinges of guilt he feels for some of the crap he's done (guilt that pretty much goes away once he joins the legion fo doom).  Ed and Crispin were also believable - although I didn't care for either chapter and thought they were confusingly written, I didn't have trouble accepting them as "real people," particularly Crispin, whose rock star arrogance is both grating and I'm sure based on someone Mitchell ran across in his life as author and playwright and screenwriter.  I loved Marinus the best; to be really honest, the whole book could have been about Marinus or told through his viewpoint, and I would have enjoyed it far more.  However, we've been invited to David Mitchell's house for dinner, and we have to use his silverware.

"Do you identify with any characters?"  This may be part of my distance from the book; I didn't really hook on to anyone in the book.  Holly is hard to like; Hugo is first a twat and then (unexpectedly) Saruman; Ed is out of my realm, as is Crispin.  As much as I like Marinus, I can't really identify with him.    Do they remind me of people in my own life? Not really.

"Are the characters developed emotionally or psychologically? Do you have access to their inner thoughts and motivations?  Or do you know them mostly through dialogue and actions?"   Yes, I think they are developed emotionally and psychologically.  Holly ages and changes throughout the book, in the way that someone who has suffered great loss probably would.  She's hard, but her life has made her that way.  Hugo though - I'm not so sure about that one, particularly at the end.  That's where the book swerves off into movie script land.  How very convenient for us that Hugo remembers this one night stand of so many years ago, and falls head over heels in love with a waitress, who if taken at face value, isn't very nice.  She must either be fantastically attractive or good in bed, because I'm not sure what else would hold the attraction of Hugo for her for all those years, unless it's simply to drive the plot at the end.  Ed and Crispin are particularly believable emotionally and psychologically.  I don't think Marius can really count in this, although how anyone could survive for millennia and not go mad is beyond me.  We are given access to each narrator's inner thoughts and motivations; although there is plenty of dialogue and action, particularly the superhero Marinus chapter, I don't think this reflects badly on the novel.  It's that kind of book.

"Do any characters change or grow by the end of the story? Do they come to view the world and their relationship to it differently?"  I suppose so.  Since the book is at some level about Holly, she definitely grows and changes (only a really, really bad author wouldn't age someone from a pimply rebellious teenager to a rebellious 80something without some change.  Holly becomes more trusting and mellow; perhaps more forgiving (she falls in love with Crispin, a hard man to love; although a fellow book club member thinks Holly has bad taste in men; Holly certainly likes adventurous men).  Hugo develops a heart, conveniently, at the end.  Crispin changes; I suppose Ed does too.  Marinus, I don't think he's capable of change.  Does Holly view the world and her relationship to it differently?  I suppose so.  I guess if the book is just about Holly, and the others are just cyphers telling her story, then yes.  She views the world as a harsh, unfair place at the beginning.  At the end, does she feel differently?  I'm not so sure.

"Is the story plot-driven or character-driven?" Aren't both important?  I'd say this book is mostly character driven, as it moves very slowly, and everything is seen through these narrators' eyes and feelings and motivations.  Except the last two chapters; they seem very, very plot driven.  I loved the Marinus chapter, and didn't really like the last chapter, which has a deus ex machina feeling that frankly disappointed me.

"What is the story's central conflict?"   The high gloss conflict is the obvious in your face superhero movie conflict between the Horologists and the Anchorites - the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs. The Legion of Doom; The Old Ones verse the Dark; Voldemort and the Death Eaters verses the Order of the Phoenix (a word I can never, ever spell correctly). It's what makes this book AND breaks this book.  On the one hand, it's the chapter I loved the most - Marinus is a tremendously interesting sci fi character who could fit well into any number of other books (Susan Cooper kept coming to mind again and again, and I've wondered if David Mitchell read The Dark is Rising as a kid; he is certainly of the right age); this whole battle royale at the end (with the traitorous Sadaqat as a standin for Hawkin from The Dark is Rising).

According to the back of the book, David Mitchell "says that the seed of  [the book] was his 'impending midlife crisis and an exploration of what I'd be prepared to do to cheat aging and death."  This a great conflict for Holly to experience, but I'm not sure she does (it's really Hugo that experiences this conflict, and fails at it, until maybe the very end).

The world is a shitty place - war, that last dystopia chapter, soul eating vampires - that's an external conflict that isn't really solved by the end (except, of course, for the soul eating vampires).

"Is the ending a surprise or predictable?"  Oh that gloriously schlocky comic-book- superhero-ending ending.  I am not complaining about the end, because it featured my favorite narrator, and tied everything together into a nice package.  It was the cinematic ending to an otherwise unfilmable book.  Battle royale, the ultimate battle between good and evil.   The entire book was about two things - the life of Holly Sykes as a teenager, author, mother, lover, cancer survivor and finally elderly woman, with the (incredibly well developed) backdrop of the 80s - near distant future, and then snaking in and out of this backdrop are these supernatural creatures who she almost is a touchpoint for.  I'm not sure the book could have ended any other way without being very, very dissatisfying.  That said, a battle at the end, that's pretty predictable. It's not a very clever ending.

"Who tells the story?"  The story is narrated by Holly (twice, once as a rebellious and surly teenager and then as an old grandmother), Hugo (a petty white collar criminal who is from one social class but trying to claw his way into another one, and using his ill gotten gains to do so), Ed (Holly's one time savior and then husband, who is covering the Iraq War as a journalist; in his chapter we find he and Holly contemplating divorce), Crispin (a rockstar author, who is a shit who finds some sort of redemption) and Marinus (a Horologist). All first person narrators who tell the story through their eyes, all connected through some sort of relationship with Holly Sykes, with the story of the Anchorites and the Horologists darting in here and there like a hummingbird, all bright and shining and all too quick (until the Marinus chapter, which wanted to be the whole story, quite honestly).

My question is why was it narrated like this?  David Mitchell made a conscious decision to do so - was there a reason?  Or does he just write in this style?  Did it mean something greater for the story, hold some sort of significance?

"What about theme - the larger meaning behind the work?"   This can double back around to the comment Mitchell said before about cheating death.  That's certainly what I think he wants us to think is the theme.  But it's theme that sort of lands with a dull thud on the book and doesn't really resonate.   I guess you could see Holly's life as a contrast to Hugo's "life" but we don't really get to see much of Hugo's life after he becomes an Anchorite, so that's a false positive there.  There's the oldie but goodie "good verses evil" but that's a comic book theme, and while it makes a roller coast of a read (and a great movie) it doesn't really mean anything in real life.   The world is going to hell in handbasket is another theme, that's depressing to say the least; Mitchell's characters don't really give us much hope for the future (Rule Dystopia) or any cures for the ills of the world.  The battle between Good and Evil isn't really concerned with the greater battle for the earth; perhaps they can't really do anything for the earth other than save individuals from soul sucking vampires.

"Can you identify any symbols in the book?"  I hate symbols in books.  When I recognize them, they are always so obvious that even a six year old child who is just learning how to read can spot them from a mile away.  If there are symbols in this book, I don't know what they are.  I can't close read very well.  Or at all.

"What about irony?  If this book possesses irony, I wasn't aware of it.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A plot that occasionally and frustratingly comes grinding to a halt.  But when its chugging along, it's quite interesting and even rollicking.  David Mitchell's settings and characters really overshadow the plot; he spent so much time and energy creating these living, breathing people in the perfectly inhabitable backdrops that you almost wish they were in a different story.  His sense of time and place is extraordinary; the misty distant 80s come back to roaring and bloody life; his 90s pulses with house music and the get rich dregs of humanity left over from the Dynasty era.  But there is a taste left in your mouth when you finish the book - a hint of futile endeavor, a distant echo of "what does this even mean?"  Don't let that stop you from reading the book; but don't you can't say you weren't warned.

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