Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cycle ("The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell)

An entire decade separates David Mitchell's newest novel The Bone Clocks from what is perhaps his most famous work, Cloud Atlas, and in writing about the former it is inevitable that we must also discuss the latter. Not only do both books share the same overarching plot--the movement of souls through time, whether abstractly (in the case of Cloud Atlas) or literally (in the case of The Bone Clocks)--but a similar structure, as well. Where the stories in Cloud Atlas are organized like concentric circles, with each story interrupted at the halfway point until we reached the end of the chronology and each story's second half is resumed, The Bone Clocks traces the entire life of one person, Holly Sykes, often as it's witnessed and intersected by other characters, who each narrate a chapter. This allows Mitchell to do what he loves best, and what make his books unique among so many others:  to not only explore language but wear it like a well-tailored wardrobe made of words, which he wraps around the throats and tongues of his storytellers with ease.

Unfortunately, these similarities also work to amplify the weaknesses in Mitchell's work. Where Cloud Atlas allowed Mitchell to trace the English language as it evolved across centuries, including well into the future, and imbued his stories with a hypnotic richness, the changing tones of the The Bone Clocks' half-dozen narrators is one of the book's great inconsistencies: from desperate teenage Holly in the opening pages to self-assured literary badboy Crispin Hershey in the novel's middle to a body-jumping Horologist named Marinus in the penultimate chapter and, finally, Holly again, now elderly and living in a post-grid Ireland with her two grandchildren, Mitchell's use of language is at times beautiful but more often than not infuriating. For instance, the second-to-last chapter involves a battle between two metaphysical armies that is narrated, in real time, as though it were a piss-poor action-adventure novel more appropriate for the paperback bin at a thrift store. It is the novel's longest chapter, and also it's most sophomoric. (The final chapter--and the shortest--all but makes up for the preceding disaster by being the novel's best, and at times I wished Mitchell had excised it and made it a post-apocalyptic novel all its own.)

Furthermore, Mitchell's editing skills, which kept Cloud Atlas a lengthy but succinct work of literary architecture--the pipes did not jostle or leak, the wires didn't flicker, the windows let in warm and endless daylight--have all but abandoned him here. Coming in at 630 pages, The Bone Clocks is loaded down with unnecessary tangents and details, often running a dozen pages or so in length. Extended exposition has its place, to be sure--to develop characters, for example, or to introduce complicated ideas without rushed explanations--but here it seems as though Mitchell were writing a half-dozen different novels at the same time, noticed shared characteristics, and joined them together in a moment of frustration. And the stitching that holds these disparate pieces together is the ongoing war between two small armies, the body-jumping Horologists and the cannibalistic Anchorites, which interrupts the otherwise standard storylines as wild, pseudo-mystical diversions that become ponderous when they drift beyond the pace of the dense, esoteric conversations with which Mitchell is obviously the most comfortable.

Where The Bone Clocks exceeds the impact of its ancestor, however, is in its relevance to our contemporary life. In structuring his novel around the idea of a cycle--that certain immortal souls can move from body to body--Mitchell also drops his characters into a world that demonstrates its own cycle, albeit with subtlety. Beginning in the 1980s, with Holly Sykes running away from home, Mitchell follows her across decades and continents; in the background, constantly moving in and out of the rising action, is the changing society around her, including the move from vinyl records to digitized music, bicycles to voice-operated cars, fossil fuels to bioelectricity. By the time Holly's life is sunsetting, a failure of the world's grid plummets almost all of humanity back into a world before alternating currents, processed food, and the Internet. The world we live in now, Mitchell suggests, is not a long step in the upward progress of our world, as we all believe, but rather the apex of a bell-graph. The decline, if and when it happens--and Mitchell's prose is weighed down by data that seems meticulously researched, if not altogether blatantly expressed--will return us to an existence reminiscent of 200 years in the past, and we will be forced to begin again. We will need to grow our own food, live within our means, travel on foot or by non-motorized wheels, communicate with those closest to us, and tackle the darker impulses of human nature, including fear and intolerance.

The Bone-Clocks is ambitious, to say the least, and Mitchell certainly deserves praise for pushing the boundaries of his own writing into new and even more otherworldly directions. Unfortunately, ambition is often a misinterpretation of recklessness, and the few sparse moments of beauty in The Bone-Clocks do not alleviate the pain of knowing just how good this novel could have been if its author had just separated himself from his own cycle and began again, anew. As even Mitchell's own characters realize, the novelty and superiority of reincarnation becomes tiresome very, very quickly.