This is the way the world ends

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE Bone Clocks is a crum­bling Gor­meng­hast of a novel — the fic­tional equiv­a­lent of that vast gothic cas­tle from Mervyn Peake’s mid-cen­tury tril­ogy, home for mil­len­nia to the earls of Groan. Some of its thou­sands of rooms are grandly ap­pointed while oth­ers have fallen into ruin, though all of them re­flect a bizarre ar­chi­tec­tural mash-up of his­tor­i­cal eras. The grounds are di­lap­i­dated and over­grown, the mas­sive walls tum­ble­down, the cas­tle’s nu­mer­ous stone tow­ers mainly home to owls.

Yet there is mag­nif­i­cence in the scale of the com­plex, its mad pro­fu­sion of ivy and stone. Like­wise, the nar­ra­tive of The Bone Clocks, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is built to the proportions of an au­thor’s out­sized am­bi­tion. Its 600 pages, a teem­ing ci­tys­tate of the imag­i­na­tion, house and sus­tain a mul­ti­tude of ideas and in­ven­tions, not all of which sur­vive the pas­sage of time and nar­ra­tive ne­ces­sity.

Though it would be hard to glean all this from the rad­i­cally or­di­nary man­ner and mi­lieu of its open­ing in the Ken­tish town of Gravesend, one morn­ing in 1984, in the bed­room of a teenage girl who has Talk­ing Heads on the turntable and an older boyfriend on her mind.

It is to Holly Sykes’s con­scious­ness we are grafted across the first 90 pages of the novel. And de­spite the kitchen-sink re­al­ism of the setup, a 15-year-old play­ing hooky after an ar­gu­ment with mum, the writ­ing is any­thing but. In­deed, the swift­ness with which David Mitchell cap­tures our at­ten­tion is some species of mar­vel­lous.

There is his bionic ear for id­i­olect, for starters. Mitchell can tint in­di­vid­ual speech pat­terns in a thou­sand graded shades, from Es­tu­ary English to pure toff, bog Ir­ish to south­ern white trash, and make you be­lieve in ev­ery sin­gle one of them. Then there is the set de­signer’s eye for the tiny lo­cal de­tail that might save para­graphs of ex­po­si­tion: the leather biker’s jacket, say, stud­ded with the words “Led Zep”, which ex­plains more about Holly’s boyfriend than any so­ci­o­log­i­cal dis­qui­si­tion ever will. Fi­nally, most rare and most wel­come in terms of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, Mitchell has a sense of nar­ra­tive pace that en­sures even the most ba­nal hap­pen­ings oil the larger story’s gears.

It should be said that this dull sub­ur­ban sur­face does not re­main undis­turbed for long. Holly, we learn, heard voices when she was a lit­tle girl, a noi­some host she dubbed the Ra­dio Peo­ple. She was also vis­ited for a time by a beau­ti­ful woman who could ma­te­ri­alise and de­ma­te­ri­alise at will, who claimed to care for her but turned out to be a men­ac­ing pres­ence. All par­ties had been si­lenced by a kindly doc­tor years be­fore with a sin­gle acupunc­ture nee­dle.

All this odd­ity Holly has long put away, though there is a brief re­newed flicker when her much-loved younger brother gives her a map scrawled on a piece of card­board the morn­ing she leaves home. The fey lit­tle boy begs her to mem­o­rise it so well that she could nav­i­gate the labyrinthine pas­sages with her eyes closed. She agrees dis­tract­edly, un­aware that she will never see him again.

At which point, like some hum­ble spud lost to the back of a kitchen pantry, the nar­ra­tive The Bone Clocks By David Mitchell Scep­tre, 600pp, $29.99 sprouts in ev­ery di­rec­tion. The Bone Clocks soon re­veals it­self to be a novel ap­par­ently closer in spirit to the fan­tasy genre. And Holly’s do­mes­tic de­fec­tion turns out to be the be­gin­ning of a bat­tle be­tween an­cient forces for im­mense stakes.

The re­main­der of the book fades in and out of a chrono­log­i­cal coma. We move by yearly de­grees from Mar­garet Thatcher’s south­east Eng­land to Sheep’s Head, County Cork, dur­ing the “En­dark­en­ment” of the 2040s, when cli­mate change has fi­nally closed the cur­tains on Western civil­i­sa­tion. In be­tween we are shunted from Cam­bridge in the early 1990s to Iraq in its post­mil­len­nial col­lapse. We visit Western Aus­tralia’s Rot­tnest Is­land, Ice­land’s vol­canic plains and Man­hat­tan’s more ex­pen­sive en­claves, as though some­one had in­vented a Google Earth ran­dom itin­er­ary gen­er­a­tor and then re­verse en­gi­neered an epic from the re­sult­ing trip.

Early reviews of The Bone Clocks have taken is­sue with its genre slum­ming and fre­netic jour­ney­ing in time and place, which is un­fair. When Mitchell per­formed th­ese same de­mand­ing ma­noeu­vres in ear­lier nov­els — works more iden­ti­fi­ably “lit­er­ary” — his imag­i­na­tive scope was praised as some­thing im­pres­sive. This time, when those same tal­ents are blended with more pro­saic el­e­ments, the shut­ters come down.

Crit­ics are right, how­ever, that there is an un­easy co-oc­cu­pa­tion of reg­is­ters in the novel. Mitchell’s writ­ing has so far di­vided be­tween works that ex­ult in lu­dic ran­dom­ness ( Ghost­writ­ten, Num­ber9­Dream), and those that show fealty to re­al­ism ( Black Swan Green, The Thou­sand Au­tumns of Ja­cob de Zoet). More than any work Mitchell has at­tempted so far, The Bone Clocks com­bines th­ese. The re­sult, for all its joys, some­times feels like pas­tiche, like brico­lage.

So it is that we in­ter­rupt the sup­posed es­capism of sec­tions deal­ing with a cen­turies-old con­flict — be­tween “atem­po­rals”, be­nign karmic jour­ney­men and women who find them­selves re­born after each mor­tal death, and vam­pires who har­vest the liv­ing to pre­serve their longevity — with chap­ters de­voted to the con­tem­po­rary and still un­fold­ing dis­as­ter of the Mid­dle East. It is as if a pho­to­jour­nal­ist had turned ev­ery so of­ten from record­ing the af­ter­math of a Fal­lu­jah truck bomb to click away at a dis­tant neb­ula in the night sky.

More damn­ingly, Mitchell stuffs in yet more tra­di­tional fic­tional tropes. Chap­ters are de­voted to the waspish progress of an English man of let­ters — a low-rent Martin Amis copy named Crispin Her­shey — whose bit­ter­ness at re­ceiv­ing a bad re­view leads him to pur­sue ends more ap­pro­pri­ate to lit­er­ary farce than po-faced fan­tasy fic­tion. It is smart, acidu­lous fun in iso­la­tion but, when com­bined with other as­pects of the novel, some­what in­con­gru­ous.

We may be for­given for feel­ing at times as though Mitchell has writ­ten sev­eral tremen­dous books, of which the blended re­sult is khaki mush. But it would be wrong to con­demn the book en­tirely on those terms. More at­ten­tive read­ers will note how all the char­ac­ters por­trayed here, ir­re­spec­tive of the par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive cor­ner from which they come, flex­ing their pecs, are bent by the years to­wards some more sober and thought­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of their place in the scheme of things. Time, as Gil­lian Welch sings, is a reve­la­tor. In­deed the ex­pan­sive tem­po­ral scheme of the novel, which at first seems to draw us away from those to whom Mitchell asked us to pay clos­est at­ten­tion, even­tu­ally re­turns all its chil­dren to the cen­tre.

Holly Sykes may bob in and out of view but she re­mains stub­bornly present through­out. There is some­thing mean­ing­ful and pre­cious about her that Mitchell hews to. No ex­cur­sion into the colour-by-num­bers in­cite­ments of genre ex­tin­guishes that fact.

What Mitchell un­der­stands and his var­i­ous ex­egetes do not is plain. The novel may en­ter­tain, it may ed­u­cate, it may even ex­pand the realm of the senses; but in a mo­ment where we are faced with the knowl­edge of our prob­a­ble ex­tinc­tion as a species, nei­ther the aes­thetic nor the di­dac­tic ap­proach prop­erly fits. The world is beau­ti­ful, says the novel, with its power of com­mu­nion of one mind with another. The world is screwed, says the news­pa­per ed­i­to­rial, har­ness­ing facts to ar­gu­ment. But beauty is not enough, rhetoric is not enough.

The fi­nal sec­tions of the book will doubt­less draw the great­est ire, when an el­derly Holly Sykes finds her­self main­tain­ing the rem­nants of a fam­ily in the light of so­ci­etal break­down. For some they will seem dras­tic, overblown. But as an act of cre­ative fu­tur­ism, they strike me as an aw­fully rea­son­able ex­pli­ca­tion of our prob­a­ble fu­ture. An el­derly Holly grieves 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 gov­ern­ment — all so we didn’t have to change our cosy life­styles.

But the story has zoomed in and out enough times by now to bal­ance the ex­trav­a­gance of Holly’s com­plaint against the dreary daily re­al­ity she de­scribes. Mitchell has writ­ten a grand and fu­ri­ously flawed novel at his sixth at­tempt. I would take it over the more el­e­gantly obe­di­ent of its com­peti­tors any day.

David Mitchell has writ­ten a grand, fas­ci­nat­ing and flawed novel full of odd­ity

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