Wednesday, 10 September 2014

This is not a review of 'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell

Because other writers, experienced reviewers and interested parties, like Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian (here), will do a decent job of it; though I found the New Yorker's extended piece somewhat over the top, with too much in the way of spoiler, and possibly missing the point, though that's probably just me.

This is a blog about climate change, philosophy, and whatever I say it is about, so why the sudden urge to discuss literature? Like my previous discussion of the writing of James Morrow, the urge is because I think it is pertinent and useful to read David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian, though the comedian is my kind of amusing, too).

If you are reading this because you share my interest in the near future of humanity, read the book, with a focus on the last seventy or so pages, which paints a picture which is both credible and frightening; it contains what is for me the best description to date of what we might expect (included the fascinating but flawed vision offered by Kim Stanley Robinson in the recent '2312' (also worth a read).

The Bone Clocks is connected in a casual but conscious manner to some of Mitchell's previous writings, most notably for me, Cloud Atlas, but also Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In both novels he plays with time and narrative, and incorporates two themes dear to my heart - the Future in a world changed by a changing climate, social order and politics, and Human Nature, in particular, the struggle to do good in a difficult world.

A part of Mitchell's appeal is that he is covering these subjects in ways which match mine to a large degree, so that, on these matters we share a vision of the future and our role in leading to it. There are times during reading when I stop and find myself thinking 'I could have written this' (which is not a presumption of talent on my part, but a recognition of material). The last time I had similar, regular experience of this was in the 1980's and early 90's, when I read a considerable amount of Michael Moorcock's work, and kept finding myself uncovering a narrative which I had just finished writing in my head a few weeks before - so frequent was this occurrence that it was almost spooky. When I told Moorcock about this, I think it freaked him out slightly, too.

It is interesting to note that the two authors share other features, most particularly, the persistence across time and narrative of certain core characters - metacharacters, consciously so, like Moorcock's Eternal Champion or Jerry Cornelius, or Mitchell's Dr Marinus - and the idea of the persistence of narrative patterns (in this, both are post-modern, post-deconstructionist writers).

Most significant, for this blog, is Mitchell's fairly consistent imagining, glimpsed in the background in Song Mi's story in Cloud Atlas, more fully rounded here in the Bone Clocks, in the later two chapters, set in 2025 and 2042 respectively. It is clear to me that I share something with David Mitchell here - our research, understanding, interpretation of the near future is very closely paralleled. We both imagine a future of bleaker weather, vastly divided social groups, and a strong distinction between life in the remnants of 'civilisation' (drawn out in Mitchell's more distant Shanghai, more proximate Iceland), and the residue of the 'uncontrolled' world, a place of violence and lawlessness. Much of the detail is inferred, hinted at, slightly nebulous - this isn't the epic prose of a vast sci-fi style future vision, but a more subtle, more open-ended imagining.

The other area of interest, and what lift's Mitchell's work into the traditional concept of the literary, is his concern with human nature, and the nature of good and evil. There are touches of this in his earlier work, but in The Thousand Autumns and here, the Bone Clocks, this is a pretty transparent theme. We know this from the presence of the narratives of the Horologists and the Anchorites. We can see it in the moral choices made by all of the characters, to whom (without presuming the author's intention) we can attribute certain internal dynamics which shape our empathy and their moral compass. Holly could said to stand for love, in particular, the love of the family, Hugo for the Ego - he could so easily have stepped out of 'Atlas Shrugg'd' - Crispin as the somewhat detached, ivory-tower self-isolator; they all have moral ambiguities, but there is no question about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Reviewers (apart from Le Guin) seem to have struggled with the 'fantasy' element of the novel, but few have observed that this is a core metaphor - and Mitchell's decision to spell it out as narrative rather than leave it embedded in the text for the reader to puzzle out, is also a very post-modern approach to the concept of meaning in Narrative, something also featuring in Moorcock's writing. The reader is presented with at least three (I'll be honest, I can't really fathom out Ed's moral position, yet) different human ways of being - the loving, the distant, the selfish - seen in the context of a battle between the non-authoritarian, laissez-faire little acts of salvation undertaken by the Horologists, and the Murderous, self-perpetuating selfishness of the vampiric Anchorites.

There are other interesting sub-metaphors in play here, too ; science/reason vs mysticism, the other vs the self, lives lived conscious of meaning and its absence, engaged in the being lived. There is anough content and suggestion in the story, as there is in Mitchell's other work, to justify (and more or less, in my case, guarantee) a second or third reading.

So, if you want to know where much of my posting is directing itself towards over the past several years, read the book, and get a better, more engaging description than I could ever manage for myself. Just don't expect a happy ending.