Monday, May 19, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The totally class UK cover
Week 20 of A Year of Reading...

Here's the deal - it's hard not to get excitable and I really, really don't want to ruin anything for you, dear reader, concerning David Mitchell's forthcoming novel, The Bone Clocks (due out September 2, 2014) because you should enter the labyrinth all on your own. I know how pissed I would be if someone spelled the whole thing out for me months before I could get my hands on a copy. Murderous.

Here's what I can comfortably tell you:
If you have read David's previous work and are aware of the "übernovel" he says he is constructing and have uncovered at least some of the hyperlink characters between books... well, then The Bone Clocks will make your freakin' mind explode right out of your head. If you have not read anything by Mitchell, despite the fact that there are many thousands of layers to the backstory of The Bone Clocks, you will become a convert to the Cult of David after this, I assure you. Amazingly, this book is both right in line with everything else Mitchell has ever written and completely unlike anything else he has ever done.

With several forking paths, the book essentially follows the life arc of one Holly Sykes - beginning in Gravesend, England in 1984 when she is 15 and culminating on Ireland's southwestern coast in 2043. On one particular summer afternoon in '84, while Holly is in the midst of running away from home after her boyfriend-universe has imploded, she encounters a strange old woman on a fishing pier. The ensuing conversation, filled with cryptic messages and opaque foreshadows, sets the course of Holly's life in ways she cannot possibly imagine. As it turns out, there's a war going on in the shadows of our world and none of us have any idea.

This is by no means a traditional, linearly threading biography of Holly Sykes, have no fear, friend. For much of the story, Holly appears and disappears, hardly more than a peripheral acquaintance - or so we think. Of course, every interaction, every tiny chance encounter in a David Mitchell novel carries more far-reaching consequences than you can ever see coming. The story jumps to 1991, where Hugo Lamb is studying, conniving, and conning his way through Cambridge University. (You might remember Hugo as the cool cousin of Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green. Hyperlink, y'all.) One of those said chance encounters happens with Holly Sykes in a Swiss Alps resort and sets the course of Hugo's life in ways none of us ever saw coming. A theme, perhaps? A flat-out brilliant sequence of chapters beginning in 2015 and progressing for 5 consecutive years/chapters follows author Crispin Hershey from one book festival to another as his once shining literary star fades into obscurity. (Of course he encounters Timothy Cavendish and discusses Felix Finch at one such event.) His role seems to hang at the fringes of the larger whole that is coalescing... but of course it's more than that.

That's the thing - it's all so much more than the smaller puzzle pieces taken out of context, which is why it's so damn hard to give a taste in this way-pre-publication post without giving up the whole thing. Every storyline, every character arc, every seemingly innocuous encounter ultimately fits together to form the labyrinth that this Holly Sykes finds herself in. And as much as it all works on the level of this one individual novel, the broader strokes across the whole canon are there if we know where to look.

Book Catapult character notes for The Bone Clocks labyrinth
In 2012, in preparation for the Book Catapult's Cloud Atlas event where Scott and I interviewed Mitchell and hosted a screening of the film, I went back and studiously re-read all of DM's books in publishing order. While I did this, I took notes - mostly copious lists of characters, which I then used as cross-referencing for the other books. (I have an unhealthy fascination with the connecting characters between these books and tracing how they thread the whole thing together into the greater whole.) Ahem... for example: several characters from Ghostwritten (essentially a primer for all the rest of the books) appear in Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas; Luisa Rey is in GW and Cloud Atlas; Eva Crommelynck is a pivotal character in both Cloud Atlas and BSG; and don't for a second think I didn't see Boerhaave in Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet OR Subhataar in GW and Number9dream, buddy.  

The Bone Clocks, however... this thing completely blows all of that out of the water. 

The sheer number of connecting threads is... astounding. (In fact, as I write this, reading through my notes I realized that I had, in fact, heard the name Mo Muntervary before, but missed the connection on the first pass. Nerd alert.) I have extensive notes on all of this, of course, and I'd love to share my new observations of Luisa, Noakes, d'Arnoq, etc, but... I think it would be better if you uncovered it all yourself. I know I would want to unpeel this onion for myself.

All of this leads to... well, I can't tell you. That would ruin it and, well, we're back to that again. I will say that there's a strong element of magic/sci-fi/fantasy to the overarching story - way more than I've ever noticed in any of Mitchell's previous work. The funny thing is, not only does it work within the scope of the novel itself (even juxtaposed to the straightforward beginning's of Holly's life story) but it makes perfect sense in context to all the previous books as well. How the hell else would Marinus show up in Japan in 1799 and NYC in 2024, I ask you?! Oops. Sorry. 

The bottom line is that strolling along beside all of this interweaving and cross-connecting of characters, is a beautifully human story about this one very normal woman living in quite extraordinary times. And by extraordinary, I'm not just talking about immortal dudes bending time and space - not that that's what happens! - but more so of looking at where we might be - in a very real and global sense - 30 years from now. The most terrifying elements of The Bone Clocks are the ones seated in our own grim reality. Looking towards the chaos of a post-oil future is not a pretty prospect. And yet maybe because of that very real, human aspect, Mitchell is able to continually craft strikingly eloquent sentences on his way toward the construction of this beautiful universe. (Even with all the nerding-out I did over all of this, there's a line on the second-to-last page that just about broke my heart.) I think that point there is the resounding basal element to Mitchell's work - not only can he tie every little narrative filament together, he can knock it all out of the park by stringing together a novel's worth of indelible, graceful sentences that give the reader pause. And that, ultimately, is why I keep reading and re-reading and re-reading...

Okay, well, one last thing, for all you fellow Cloud Atlas nerds out there: the island of the Precients just might be Iceland.

Good night everybody!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Oh, right, then there's this:

So I'm partnering with Warwick's bookstore and we'll be hosting David Mitchell - In Conversation with me, Seth Marko of the Book Catapult - at the Contemporary Art Museum, La Jolla's Sherwood Auditorium on Monday, September 22 at 7:00pm. It's a ticketed event - the price is just the price of The Bone Clocks plus tax and a couple buck fee for the Eventbrite ticketing website we're using. And yes, you get an actual book for the ticket price. 

You can buy your ticket right HERE.
More event info from Warwick's is HERE
Questions about any of this: seth@thebookcatapult.com

4 comments:

  1. I'm so excited for this book I have goosebumps. Best Author Ever.

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  2. Seth, grand to read your posts. I just finished the reader's proof (NZ) today and absolutely I agree with you; it is 12/10.

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  3. Thank you for this enthusiastic review. Cloud Atlas was an interesting read to me, but I wouldn't say that I was completely bowled over by it. If truth be told, I found Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night A Traveller..." whose principle Mitchell seems to have borrowed a more rewarding book. If The Bone Clocks is as complex and dazzling as it appears to be in your write-up, I will gladly delve into it once it comes out.

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  4. Wow, so excited for this. What a great event also!

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