David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work

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David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweepingambitious, genre-skeweringkaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodernmetatextualmetacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.

Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):

The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.

“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”

“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”

“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”

“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”

“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”

Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.

“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.

See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section after young Holly’s story.

Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.

Continue reading “David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work”

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (Book Acquired, 8.19.2014)

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David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters earlier this week, but I’ve been busy with the start of the Fall semester and haven’t had a chance to get into it yet. Here’s publisher Random House’s blurb:

Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting on the war in Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

Rich with character and realms of possibility, The Bone Clocks is a kaleidoscopic novel that begs to be taken apart and put back together by a writer The Washington Post calls “the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction.”

An elegant conjurer of interconnected tales, a genre-bending daredevil, and a master prose stylist, David Mitchell has become one of the leading literary voices of his generation. His hypnotic new novel, The Bone Clocks, crackles with invention and wit and sheer storytelling pleasure—it is fiction at its most spellbinding.

New Issue of Asymptote Features David Mitchell, László Krasznahorkai, Fady Joudah and More

The July issue of Asymptote, a journal devoted to literary translation, is chock-full of goodies, including a long interview with David Mitchell, a shorty from László Krasznahorkai translation, and an essay by Fady Joudah with the marvelous title  “Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error.” Here’s the beginning of that essay:

In Borges’ story, “Averroës’ Search,” Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle’s Poetics (how to translate ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or “without conviction” as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is “near at hand” or, as in Lydia Davis’ “The Walk,” right “across the street.”

As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës’ guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:

“Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.”

Borges’ mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle’s ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy': theatre.

Lots of great stuff–check it out.

 

I Riff on the Cloud Atlas Movie

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1. Cloud Atlas is neither the bizarre trainwreck I thought it might be, nor is it a disastrously wrong-headed reinterpretation of David Mitchell’s novel.

2. It’s actually about as faithful an adaptation as one could expect.

3. A major deviation from the novel:

The filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) of Cloud Atlas chop up and rearrange the novel’s six sections such that each section’s individual arc (e.g. exposition, climax, dénouement, etc.) runs concurrently with the other narrative arcs—like braided strands—whereas the novel nests them—like matryoskha dolls.

It’s very clear why the filmmakers would wish to use a more traditional grammar, but the effect is often more taxing than rewarding—the work’s themes of eternal recurrence are overstated (yet somehow underdeveloped), pressed repeatedly on the viewer. There’s little breathing room.

4. Another (possible) deviation from Mitchell’s novel:

The filmmakers cast their company (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) in multiple roles, so that each actor portrays a new character in each section. Mitchell’s novel played with the idea of eternal recurrence subtly, using a comet-shaped birthmark as a linking signifier. The film adaptation overloads the theme, creating the impression of a system that simply doesn’t inhere through the plot unless the viewer chooses to impose it (granted, certain actors tend to be cast in villainous roles or heroic roles—but there isn’t a coherent system of correspondences between the actors and the characters, despite what snippets of dialog would wish the viewer to believer).

5. The biggest problem with casting actors across a variety of roles:

The effect is extremely distracting—especially when actors are playing characters across gender or across race (especially the film’s notorious use of “yellow face,” which is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that the make-up and prosthetics just look awful—and the part of the yellow face that’s worst to me (and perhaps the least-remarked-upon) is the awful fake “Asian” accents that the white actors use, with mangled intonations, etc. Disastrous).

The gambit may have worked (only may) if the filmmakers had cast actors who could actually pull it off. Denis Lavant, Tilda Swinton, and Gary Oldman all come to mind as actors who inhabit their roles to such a degree that the character transcends them (in plainer language: Gary Oldman is excellent at not looking like Gary Oldman). Tom Hanks—well, Hanks is wonderful at balancing charm with profound gazes—but he looks just like Tom Hanks in every damn scene he’s in, whether he’s playing a contemporary British gangster (maybe the low point of the film) or a post-apocalyptic tribesman (which, let me just shoehorn this in here real quickly—I imagined the Zachry of the novel to be like, much, much younger than mid-fifties). Halle Berry looks like Halle Berry, even in white face. And Hugo Weaving doing his Nurse Ratchet impression…well, leave it alone, leave it alone.

6. One thing the film does very well:

Stylized action sequences. We might expect this—the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix trilogy—but I was surprised at how well these moments fit into the film. There must have been a temptation to wedge shootouts and battles and cool cityscape sequences into the film, but these pockets of action are used sparingly, effectively buoying the film.

7. Another thing the film does well:

Explore the themes of slavery (and slave-master dynamics) that are central to Mitchell’s text.

8. The biggest thematic short-coming of the Cloud Atlas film:

Its muddled handling of eternal recurrence. In my review of Mitchell’s novel, I suggested that the book was overtly investigating the relationship between Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and his infamous and often misunderstood übermensch. Granted, the film does posit history as a cycle of domination and submission, and also suggests that figures who wish to break or disrupt or upset this cycle will be assassinated or martyred—but the film elides the novel’s Nietzschean impulses in favor of New Age contours. There’s a broad, hippy-dippy streak of faux-spiritualism to the film that’s too syrupy to swallow. (In full disclosure, dear reader—I prefer a healthy dose of bitter with any sweets).

9. Another problem:

The music. It’s not that the score by director Tom Tykwer and two collaborators is bad—it’s fine, I suppose—it’s that the filmmakers rely too heavily on music to stitch their story strands together. The effect is at times simultaneously dulling and claustrophobic.

10. An extension of the previous point:

This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Cloud Atlas: Its compression. The film runs to an epic three hours, but somehow feels rushed.

There’s not enough space for characters to develop, and because the film has created a system through which characters are essentially reiterations of previous “selves,” the changes that the characters do undergo seem like fore drawn conclusions. Perhaps the most drastic example comes in the fabricant Sonmi-451. She’s an emblematic character to the narrative, a messianic figure, and her catechism provides the novel’s perhaps strongest exploration of what it means to be human and free. While the film hardly botches the Sonmi-451 segment, it doesn’t devote enough time to showing her revolutionary arc.

11. I know, I know—the film is already three hours, and here I am asking for more.

Suggestion: Cloud Atlas might have been much stronger as a twelve part miniseries, giving its characters and themes room to breathe and grow.

Another suggestion: Cloud Atlas as a one-man theatrical show starring, I don’t know, Gary Oldman (?). 75 minutes tops.

12. My criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, and to be clear, they are from the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first. Still, I hate to fault the Wachowskis and Tykwer for their ambition, scope, technical prowess, and, oddly, their restraint. The film is far more focused and coherent than it has any right to be and its themes come through clearly. The filmmakers show a deep respect for Mitchell’s novel as well as the film’s audience while at the same time offering their own personal interpretation of the source material. When Cloud Atlas stumbles or outright fails, it does so on its own terms—which is why I think the film ultimately succeeds.

In Which I Review the Cloud Atlas Film Trailer

I liked David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.

I reviewed it here in some detail, but here’s a brief overview:

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comprises six sections, each interrupted by the next section (with the exception of the sixth section), and then commenced again in reverse order (a simpler way to think of this might be a schema: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). Sections 1-6 move forward chronologically and, significantly, each section represents a new literary trend. (Again, perhaps a schema with illustrating examples would work better here; for more detail, check out my review: 1: Melville-2: Modernism-3: Airport novel-4: Contemporary novel (Roth?)-5: Dystopian sci-fi (post-Orwell, shades of PKD)-6: Post-apocalyptic (language games, à la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker)). In short, Cloud Atlas is an exercise in several genre styles, glommed onto a few ideas cribbed from Nietzsche: eternal recurrence, master/slave relationships, will to power, all that jazz. Ultimately—and more interestingly, I think—Cloud Atlas is an exercise in postmodernism-as-genre, a sort of critique perhaps (intentional or not), brought into even greater relief when one examines Mitchell’s novels Black Swan Green (a coming of age story) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (a straight-up historical romance), which are, again, genre exercises.

This leads me up to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the long trailer for which dropped today.

I would embed the goddamn trailer, but it’s been blocked on YouTube and other similar sites by Warner Brothers, who apparently have absolutely no idea how publicity works.

You can watch the trailer here.

[Update] Here’s the trailer:

Did you watch it? Okay. I’m gonna riff a little:

I know that trailers have to advertise films to a wide range of potential audience members, and that often leads to overwrought musical cues and lines pulled out of context and big flashing words in all caps, but damn, this is cheeseball stuff. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a subtle book (at times), one that works best when the readers are allowed to do most of the work. The trailer suggests spectacle over nuance, bombast over substance. But again—just a trailer.

Not that the Wachowskis—who are directing and writing and producing (along with Tom Tykwer, whose films Run Lola Run and Perfume I recall enjoying)—-are known for restraint.

And, while I’m bringing up the Wachowskis: They are most famous for their visual inventiveness (these are the guys who did The Matrix), but great looking films don’t necessarily mean much. I mean, the last film they did was Speed Racer (okay, Cloud Atlas looks a lot more restrained than that fiasco, but still, these guys have major problems with storytelling).

Now, based on the trailer, the filmmakers seem to have done some significant rewrites. In Mitchell’s novel, each section (or sections 1-5, at least), exists as a narrative of some kind—fictional narratives, in a few cases. Each protagonist comes to find him or herself echoing or tracing or otherwise repeating or prefiguring the protagonist of another narrative—but there’s always the recognition of the textuality (and hence, metatextuality) to this patterning. Put another way, these are all characters in stories that are awfully familiar to us, and Mitchell strives to make the reader aware of this textuality: it’s a thoroughly postmodern move. 

The film seems to connect the characters in two ways: 1, it seems to use actors across separate roles (this could work) and 2, it seems to have characters from previous segments interact with each other across segments. I might be misreading the trailer when it comes to point 2 here, but I think that having characters actively puncture the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas is a bad idea. And, even if I am misreading this, the film clearly imposes a unifying style across the narratives—sure the dystopian sci-fi scenes will have different set dressing, etc., than the Pacific journal narrative scenes—but take note of how all the scenes seem to follow a unified visual sensibility. The joy of Mitchell’s novel is the way he plays with, parodies, adores (etc.) the narrative styles he’s reworking. For example, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery reads like a bad airport mystery (or at least a mediocre one). I was hoping that the filmmakers would attempt to do something similar with the film—actually play with the concept of genre, actually manipulate and amplify the distinct genre conventions at work in Mitchell’s book. Which, maybe they do. Again, I know: it’s just a trailer.

But it’s an awfully slick, shiny trailer.

Okay, perhaps I’m griping too much. All the characters seem to be there, and the casting doesn’t seem terrible. My curiosity is piqued, admittedly, but mostly because I want to know how the filmmakers will handle the nested narratives (also: how long will the movie be?). In any case, I’m sure this will be one of those movies where people sigh and say, “Yeah, the book is way better.”

Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

Bret Easton Ellis on David Mitchell’s Novel Cloud Atlas