Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 31, 2015

David Mitchell, _The Bone Clocks_

I WONDER WHETHER the London Review of Books has decided, so far as David Mitchell goes, that it is just not having any, thanks. Matthew Reynolds gave The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a fairly rough handling, and Theo Tait gets downright churlish about The Bone Clocks.

Conceding that "Mitchell's dexterity, stylistic range, and ability to build fictional worlds are very impressive," Tait finds his themes "so generalized as to be entirely uninteresting," his fiction "far too cartoonish and second-hand to have any real bite." The Bone Clocks, Tait concludes, "is admirable only if you think ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue."

The tone of the final sentence suggests that we are tyros indeed if we think ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue. I wish he had gone on to say exactly what literary virtues we should rank more highly; he does not actually name any. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that ambition and vitality are worthy of admiration, really, especially in the rare instances when they occur together. One can think of many works that are ambitious but lifeless, or lively but shallow. So, if Tait is willing to grant that the novel is both lively and ambitious, why does he choose to withhold whatever laurels are his to bestow?

Well, reviewers will be reviewers, I suppose. Among the principal characters of The Bone Clocks is a novelist who arranges that a formerly supportive reviewer who has turned nasty (Philip Hensher?) gets locked away in a South American jail for a few years.

Anyway, if you admired Cloud Atlas, and enjoyed Black Swan Green and Thousand Autumns but were ready for a return to the old razzle-dazzle, you will probably admire--as I did--the ambition and vitality of The Bone Clocks. As in Cloud Atlas, the narrative begins in the past, catches up with the present, and leaps into the future. Again, we have a kind of Manichean cosmic war of the children of light and the children of darkness, the nurturing versus the predatory; again, we have a whiff of the supernatural--not just a migrating birthmark this time, but a full-blown mythology of re-incarnation.  (Tait, showing fine critical discrimination: "the novel's supernatural underpinnings are a load of awful bollocks.") Again, we have a virtuosic handling of several types of fiction: after a chapter that could be a Young Adult novel, we have a St. Aubyn-like tale of depravity among the aristos, a novelist-coming-unglued story like Amis's The Information, a Rowling-ish wizard's battle, a post-apocalyptic scenario...

...wait, didn't we have that already, in "Sloosha's Crossing"? Yes, and it turns out, thanks to a deft touch Mitchell holds back for a few dozen pages, to be the same post-apocalyptic scenario, but in the other hemisphere. I enjoy this sort thing; not everyone does (Tait: "For the Mitchell trainspotters, there are the correspondences between this and his other novels").

Well, you can't please everyone. But whatever we want to call what Mitchell has--"ambition" and "vitality" certainly fit--he's still got it.

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