books

Review: The Bone Clocks

Not so much a review as an impression. And spoilers, of sorts, although fairly vague ones.

First, as I mentioned earlier, I read David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks while on vacation, which meant I developed an emotionally charged relationship with it, in which the passage of pages grew connected to the flow of time and the declining number of days in which I hid out from winter and normal life. Perhaps I both enjoyed it more and grew to hate it a little, because it had to end. 

Second, it was impossible to read the book without reflecting on Mitchell's stunning Cloud Atlas, one of the best books I didn't love and didn't fully understand. Mitchell can write a hell of a story, and has an expansive mind in which distinct narratives nest within each other, not so neatly as matryoshka dolls, more like a rainforest in a petri dish on a space shuttle waved about in a child's hand. This is another work in which we assemble a plot from multiple perspectives that jump forward through time, inexorably and sometimes heart-breakingly, as characters die off and time marches on, relentless, until the vacation - I mean book - is suddenly over. 

The characters' lives in The Bone Clocks are impacted by a supernatural presence, a counter-current beneath the everyday. Just what is happening behind the scenes remains fragmented and inscrutable for most of the book. Then - wham! - we go full fantasy mode, and strange powers wage war upon each other in a mad monk's extra-dimensional palace, and it starts to sound like a hundred other works in which the warriors of light, defenders of humanity, battle those of the darkness, who see us as their prey. Oddly, Mitchell illuminated the lives of his characters so beautifully that the fantastic elements come across as lackluster, far less interesting than the regular lives we've been watching unfold over the span of decades. 

When we return to the everyday, it's a few decades from now, the oil has run dry and technological civilization has begun to run its course. Humanity is devouring itself for dwindling resources. Things are terribly grim. And although there's a glimmer of hope for one character, the writing appears to be on the wall for our species: a downward spiral of tribalism, brutality, and diminishing prospects for decent lives.

That was when I began to wonder what the hell was going on in this book. Why the fantasy plot, when the eventual trajectory of humanity was a ruinous disintegration of social cohesion? The climactic battle of the ancient warriors didn't really make any difference in the overall result for our species. The predator has been eliminated, but we've done an excellent job at killing ourselves off in far greater numbers than they ever managed. The entire book felt like an elaborate false premise. What was the point of the entire supernatural story line?

Is David Mitchell trying to tell us to get our heads out of our collective asses and stop looking to fantastic fictions to solve our problems? Immortal warriors of the light aren't going to rescue the future of human civilization. Only we can perceive the long, slow act of self-destruction and arrest our collective descent.

Returning to earth

While I was on vacation last week, I read David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, and I have what might be a strange theory about it. I'll talk about some other time. What's been on my mind, though, is the strange relationship I develop with books that I read when I'm away from normal life, on vacation or days off. 

I'm never so aware of time as when I'm on vacation: every day, no matter how enjoyable and restorative, is also a scrawled slash through another day on the calendar. Holidays are microcosms of lifespan, precious for their finiteness. As a result, the books I read when I'm away become suffused with the changing emotions of the trip - from the first breath of limitlessness that comes with immersing yourself in a new work, to the sorrows of dwindling pages and an inevitable end. 

I was thinking about previous books I've read in similar circumstances, like Peter Watts' Blindsight, in which human beings travel into space to meet an alien presence that clearly developed under wildly different conditions. I was SCUBA diving, venturing into a hostile and alien environment, the closest thing to zero-gravity found on earth. Just as the aliens' bodies reflect a different origin, the body morphology displayed in lifeforms that developed in a marine environment differs from those that had to resist the press of gravity. (Also, the wireframe body of the dancer in my last post reminded me the texture in a sea sponge.)

Apparently, even marine creatures born in zero gravity have difficulty adjusting when they come back to our gravity well. The lack of gravity during their development may be preventing them from building appropriate nervous system connections to recognize and use information on which way is up. 

Sort of like how I feel after I draw a line through that last precious day on the calendar and come back to the gravity of my everyday life.