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bookwormjoy

More Good Books Than Grains of Sand

lifetime book-lover who writes about - what else? - a variety of books.

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the bone clocks: razzle-dazzle in the shallow end of the pool

By David Mitchell The Bone Clocks: A Novel - David Mitchell

this was one of those "i really wanted to like this book" kind of novels, because i really wanted to like this book. i've been wanting to read David Mitchell, he of the Cloud Atlas novel everyone seems to love, for years now. in fact, i've had Black Swan Green on my shelf for almost ten years, just waiting for the perfect time when i'm in the right mood for an especially well-written coming-of-age novel told from the perspective of a precocious child.

 

i have no doubt that i would have gotten around to it eventually, but unfortunately i tend to get distracted by new things, and The Bone Clocks was just too much to be ignored, especially since (1) it was an entry in the Tournament of Books, (2) i received my very own signed, special edition copy through my Indispensible subscription at Powell's Books, and (3) i was really in the mood for an epic science fiction novel with a high literary quality. so The Bone Clocks it was. and . . . disappointingly, i found it just "okay."

 

reading The Bone Clocks was like jumping off of a diving board fully expecting to hit the deep end of the pool, and encountering the bottom of the shallows instead. the novel is composed of six interconnecting novellas, and each one increasingly taxed both my enjoyment and my patience.

 

but first, a brief summary: the first (and, in my opinion, best) chapter introduces Holly Sykes, a teenage girl who has a weird younger brother, frequent visits from strange people, and a no-good, lying, cheating boyfriend. one day, our heroine finds herself in the middle of an invisible war that's been raging between the anchorites and the horologists, two small factions of people who, through very different methods, live centuries-long lives. each novella is then told from the perspective of someone who intersects with Holly's life, and we see hints of this invisible war until the fifth chapter when almost everything is explained.

 

so, Mitchell is a technically great writer. he is unquestionably skilled at the magical art of using the right words in just the right place to maximum effect. each novella purposefully occupies a different genre: the coming-of-age novel, the crime novel, the war novel, and the post-apocolyptic world novel, to name a few. and, for the most part, Mitchell occupies these genres very well. this is a writer who clearly understands the craft of writing, and in these chapters, it shows.

 

but then there's the aforementioned fifth chapter, which i guess is the badly-written, science fiction novel because yeesh. it was bad. cringingly bad, and it doesn't really matter if it's bad on purpose or not because either way, it  does not reflect well on Mitchell or on this book. for what it's worth, i think it is here that we finally see Mitchell tackling a genre that he fundamentally does not understand. whenever an author is frequently using words and phrases like "psychoduel" and "transverse" and "psychosoteric" and "carnivorous psychodecanter" with a straight face, they really should step back and reevaluate what they're doing and why. seriously, my eyes were about to roll out of my head. 

 

Mitchell's clumsy handling of the fifth chapter was not helped by the fact that I was reading Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning at the same time, and by comparison the fifth chapter was not just bad, but bordering on offensive. it was as if Mitchell wrote the chapter to prove to himself and to others that he could write it, but not because he has any real respect for the genre, and it showed.

 

but, my biggest problem with The Bone Clocks wasn't with the fifth chapter. it was with the story as a whole. the structure and the writing is so razzle-dazzle that it's easy to overlook the fact that, in the end, the story is really rather shallow. it certainly didn't require 600 pages in the telling. but the way that Mitchell wanted to tell the story did, because Mitchell obviously wanted to showcase all those genres he can write in. which, maybe that works for some readers when the writer is as technically skilled as Mitchell. but for me, without the grounding of a real, substantive story, the whole enterprise came off as annoyingly show-offy and mildly pretentious. 

 

in an earlier post, i wondered if all the plot in this book was going somewhere. conclusion: it doesn't. i also hoped that the book got better, as i was told. conclusion: it didn't. in fact, for me, it got worse. so no, this will not be going on my list of favorite books of 2015. i don't think i'll be reading Cloud Atlas anytime soon either, but i still hold out hope that i may find myself in the mood for Black Swan Green some time in the future. something less sprawling might be more to my liking.

 

3.5 out of 5 grains of sand. i can't recommend this, but if you're still intrigued, you should read the more positive reviews. many, many people loved this novel - fifth chapter and all.