Reviewer Mel Carriere carries several advanced degrees, which he delivers to people while making his mail rounds.
A lot has been made in the Lunchtime Lit venue about how I select the books I read and review, which I'll get to in a minute. Of course, all of this fuss has been made by me, because I am the only one reviewing here. I have never hosted a guest reviewer upon these pages, and I won't, because you might wind up liking the guest reviewer better than me. Then I would be horribly jealous, perhaps childishly vindictive, because writing, of which reviewing is one component, is one of the most insidious, creeping forms of narcissism. We reviewers burrow like skittish rabbits, pretending to be humble, but what we really want is for our writing to outshine that of the book we are reviewing so you'll remember our name, not the name of the book under scrutiny.
It would be difficult for my my poor pen (another obvious attempt at fake humility), to surpass the extraordinary writing of The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. This author's name does not measure up to his stupendous prose, but it doesn't seem to handicap him. I don't know why such a skilled stylist didn't make up a clever pseudonym, like me, or have the good sense to be born with a name that includes King, like Stephen King. When you're blessed with a name like King, right there on the front cover a potential reader sees you must be the king of storytelling, which makes it easier to sucker that poor sap into buying.
Instead of mesmerizing readers with a clever name, Mitchell relies on the somewhat laughable practice of writing really, really well. My heart's a clubbed baby seal - how's that for metaphor? He even includes bonus writing lessons in the novel. While staying true to his craft, he is smart enough to crowbar his work into the cramped crevice of a genre. His major league stuff doesn't need that help to get it over the plate, it just causes the umps calling balls and strikes to give him the ones on the outside corners. Mitchell must use genre to rise above his mundane name - God knows there are millions of David Mitchells in those yellowed, discarded phone books that clog our landfills. As a consequence, this author figured out that people love genres, habitual readers are addicted to them, and once they get hooked on one drug they cannot be persuaded to give another high a try. Fantasy is a whopping gas-giant of a planet, and The Bone Clocks traces a wobbly orbit around it, even while delivering a tale that would kick-ass even more, if it contained nothing at all of the fantastic.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
Unlike The Bone Clocks, Lunchtime Lit book reviews are not bulky packages that try to stuff themselves into tiny genre envelopes. So untamed and digressing from the point are Mel's attempts at literary critique, that they barely even fit into the book review genre. The only rule our rambling, reviewing mailman Mel Carriere recognizes is that all books analyzed here are read only during his half-hour postal lunchbreak.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
|Book||Pages||Word Count||Date Started||Date Finished||Lunchtimes Consumed|
The Three Body Problem
The City We Became
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time
The Bone Clocks
*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.
**Thirty-two other titles, with a total estimated word count of 7,073,584 and 1,117 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
Names That Smell, Names That Sell
Like I said, one bonus I give you in my reviews, that other reviewers don't, is that with my opening bite of Lunchtime Lit I tell you how I came across the book. I do this to fill space when I can't think of anything pertinent to review on, but also because I believe the manner in which people are attracted to a book says something about the book itself.
One other thing David Mitchell does well is come up with really cool names for his novels. I guess because his own name kind of sucks, he has spent his entire literary life trying to compensate for it. I have to admit I'm kind of a sucker for bitching names. My last review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, was picked strictly on the basis of title. I hope I am not reincarnated a fish, or you can save your Power Bait and easily reel me in just by sticking a cool name on the hook, like In Search of Lost Time, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Unlike David Mitchell, Proust and Marquez were blessed with bitchin' names too, so their cool book titles were just extra icing on the cake, a wad of stink bait marinated in raw chicken livers, for ultimate underwater appeal.
After finishing Curious Incident, I was wandering around Barnes and Noble in a disoriented daze, searching in futility for something to replace it with. I decided to do a Google search, but I can't remember exactly what I typed into the search bar. Because I like trying different things, I entered something like best unusual books, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas came up. Now there's a great name. I am not so obtuse to think it some geographical tome, even though I have to admit that, as a child, I thought that the copy of Atlas Shrugged on my Mother's bookshelf was filled with maps. I loved maps then, and I still do, so I was impatient for the day I could crack its cover and discover the cartographical wonders within. Of course, it took me a while to grow big enough to lift that ponderous volume, but once I could, I was puzzled why there were no continents, countries and counties there, only words, thousands upon thousands of tightly packed words, most of them way beyond my vocabulary level.
This time I didn't make the mistake of thinking Cloud Atlas was a map book. I'm a little older and wiser now, experience has bit me on the butt a couple times. What did puzzle me was why I could find no copies of Cloud Atlas at Barnes and Noble. I had heard of it before, I think they might have even made it into a movie. Copies of Cloud Atlas should have been as ubiquitous as David Mitchells in our museum-piece phone books.
But when I went to the David Mitchell section at Barnes and Noble, the cupboard was bare of Cloud Atlas. Never mind, there were other samplings of his collection, so I settled upon The Bone Clocks. I did this just because it was the thickest of the bunch, and I didn't want to have to go through this exhausting book-picking ordeal again, anytime soon. Besides, Barnes and Noble ain't cheap, where I can be coming back every two weeks to throw down another twenty bucks. Fortunately, it turned out to be a good choice, and here is what I found.
Praiseworthy, Cringeworthy Moments
When it wasn't busy apologizing for being ridiculous, The Bone Clocks was a truly captivating tale. It could have gotten away with being the adventures of runaway 15 year old, Irish/English girl Holly Sykes. It would have sufficed simply plowing down the wide road of Science Fiction, as it followed the heroine's narrative some sixty years from the 80s, into the third or fourth decade of the 2000s, where it morphs into a convincing apocalyptic scenario. It could have survived by thrilling us with the parallel adventures of Holly's war correspondent, sperm-donor partner Ed Brubeck, or those of her wild-child writer friend, Crispin Hershey. Neither of those two segments were vital to the plot, or even necessary, but unlike other reviewers of this novel, I'm not one to condemn an author for the sin of digression, as long as those throwaway detours are entertaining and enlightening. Both of them were.
For me, the cringeworthy episodes of The Bone Clocks came when it took a goofy funhouse ride into the house of mirrors realm of fantasy. I'm not talking unicorns and dragons type fantasy, I'm talking about esoteric, mystic, entirely human organizations who engage in psychic battles, one of these cabals using extra sensory powers to maintain immortality draining the souls of the marginally telepathic, the other trying to stop the evil doers from feasting upon the spiritual essence of innocents. These segments veered too wildly off the rails the rest of the book was riding smoothly upon. Honestly, I found them downright silly. In fact, I was so enthralled by the story of runaway Holly Sykes that I damn near closed The Bone Clocks in disgust after reading the first such telekinetic boss battle. However, because I have never abandoned a wounded Lunchtime Lit soldier on the field of battle - even slogging wearily through the infinite minefield of the Infinite Jest footnotes, I persevered. I kept going only because the quality of the writing, storytelling, and character development were so exceptional. Had this not been the case, The Bone Clocks would have been the first Lunchtime Lit book aborted before coming to term.
To his credit, David Mitchell seemed to understand this, and he abbreviated his side trips into stupidity. There is a second supernatural shootout toward the end of the book that threatens to kill the narrative through friendly fire, but Mitchell jumps quickly over this genre construction ahead hurdle. He backs the tale off that high bridge where the eye-rolling conflict between soul-sucking Anchorites and soul-rescuing Horologists takes place, back down to terra firma, where Holly Sykes and her fascinating friends dwell.
Genre Straightjackets at Warehouse Prices
I guess one of the good things, and one of the bad things about The Bone Clocks is that it defies and defiles genre, while embracing all genres all at once. It is part geo-political thriller, part historical novel, part science fiction, and unfortunately, part fantasy. In certain respects it could even be called a horror novel, which we'll discuss in the next segment.
The realistic sections of the story are impeccably researched. When rolling through the mean streets of Fallujah, Iraq, hunkered in the back seat with Holly Syke's journalist beau Ed, we get the impression that David Mitchell must have covered the conflict as an embedded reporter. When we find out later that no, he wasn't a war correspondent at all, but a guy who taught English to Japanese students, it does not diminish his warzone descriptions, it makes them even more impressive. The author brings his battle scenes to stunning, tangible life, as well as the blood and guts participants of them.
The point I'm trying to make here is that The Bone Clocks could have veered off at any moment and become anything, and it's too bad it wound up being what it was, a head-scratching worldwide conspiracy caper with a Stephen Kingish, Carrie-Firestarter twist.
It's pretty obvious to me that David Mitchell would have liked to go another direction with this one, but was forced to buckle himself into a genre straightjacket. Once you get that fantasy, science fiction, or crime drama tag attached to you, it's hard to venture into new territory. Stephen King is probably not going to be able to write any bodice-ripping Harlequin Romances, no matter how bad he wants to, I'm thinking Michael Connelly is not going to release any childrens' books, Nicholas Sparks won't abandon his sappy "chick lit" for slasher stories, and David Mitchell is doomed to slice cheap cheese like The Bone Clocks for the rest of his literary career.
Writing in The Seattle Times, still another David, reviewer David Laskin, said it best: The sooner Mitchell gets this soul-sucking mumbo jumbo out of his system and moves on, the better.
The Bone Clocks vs. Dr. Sleep - Soul Snatching, Idea Snatching?
No sooner was I exposed to The Bone Clocks soul-snatcher activity, than the similarities to another work of fiction struck me. Right away I thought of the novel Dr. Sleep, which I read after receiving it as a Christmas gift.
Back then I was getting the latest Stephen King every Yuletide, wrapped up in a pretty bow, but the colorful paper could not conceal the sometimes sepia prose underneath. The King of horror has not done his best writing in the past decade. Under The Dome should have never been released into the open air, such a massive door stop of a flop it turned out to be. 11/22/63 contained some interesting information on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination, but as fiction should have been shot down from the depository of boring books it sprung from. As a novel both of these came away relatively insipid, when placed alongside thrilling King Classics like It, The Dark Tower, Salem's Lot, and The Stand. The author of The Shining has lost his luster, and this lack of recent brilliance is demonstrated all too plainly in its 2013 sequel, Dr. Sleep.
Dr. Sleep lived up to its title. It was a real snoozer, that's for sure. I'm not reviewing that book here too - no two for one Black Friday deals on Lunchtime Lit, I'm simply making a point about its uncanny parallels with The Bone Clocks. In Dr. Sleep, an evil organization called The True Knot travels around the country in RVs, searching for physic children to rob souls from, just as The Anchorites in The Bone Clocks prowl the planet, doing pretty much the same, but flying first class. The Anchorites imbibe this spiritual substance in dark wine, while The True Knot stores it in a canister, a big bong all their trailer trash take hits from. Let's not split expropriated hairs too finely here - the similarities between these two activities are so striking that, having read them both, there was no way I could keep from thinking that either King or Mitchell must have copied the other.
I was tempted to cast the pall of plagiarism over the inferior book, King's Dr. Sleep. Maybe the old master is succumbing to senility, I thought, and has to snatch ideas where he can. But further research revealed that the publication of Dr. Sleep preceded The Bone Clocks, 2013 to 2014. This chronology would point the copycat claw directly at David Mitchell, if not that the publishing dates of the two works indicate they were both being written around the same time. I don't think The Bone Clocks author could have read Dr. Sleep, then in just a few months penned a 600 page novel heisting its main ideas. Furthermore, Stephen King himself praised The Bone Clocks as one of the best books of 2014. If he was pissed about being purloined, he certainly didn't show it.
If I was the judge overseeing the plagiarism trial, the only conclusion I could reasonably draw is that both authors came up with the soul-sucking idea independently. It seems like too skinny of a lightning bolt to strike both sides of the Atlantic at once, but unless the two famous writers, British and American, connected across the pond to play a giant prank on bothersome reviewers, what else can it be?
Mutant Hybrid Genre Baby
Even if parts of its content may have been lifted, like an upstart apprentice burglarizing from the Master's safe (a scenario I doubt), in head to head combat The Bone Clocks wins a TKO over Dr. Sleep. It doesn't exactly put the snoozing pugilist flat on the mat, it only makes him stagger back to the pillow in his corner. It reminds me of the way the forgotten band Spirit claimed Led Zeppelin stole their forgotten song Taurus, then snuck it into Stairway to Heaven. If you listen to the opening bars of both tunes, the accusation seems apt, even if a jury said otherwise. I guess Led Zep has better lawyers, but they made the song better too, turning a mediocre melody into art.
The Bone Clocks does not quite achieve the level of art, but it could have, if Mitchell had decided to forego the silly premise of soul-sucking, and left the book to rise on its legitimate merits of historical novel with an apocalyptic twist. Instead, the mutant result of this perverse inbreeding of genres is that The Bone Clocks remains in the territory of good, falling short of great. All the same, the sometimes insipid creation hinted at the explosive tastes that can be created in the hands of a master chef, and leaves me willing to sample the other recipes in Mitchell's cookbook, on my half hour lunchbreak.