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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to The Bone Clocks
Reviewing Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men in the March 8, 2012, New York Times, Douglas Coupland coined the term “translit” to describe a new kind of novel that “collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” The term itself has been gaining plenty of traction, too, as more and more writers adapt genre-bending strategies to a highly complex but entrancing form of literary fiction. Besides Kunzru, Haruki Murakami clearly falls into this category (especially his 1Q84, 2011), as does Nick Harkaway (in Angelmaker, 2012), but David Mitchell also deserves a seat at the head of the translit table, and his new book, The Bone Clocks, just may become the quintessential example of translit fiction, not only in its complexity and thematic richness, but also in the remarkable narrative propulsion that drives its many-cylindered engine.
The book opens in the grand tradition of coming-of-age novels distinguished by their hypnotic, first-person narrators, but while the voice of British teenager Holly Sykes can hold its own with those of Holden Caulfield or John Green’s Hazel Grace Lancaster, it is merely the opening salvo in this multivoiced, harmonically layered narrative symphony that stretches—with occasional sojourns far back in time—from the 1980s, when Holly runs away from home, into the 2040s, when she is attempting to cope with an oil-depleted world descending into chaos. But plot summaries are a far too simplistic device for talking about this novel. It is neither coming-of-age story nor dystopian fiction; nor is it fantasy, contemporary satire, or high-concept adventure thriller, though it surely has elements of all of those and more. That’s the thing with translit: it shows us how feeble our pigeonholing genre categories can be when applied to a novel that sets out to break boundaries on multiple levels.
Those boundaries begin to shatter when the young Holly hears what she calls the “radio people,” voices from another dimension. Gradually, Mitchell introduces us to an epic conflict being staged beyond the world of mundane life, a Harry Potter–like duel to the death between two groups able to traverse time: the Atemporals, also called Horologists, who are born with the capacity for living again after one self dies (they may die permanently, however, if they are killed before experiencing a natural death), and the Anchorites, who also have the psychic power to regenerate themselves but only if they feed (like vampires) off the souls of other psychically endowed mortals (like Holly). The Atemporals, led by a character called Marinus, a veteran of multiple lives over centuries, are trying both to save Holly from the Anchorites and to use her to help them deliver the coup de grâce that will wipe out the “soul-decanting” Anchorites forever.
That sounds a little too cartoony, perhaps, but it doesn’t read that way. Mitchell builds his characters as carefully as he does his worlds, and by the time the final battle takes place, we are thoroughly invested in the story and the people. By that time, too, we have followed those characters and many others through six time-jumping sections, each a smaller-scale tour de force of its own. Especially engaging is a section set essentially in the present and featuring a once-successful novelist watching his career slip away through a succession of writers’ conferences that vividly capture the bane of creeping mediocrity.
Remarkably, all of these disparate sections connect perfectly, not just as plot elements, but as aspects of a greater thematic whole. The novel is a meditation on mortality, of course, but also on the hazards of immortality and the perils of power. It is our failing novelist, though, who gives us the perfect metaphor for understanding the thematic reach of Mitchell’s masterpiece. Rambling on about Icelandic literature at a conference in Reykjavík, he notes that writers are fascinated with “the edges of maps.” Those edges are at the heart of translit, and the The Bone Clocks delivers a finely detailed cartography of their every variation. This novel will be one of the most talked-about books of the year, as well it should be; it’s a triumph on every one of its many levels.
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