This is not a review of the novel by David Mitchell titled The Bone Clocks. I can’t truly review that novel because I didn’t finish reading it. I probably will never finish reading it. That in itself may be more a review of me as a reader these days than a review of the novel, which has gotten some strong recommendations.
It is a difficult book. It’s not that the content is difficult to grasp, in the way that a college math or science textbook might be for a child. It is complex in the way that the stories and time shifts along the way. That is a part of Mitchell’s style.
I had several friends recommend his earlier book Cloud Atlas. The summary sounded interesting and The New Yorker review said, “Mitchell’s virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy.” But reviews used a variety of adjectives including audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating to describe the book.
I didn’t make it through that earlier novel either. In fact , I couldn’t make it through the film version of Cloud Atlas either. I was lost and finding my way just didn’t seem worth the effort.
I do like the evocative titles Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.
This past week, I wrote one of my daily poems using the idea of the bone clocks. I certainly feel like a bone clock lately.
We wake in the stiffness of sleep,
walk down stairs like a primitive robot
stepping into the next century by accident.
Hear the tick tock clicks of fingers
lifting coffee cups to the new day.
I wanted to like these novels. But I couldn’t do it. And that is troubling.
I find that it is not only my aging brain that can’t seem to handle these complexities, but that less calculating part of my brain that just does not want to try very hard to deal with complexities.
Complexity is less interesting these days. I don’t want to do brain exercises, crossword puzzles, sudoku and such, though I’m told it will help preserve those brain connections that might let me read the way I did as an undergraduate English major.
A quick click to the Wikipedia article on the “aging brain” will tell you that more research is being done now on people who have a “normal” brain in old age (not affected by some known disease). They are studying Structural Changes with complex and frightening descriptions like Loss of Neural Circuits and Brain Plasticity, Thinning of the Cortex, Neuronal Morphology, Neurofibrillary Tangles, the role of Oxidative Stress.
Scientists are studying chemical changes in substances like Dopamine, Serotonin and Glutamate.
And they are studying the things that most bother me lately: Neuropsychological Changes in things like orientation, attention and memory.
Collins opens with a stanza that captures how I now feel about almost any novel I have ever read.
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
Last year, I listened to audiobook of The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favorite novels – a perfect novel in many ways. I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, again for a college course in much greater depth, and at least two times since just for the pleasure of it. I have seen three film versions and I thought it would be nice to listen to it again after seeing the latest film adaptation for comparison purposes.
Now, I could give you a good summary of the novel’s plot. I could probably get at least a B grade on a high school test on the book. But when I listened to the audio version, there were many sections that seemed entirely new to me. Had I skimmed those sections over multiple readings? It was disconcerting.
Collins says in that poem:
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
I actually want to retire to that little village. No phones. No distractions. No rabbit holes to fall down. No complexities.
I take some comfort in hearing friends my age express similar feelings. I even took a little comfort in reading a note that Amazon.com placed on their product page for Cloud Atlas:
“This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.”
So, it’s not just me that is having a problem reading this type of novel.
But I was once able to make it through Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest. Now, I wouldn’t even attempt it knowing I would fail. But those are the kinds of complex challenges that brain research tells us that I should be taking on.
Perhaps, as Aldous Huxley feared, we have become reduced to passivity and egoism, drowned in a sea of irrelevance, living in a trivial culture.
There is a line that I recall: “Life, the second half of it, is a matter of losing things.” It makes a lot more sense now that I am deep into that second half. I can’t tell you the source of the line – maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald? – and that seems appropriate, or ironic, or sad. Once, I would have known the appropriate adjective to use.