Thursday, 18 September 2014

Bone Clocks

I promised @hmckervey some feedback on my current reading. I expect this is what being in a book club is like (I've never been invited to join one, and/or I'm afraid to commit to other people's book choices).

My most recent read is Bone Clocks. It's publication was eagerly awaited, it arrived to much fanfare from Sceptre, and I was eager to hand over my €25 for a gorgeous hard-backed, signed copy, having gobbled up Cloud Atlas, and thoroughly enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

You can hear the 'but' from here, can't you?

David Mitchell knows how to hook and reel his reader in, and once there, he will entertain. Guaranteed. Bone Clocks did exactly this, through the first novella, and the second, and the third. But — there it is — by the time I got to the fifth novella, the fantastical stuff, my enthusiasm waned and then fizzled out.

My son grew up with Harry Potter and I read the books along with him. And enjoyed them, to a point. Fantasy fiction has at its disposal all the tricks it needs to resolve all the problems it creates, which feels like a cheat to me. I had to remind myself that my disappointment with them was unfair; they were, after all, children's books.

It used to be the case that loosely grouped, ill defined 'genre' fiction was disparaged for being light weight, low brow pulp. Though it's no longer p.c. to describe it in this way, in truth, while I enjoyed my granny's Mills & Boons and Agatha Christie's when I was growing up, they felt a little bit shabby when contrasted with Austen and Shakespeare (school), and Rushdie and Joyce (pre-Uni summer). Like comparing fast food to your Mammy's cooking, both provide calories but one is (in my opintion) far superior to the other. The genre stuff no longer satisfied because it was not nourishing.

Cloud Atlas combined novellas of different genres into a magic mix where the whole was more than the parts, but as I near the end of Bone Clocks I've enjoyed the ride, but I'm just not feeling nourished.


  1. I'm on the same page as you with "genre v literary", Paula. The trouble is, I hate the moniker "literary". It just sounds so pompous and elite, and I think that's often reflected by the type of writers who write "literary" fiction (Amis, Jacobson, Barnes etc.) and are given wide print runs for often inferior books.

    On genre, I never find myself lingering at the crime or fantasy fiction shelves in the bookshop. But I understand that they have a big readership, and I think that's great too - reading anything is infinitely better than reading nothing, and the person who reads genre fiction is much more likely to read a broader range in time than someone who doesn't read anything at all.

    The books I do find myself dwelling over and returning to over and over again are those that are infused with truth. It is authenticity, a sense of realness (as opposed to reality), a perceptiveness of what it is to be human, that always knocks me sideways. Catch-22, Hemingway's best work (fiction and non-fiction), Gatsby or Tender Is The Night, they all have so many elements of "truth". Often the best places to find that nowadays is in "foreign" or translated fiction, as opposed to the (white, English, male) writers who get big print runs and big marketing.

    On Mitchell, I've never read anything of his (apart from an aborted attempt at Cloud Atlas a few years ago - I do aborted attempts at a lot of books). So it's impossible to offer an opinion on his work. But his tweet-a-story episode earlier in the summer felt very influenced by a timely PR campaign ahead of the new release, and so rendered him lower on the authenticity barometer. But I shouldn't be so quick to judge, and I dare say I'll give him another go - I've heard good things about Jacob De Zoet, and I have Ghostwritten at home and its spine stares at me from the shelf occasionally, silently begging to be read.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Shane. You're right. I use 'literary' lazily here. I agree with you in the main. Anglo-American 'literary' fiction could be accused of having found its comfort zone and snuggled down. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by books 'infused with truth', but I do find that often the books I enjoy best are translated; they tend to have more of an edge.

  3. I don't think you're being lazy at all with "literary", Paula.

    It is the norm, but I just don't like it. It's almost like readers (in eyes of publishers or booksellers, or both) are split into literary/highbrow on one hand, and mass market/lowbrow on the other. I saw the story about Roddy Doyle doing a Quick Reads book, and the organisers said it was great because so many people of low literacy (and otherwise I suspect) feel that Booker Prize winners are beyond them. Wheras The Commitments would be the archetyepal Quick Reads book. The quickest and most widely appealing (in an Irish context) novel I think I've ever read. And all of his books are absolutely accessible. There's something wrong with the messaging somewhere along the line when just because he's a Booker winner that so many people seem to think "not for me".

    As for truth, it's in my head that Hemingway wrote a piece of writer advice somewhere along the lines of "make every sentence the truth". The best books honour that, and they're often not the ones that are faced out on the literary bestseller shelves.

    Beauty is truth, and truth beauty etc.