book review: the bone clocks

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s new novel about a woman named Holly Sykes and the strange life she gets caught up in living. It does the excellent David Mitchelly thing of having multiple sections which are their own stories in their own specific times (though this one, unlike Cloud Atlas, does keep marching into the future).

I liked the story as it built from a literary-feeling mundane story into a pretty gonzo sci-fi spectacle. Holly Sykes is in every part and she’s great, but she’s not the narrator or even a main character in many of the sections, which is kind of what I really liked about the novel. It bounces around with a bunch of different perspectives (which are not as extremely different as the different styles in number9dream) that to me make it feel like it’s trying to capture the multiplicity of life. The book’s always about Holly even if we’re in the heads of her less than immaculate friends and lovers.

There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but they were more on the loose ends side of things. The final section was longer than it probably needed to be but it was also the most affecting part of the whole experience. That might be because it was the furthest into the future and the most sfnal. I can see how you could call it preachy, but I think that fits the narrator at that point.

So yes, I liked it. It’s a bit weirder than The Thousand Autumns of Jacon de Zoet, but Mitchell knows how to write characters you’ll really care for (in the midst of weird scifiishness).

movie review: cloud atlas

After reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas I would have said it was the perfect example of a book that couldn’t be filmed. Now, to prove me wrong, there’s a Cloud Atlas film by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.

It’s really good. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

I mean, yes, when adapting a story that has 6 storylines and a unique structure (the book starts with a story from the 1850, tells half of each story which extends into a post-apocalyptic future and then goes back through time to finish each story) into film, it’s going to be changed. And the Wachowski’s are not making a subtle film here, so the changes are not going to err on the side of subtlety. The biggest change was intercutting all the stories together, so you bounce from Neo-Seoul to 1970s San Francisco to a Pacific voyage back to the 1930s composer all at once. And it worked. Each of the stories did have its own tone to it, but the reuse of actors in all these different roles made it feel like one movie.

Obviously, everything was less detailed than in the book. The conflicts within characters, obviously couldn’t come to the fore as much. If you love the book, this might bother you. I felt that most in the 1970s nuclear plant story and the 1930s composing story. If I hadn’t read the book I think I’d have been wondering where the depth to those storylines was. The movie had to pick one viewpoint character for the nuclear story, and chose wisely in sticking with Luisa Rey, but a lot of the intrigue in the book version of that story for me had been in the indecision about things. Similarly with the composing story we don’t have the sense of interiority that the book gave us.

But the simplicity of film worked so well in the two futuristic storylines. The story of the post-apocalyptic Valley people was done in excellent dialect and the interior parts of Zachry’s fear of the devil could be shown dramatically with the devil all around him. Visually, Neo-Seoul was great: the streets made of light for flying cars were awesome, and this was also where the best fight scenes were. I did kind of hate the facial prosthetics the white actors were wearing to look Korean. I had to think of them as something a bit more alien than Korean people to keep my cognitive dissonance down.

There were also a few very “movie” moments that I could have done without. Ending the film was obviously going to be difficult because of how it abandoned the novel’s structure. The Adam Ewing ending of “And now I am off to join the Abolitionists!” was such a Hollywood happy ending I had to check my copy of the book to see if that was wholly made up (it was not, but is expressed as a hope in a journal, not a dramatic fireside confrontation). The other big ending change was turning far-future Zachry into the person telling the whole story on some far planet. Which, again, was not subtle. And the 1970s “Don’t call me a wetback” line seemed gratuitous, though I guess it fit the kind of movie that era would produce.

But those quibbles are just that. I love stories that are cut up and told like this. Where you’re looking at the commonalities between stories and drawing connections in the process of watching. After the film was over last night one of the people in the theatre said “I have no idea what that was about but I think I liked it.” Nobody said anything similar when I was done watching Skyfall last week. Cloud Atlas demands something from the viewer that a lot of movies don’t, and I want more movies like it.

book review: the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.

Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.

In the end it was a satisfying story, but not as impressive as something like number9dream or Cloud Atlas.

book review: cloud atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is probably the book I’d heard his name connected to first, years ago. I remember shelving it as a page and remembering people saying it was one of those literary novels that was also science fiction but got to be in the literary fiction ghetto because of his previous work. And I remembered something about a note having to go into editions of the book saying “part one is supposed to end in the middle of a sentence. Don’t worry guys.” And that’s what I knew going in.
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