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Rob Spillman: Politics and Apocalypse

The future worlds of David Mitchell and Emily St. John Mandel.

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Image from Flickr user stevegore

This is the first installment of Readpolitik, a monthly column discussing politically engaged fiction.

By Rob Spillman

After the stratospheric success of Cloud Atlas, it would seem that David Mitchell can do whatever he damn well pleases. And with his sprawling new novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell seems to be doing a whole lot of whatever he damn well pleases, including stuffing the already overstuffed novel with his politics, sometimes subtly and to great effect, more often awkwardly and to head-scratching effect.

George Orwell famously wrote “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Yet polemical fiction is rarely fun to read. Overtly political novels like Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate and Jay Cantor’s The Death of Che Guevara, while brilliantly evoking specific historical cruxes, bleed their leftist hearts all over the pages, leaving little room for intellectual engagement. Fiction is supposed to be about questions, not answers.

More satisfying are those works whose politics are woven through the narratives along with multiple other strands, the result being a more complex and multidimensional work. Environmentalism and animal rights are cut into all aspects of Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead, yet there are so many other facets to the characters that we feel like we’ve gone on the journey with the young, complicated, not always sympathetic young women, instead of having the sensation of being mansplained to for six-hundred plus pages by a very well-intentioned Important Novelist.

Think of Hourologists as highly evolved Buddhists and the Anchorites as the ultimate Ayn Randians.

Mitchell is, without a doubt, an Important Novelist. He is a genre-defying master of the fractured narrative. Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is comprised of six sections with different narrators, moving from the past to the future. We start and end with Holly Sykes, who we first meet when she is a rebellious 15-year-old in 1984, and at the close of the novel she is a tough grandmother holding her own in the stateless chaos of 2043. The sections in between are narrated by men who may or may not be intimately involved in a fantastical battle between good and evil. The good guys—and you know they are good because all they do in the world is make the world better—are called the Hourologists, and have attained immortality through no choice of their own; they are destined to live out their lives seeking knowledge to better mankind, and then are resurrected into the bodies of dying children. The bad guys—and you know they are bad because they have no interests other than being immortal—are part of the sinister Anchorites cult, who recruit young people with psychic powers then harvest their souls into a “black wine” that keeps them vampirically ageless. Think of Hourologists as highly evolved Buddhists and the Anchorites as the ultimate Ayn Randians.

Unchecked consumerism and oil-binging are seeded at the beginning and bloom into full blown disaster.

There is an ill-defined “Script” in which the major players, like psychically possessed Holly, are written. I wish I could tell you more about this script, but Mitchell only alludes to this script and we are never privy to it. Frustratingly, Mitchell keeps much of the fantastic from the reader.

Mitchell is far more successful at creating the feeling of looming environmental disaster. Unchecked consumerism and oil-binging are seeded at the beginning and bloom, in 2043, into full blown disaster. Coastal cities are flooded, “oil states” rule the planet, the internet has been all but knocked out, and semi-autonomous regions lacking oil and manufacturing have been forced to ration food and medicine. In Holly’s self-governing formerly Irish town, now overseen by “Stability,” a toothless governmental order that serves as middlemen to the oil and merchant states, the terrified citizens looking for certainty, order, and a simple explanation for the collapse of every functional thing they have known are increasingly turning toward Christian fundamentalism. These elements are deftly woven through without us feeling preached to, and this slow-motion eco-disaster is carefully built up over the course of the novel so that when we reach the last chapter it is the most convincing section and could very well have been its own book.

Less well integrated is Mitchell’s disapproval of US and British intervention in Iraq. Holly marries a childhood friend who becomes a war correspondent and there are long passages about the horrors of Fallujah. While they are well rendered and obviously thoroughly researched, they don’t connect meaningfully to the narrative.
One of the other long sections is devoted to Crispin Hershey, a British novelist who was once an enfant terrible with a smash first book, but is now near the bottom of a Spinal Tap-esque descent of failed novels and shrinking crowds. Hershey seems to have been written into the script, though how, Mitchell won’t say. After a rocky initial meeting (Holly writes an international bestseller about her psychic abilities, with much resulting jealousy), Hershey becomes friends with Holly over the course of several mutual appearances at international literary festivals. Mitchell has a rollicking good time in this section, skewering the literary fame game. Yet what Hershey’s section has to do with the battle between the good and evil body-hoppers, I still don’t know. Mitchell seems to have an inkling about his unwieldy plot as he has a critic pan Hershey’s latest comeback novel by saying “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s ‘State of the World’ pretentions, I cannot bear to look.” Indeed.

Cloud Atlas felt urgent and muscular. There was no wasted movement and while reading I couldn’t help but gasp as far-flung thread after far-flung thread came together. I kept thinking “how is he doing this?” With The Bone Clocks, I kept thinking “how is he not doing this?” It is maddening because there are so many compelling characters and wonderful turns of phrase, yet they are lost in a self-indulgent stew. The novel felt like six separate narratives held together by a very flimsy fantastical element. The tenuous soul stealing through-line disappears for long stretches and the final battle—cue the trumpets—is so poorly rendered as to be laughable. The ridiculous psychic combat within the walls of a medieval monastery reads like the final confrontation between Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter as written by Dan Brown.

Both Mitchell and Mandel seem to be suggesting that when reduced to our primal states, there are competing human impulses toward order, either attributed to a higher power or through collective reasoning.

A much more complete post-apocalyptic world is rendered in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, in which a hyper-virulent flu wipes out the majority of the earth’s population and the surviving one percent band into self-governing pods. Think of a more hopeful and female-informed rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Mandel’s narrative follows a roving troupe of actors and musicians (a traveling orchestra and a mobile Shakespeare company have joined forces) as they make their way along the settlements dotting the southern ends of the Great Lakes, moving toward the possibly mythic Eden of a civilization that has taken root in an old airport. The novel toggles between the troupe and the moments before, during, and after the pandemic, starting with famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander dying on stage in Toronto as he is performing King Lear. Mandel traces his rise from a small town in British Columbia to a mega-star with a trail of ex-wives, and at the same time tracks two witnesses to his death as they escape the plague and then make lives for themselves in a world without electricity, medicine, or order.

The looming threat is from a charismatic Christian whose violent fundamentalism has taken over one of the settlements and threatens to spread, those not willing to convert face the wrath of the jilted zealot. It’s interesting that one of the greatest threats in both Mandel’s and Mitchell’s post-apocalyptic landscapes is perverted Christianity. Both seem to be suggesting that when reduced to our primal states, there are competing human impulses toward order, either attributed to a higher power or through collective reasoning.

At about half the length of Bone Clocks, Mandel’s novel feels taut and assured, without the flashy highs and lows of Mitchell’s flights of fancy. By having a pre- and post-pandemic split screen, she is able to ask questions about artistic creation, fame, and faith against the backgrounds of plenty and scarcity. There is the page-turning plot (members of the troupe are abducted) and compelling characters, but more importantly in a novel that engages with social issues are the questions—not answered but asked.

Rob Spillman is the Editor of Tin House.

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2 comments for Rob Spillman: Politics and Apocalypse

  1. Comment by Lenny Wick on September 10, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    “George Orwell famously wrote “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Yet polemical fiction is rarely fun to read. Overtly political novels like Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate and Jay Cantor’s The Death of Che Guevara, while brilliantly evoking specific historical cruxes, bleed their leftist hearts all over the pages, leaving little room for intellectual engagement. Fiction is supposed to be about questions, not answers.”

    This is a confusing paragraph to me and one that shows the difficulty in what you are trying to assert. ‘Fiction is supposed to be about questions, not answers.’ Well, okay, but you’ve just mentioned two books that suggest maybe this isn’t true, one of which is over eighty years old and the other (which I’ve never heard of) over thirty years old. If those books aren’t what fiction is supposed to be about, then why are they mentioned far after most books are buried in time?

    I’m being a bit flip here, and look forward to how this gap might be explored in future columns. I will mention my irritation with Cloud Atlas was greatly due to a lack of political content, but of a different breed. It rarely felt engaging, much less urgent or muscular. Impressive, yes! Whole-heartedly so, but the segments joined flimsily only by author fiat rather than an indication of how the world worked, works, or can work.

    There is a politics of subject and a politics of form and structure. A physics and a metaphysics.

  2. Comment by L W Poet on September 26, 2014 at 5:11 am

    To grok The Script, consider anthropology, sociology, psychology. To grok Buddhism, appreciate that all of nature (human and otherwise) — horologists and anchorites — is to be acknowledged as part of the script.

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