March 12th, 2017
For years, until it stopped happening, my favorite thing to do on New Year’s Eve was to go to the Pratt campus here in Brooklyn, which has a steam-powered electricity-generating power plant. On New Year’s Eve, the chief engineer would rig up his collection of historic steam whistles outside: there was a steam calliope, and whistles from trains and boats, and at midnight they’d go off together with billows of steam, a variety of pitches. You can find videos online but they don’t capture how it felt to be there surrounded by the sound, not just hearing the whistles but feeling the vibrations from them in your body, especially the biggest and deepest one. I thought about that thrum when reading The Chimes, a dystopian novel which features a massive instrument called the Carillon, whose sounding brings the people of England to their knees on a daily basis, and whose vibrations mean loss: of written language, of birds, which died when Chimes started, and also, daily, of memory.
The Chimes is disorienting at first, and it’s meant to be, and it works: we’re with our narrator, Simon, as he makes his way to London from Essex: his mother, who recently died, has sent him to find a woman named Netty, and that’s about all he can remember about that: he has no idea who Netty might be or why he’s meant to find her. We learn about this future England in bits and pieces: there’s no written language; people communicate largely in music and in the hand-signals tied to the notes of solfege. Memory doesn’t work properly: people have their bodymemory, their muscle-memory of the work they do, and they are able to sort of/sometimes remember important things by storing the memories in objects, and music helps keep some memories, too, though mostly just place-memory, the route to take from point A to point B, communicated in song. Children all learn musical instruments, and every morning everyone sings Onestory, a song about how the Order (the group who built/compose for/play the Carillon) brought the country together after a cataclysmic event called Allbreaking, which seems to have turned much of London to rubble and sent the country back to a pre-Industrial-Revolution kind of existence.
In London, Simon finds Netty but doesn’t know what help she’s meant to give him, and she doesn’t seem too inclined to be helpful anyway, so he follows a sound/feeling he has to the Thames, which leads him to a hunk of palladium in the muck: palladium, we learn, is what the Carillon is made of, and packs/pacts of scavengers in the city collect it and sell it to the Order. Simon falls into one of these pacts, with a boy named Lucien and a few others. Lucien is blind, but leads the pact through the tunnels under London with his extra-sharp hearing; they have their daily routines and each other but not much else. But then another member of the pact, a girl named Clare, tells Simon she hears him and Lucien talking at night. Simon doesn’t remember this so doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but then, slowly, he figures it out, and the plot turns into an adventure/quest, with Simon and Lucien setting out from London together on a mission.
After reading a bunch of realistic fiction, this book was exactly what I was in the mood for. The writing is gorgeous and immersive, and it was a delight to be absorbed in the book’s world. I loved things like this description of Chimes, early in the book: “Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like” (12). The adventure/quest narrative plays out somewhat predictably, though there was a twist I totally didn’t see coming, and by that time I was invested enough in the story and characters that the predictability didn’t bother me. I mean, it’s OK for certain stories to fit certain shapes. I cried, multiple times, and when I wasn’t crying I was busy being pleased by the themes of the book, by its focus on memory and story and how narrative shapes things, and how narrative opens up possibilities. Simon is, basically, a writer, someone who observes and wonders and imagines and remembers as best he can, and I like how the book explores all of that. I did wonder (as I sometimes do when reading this particular kind of dystopia that’s set in our world but focuses on one geographical location, like The Hunger Games did), about the rest of the world: does the Order’s power stretch beyond England? Or is the rest of the world like, “Oh, London. Used to be a nice place, and then it was a war zone. Now it’s, like, medieval? *shrug*” But mostly I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
Also: I love this page on the author’s website: The World of The Chimes – A Non-Exhaustive Handbook.