I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if hearing rather than vision was the primary form of human perception. The premise of The Chimes cuts close to this idea: words and writing are replaced by music and song as the basis for cultural transmission. And the music can be weaponised.
There’s a basic framework for a dystopia—a society controlled by a high born caste of musician-priests known as the Order who have built a giant musical instrument with the power to . Every morning, the Order broadcast Onestory—an account of the discord which ended the previous civilisation—and every evening they broadcast Chimes—an elaborate and hypnotic musical movement which destroys memory and subjugates the population.
The other big aspect of the novel is psychogeographical—the overlaying of all this onto a map of wrecked London, reaching out to Reading and Oxford too.
The story is told from the perspective of Simon, a farm boy from Essex who goes to London after his parents die to complete a task that he cannot remember or understand. Soon after his arrival, he accidentally stumbles into a dark economy of mudlarking, sifting the river for fragments of an unexplained ore called ‘palladium’ and selling it to agents who buy on behalf of the Order. He joins a crew led by the enigmatic blind Lucien who helps him discover that he has a gift for making sense of memories where others cannot.
I loved the disorientation of the first few chapters. Trying to grasp a world without the written word where people communicate through inscrutable music is an imaginative leap for the reader and contributes to the immersion. Much like Riddley Walker or The Book of Dave, the story has its own unique and strange dialect, substituting musical ideas and Latin-ish words for many common parts of speech. Without knowing anything about the world to begin with, this language creates a strong effect that combines with vivid sensory description—much of it drawing from musical references—to reinforce the feeling of Simon’s memory loss and confusion. This works really well.
The confusion, dissociation and lack of control in the first part of the book contrasts with the increasing control and awareness that emerges in the second part. What stood out for me was the way that Lucien helps Simon reinforce his ability to remember using the method of loci, weaving the struggle with memory into the novel’s fascination with geography and ecolocation.
Clever and controlled use of language is the most impressive aspect of The Chimes which for the most part, tells a fairy tale story or hero’s journey with a quest to bring down the evil and remake the society which becomes increasingly locked-in and forseeable through the second half of the book. In this trajectory, there were several points of moral ambiguity that I would have been interested to see having more of an influence on the plot.
The idea that resistance movements might simply be rewriting a different version of the the story of their opressors is touched on by Mary, a seer and keeper of memories who Simon visits to try to learn the truth of the history that has been suppressed and forgotten.
After the Order’s great instrument is toppled and the society freed from the Chimes, Simon has the realisation that people might not want to know the truth, might be happy living in ignorance. Others have sacrificed their lives for his great quest. He is still alive, in love, and presumably will live happily ever after. But how will society be remade? What comes next?