Clockwork, by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is the tremendously-successful, tuberculosis oft-controversial author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Born in 1946, he has been writing fiction since 1970 and a full-time author since 1996, which was when The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, depending on which side of the pond one is on) was published. The trilogy has won various awards, and the first volume (so far) has been made into a movie, starring Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and Derek Jacobi. This book I found for 99 cents in a bargain bin; it’s not related to his most famous works, but is a companion to a few other short ‘fairy tales’ he’s written.

Karl, the clockmaker’s apprentice, is on the last day of his apprenticeship, and that night he is expected to install the new piece of clockwork that he has made into the town’s famous clock. However, he’s at the pub, drinking and melancholy, because he has not finished his piece — in fact, he hasn’t even started one. That night, Fritz the town storyteller comes by with his new story, and starts to tell it, about a king who went on a trip with his son and another nobleman and who returned, dead, but with clockwork inside his body to make his arm move up and down. Then events from the story — which Fritz dreamed — start to be real. What is going on?

This is a really, really short book — more like a medium-length story. The volume is a hundred pages, but the print is big, the margins are spacious, and the space between the lines is wide. Printed in a more adult font and spacing, it would probably be perhaps half that length, if not less. I think I finished it in twenty minutes. That doesn’t, however, make it any less interesting or enjoyable; it just means that perhaps it will be collected into an omnibus someday, and readers could enjoy it, as well as its companion pieces, in a somewhat less flimsy format.

As Mr. Pullman himself describes it as a fairy tale, it’s easy to see that the theme is more important than the story, and that the characters are somewhat allegorical. Fritz is more of a device than a human being; Karl serves as a warning regarding Faustian bargains; Gretl is a symbol of purity, innocence, and love; and the doctor is, of course, representing the devil. Given as such, it would be ridiculous to expect any depth of action or emotion from any of them. They act exactly as they are supposed to act, setting the story into motion so that it can continue on to its predetermined end — which is, of course, one of Mr. Pullman’s themes.

I’m not actually certain that I can get any sort of coherent theme from the story. Obviously the clockwork is a large symbol, mostly of mechanization, and it takes pure love to overcome the bad effects of it. There is also a theme regarding humanity and our hearts of flesh versus mechanics, and another large theme regarding bad bargains (there are two in the book, both made with the character who symbolizes the devil). The Victorians started warning about humanity being taken over by machines years ago; this theme was continued in Baum’s Tin Man of Oz, and the whole science-fiction concept of the singularity. In other words, Mr. Pullman’s theme and story isn’t exactly new, but it’s pleasantly grisly and evocative. I’d recommend it to bloody-minded children and YAs and adults needing a short diversion. 4/5 stars.

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