Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Cloud Atlas revisited

Have finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, that occasionally-brilliant, often-frustrating/pretentious novel that just missed out on the Booker Prize this year. Now that I’m done, I can say that: one, I’m glad I saw it through, for it was quite an experience, and two, I can happily go several months, even years, without ploughing through another book like this. Life is too short, there are only a miserable 24 hours in each day etc etc.

This book’s reputation for being convoluted -- both structurally and in content -- is well deserved. But Cloud Atlas is also an enormously ambitious work that overreaches itself in places (a risk endemic to anything that’s enormously ambitious), falls on its face, recovers, falls again, picks itself up, brushes itself off and starts all over again; and in the midst of all this stumbling occasionally achieves things that would have been impossible if it hadn’t aimed so high in the first place. It’s very easy to be inversely snobbish about such books (I’ve often done it myself) but difficult to acknowledge and be graceful about the things they do accomplish. Cloud Atlas is the sort of novel it’s great fun to denigrate, and I did my share long before I had read a single page. The review blurbs put me off immediately (see here for samples); though it’s another matter that I had developed sympathy for the reviewers by the time I reached the end, for I’m no longer sure one can review this book using only simple words. (Of course, it’s wholly possible that Neel Mukherjee of the Times actually writes like that – but it’s equally possible that when he reached the last page of Cloud Atlas a part of him withered and died, to be replaced by another part that could trade only in words like "reverberations" and "assonances".)

Anyway, I’ll find out soon enough. Am planning to review the thing myself and if I succeed I’ll post it here when I’m done.

(P.S. As a reviewer, I took macabre delight in a passage where an enraged author tosses a critic -- who’s savaged his book -- off a 12th floor balcony and bellows: "SO WHO’S EXPIRED IN AN ENDING FLAT AND INANE QUITE BEYOND BELIEF NOW?" Naturally, those were the words the critic had used to describe the book’s ending!)

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