Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Cloud Atlas review

Here’s my Cloud Atlas review as promised. Was tempted to include some smart self-deprecating commentary, but when you start reviewing your own reviews just a day or so after writing them, you know you’re firmly on the road to Unwellville. So here it is, minus any asides.

Cloud Atlas; by David Mitchell

More than once, it seems like David Mitchell’s Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas wants to defeat a reader’s attempts to crack it. Opening the novel, you find yourself reading the diaries of Adam Ewing, an American notary in the Chatham Islands circa 1850. The writing is in the turgid style characteristic of the period and difficult to wade through, especially if you’re unprepared for it. But gradually you overcome that and start to get involved with the tale, which concerns the subjugation of one island tribe by another and Ewing’s growing friendship with a doctor who may have sinister motives.

Then, forty pages on, the story is abruptly cut off -- midsentence, no less -- and the novel moves to a second, unrelated chapter, an epistolary narrative concerning a louche young composer’s exploits in a chateau near Bruges, Belgium in the 1930s. Another forty pages on, to a pulp-style thriller set in 1975, and so on, until what you have is six separate stories -- the final two science-fiction, the last set in an unspecified post-apocalypse future -- that follow a mirror-image pattern; after the last story ends, somewhere around the book’s middle, we get the missing second halves of the other narratives in backward chronology, so that Adam Ewing is Mitchell’s first man and his last.

This description should be enough to scare off anyone who’s looking for a casual read and yes, Cloud Atlas is very convoluted in parts. But it is also -- if you have the time, patience and energy for it -- a daringly ambitious work that is fascinating both for its construction and its narrative versatility. ("The devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost" says a character, referring ostensibly to a megalomaniacal world consuming itself, but equally to the structure of the book.)

The stories are all concerned, in different ways, with hegemony: with the circumstances that enable one set of people (race isn’t the only issue here) to exert dominance over another, and the resulting perpetuation of an unstoppable cycle of power and greed. Mitchell’s meticulous construction gives us pre-echoes, striking visual motifs (a rebel clone’s last testimony, with an image of her head preserved on an egg-shaped recording device before her execution, recalls the impaled organs of persecuted tribal folk in another of the stories) and repetitions in sentences and words. If you’re sufficiently involved with one of the narratives, this can be unnerving; you might occasionally stumble upon a phrase or an idea that reminds you of something similar you’ve read somewhere else, only to realise that it was from another section of the same book. Even when connections aren’t spelt out, there is a definite sense of these disparate stories calling out to each other across the centuries.

Though Mitchell is sometimes playful to the point of self-indulgence, he usually holds back enough to allow the reader to make inferences about the commonalties in the stories. And he’s clever enough to make his most explicit message-oriented statements in those parts of the book that are most difficult to read -- so that the language prevents it all from seeming too simplistic (example from the chapter "Sloosha’s crossing": "List’n, savages an’ Civilizeds ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or mountain ranges nay, ev’ry human is both, yay. Old’uns’d got the Smart o’ gods but the savagery o’ jackals an’ that’s what tripped the Fall").

Some bits don’t work. There are long, plodding passages and the stories don’t always tie into each other in the most convincing ways. (What’s with that comet-shaped birthmark?) Reduced to its ideas, this book isn’t all that remarkable. What’s much more interesting than Mitchell’s linking of his narratives so that they become part of an overriding theme is the way he switches between voices. At least two of the stories -- "Letters from Zedelghem" and "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" -- are perfectly realised comic novellas in their own right and "The Orison of Sonmi" is absorbing, challenging science-fiction. There is a seriously versatile writer at work here, and the fact that he knows it (the book is very show-offish in places) takes nothing away from his achievement.

This is the sort of novel that lends itself to inverse snobbery; it’s easy to make fun of it, to read bloated passages out to friends, to hold it up as an example of everything that’s wrong with Booker Prize contenders. But Cloud Atlas is something else too -- it’s an enormously ambitious work that isn’t afraid to risk overreaching itself; it often stumbles, recovers, falls again, picks itself up, brushes itself off and starts all over again; and in the midst of all this occasionally achieves things that would have been impossible if it hadn’t aimed so high.

Which, naturally, means this isn’t an unqualified endorsement. You need, first, to have a lot of time for intense, dedicated reading. And you’ll have to, at least temporarily, put aside any reservations you might have about ‘pretentious’ writing (yes, that’s subjective, but whatever your definition of the word it’ll apply to this book). You have to be willing to plough through bombast to get to the really good stuff. And even then, you might conclude that you admired it a lot more than you actually enjoyed reading it. Speaking for myself, having dealt with the whole behemoth, I’m going back to some of the individual stories. Reading them at one go might be more fun.

- November 2004


  1. Cloud Atlas is indeed difficult. But six good stories in one novel is very impressive- great imagination. Though all are quite consistent in quality, "the Ghastly Ordeal" is perhaps the best and least pretentious of the lot. Found it very enjoyable. But I just don't understand why he added the silly birthmark/re-incarnation angle. Just to receive extra flak?

  2. Cloud Atlas is a triumph and thoroughly enjoyable. The format, skipping forward then back through time, is bold and original and works well to complement the underlying theme of the book; that although the oppressive and predatory nature of human beings may ultimately lead to our destruction, there is a good in human beings that will remain through the ages, struggling to make the world a better place. I found the links between the characters rather hazy, but the suggestion of reincarnation of the characters is intriguing. The cynical, dark humour employed by Mitchell is brilliant, utilised particularly successfully in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish". I advise everyone to pick up this book and start reading, you might just learn something.


  3. Didn't think much to Cloud Atlas. Most of the stories are clichéd and derivative of other works (especially the Noir/detective and Somni's sci-fi stories). The funny thing is that Mitchell is fully aware that his individual stories are unoriginal (he even points it out several times in the book). So he did it on purpose; he may well want me to think that it is the structure of the overall book that matters, rather then the originality of the stories, but I'm not buying that. Mitchell is indeed versatile, but why should I bother with his derivative tales, when I could just as well enjoy the better, original stories that influenced him?

  4. This is one author where, even after reading 3 books now (Cloud Atlas, Number9dream and ghostwritten), am undecided whether they are good or not.

    He definitely has his strong (and I mean really strong) points - Daring and Experimental style, Amazingly smooth flow in the narratives, seamless transition in narratives etc., I feel he distinctly lacks a stiry to tell. He may do better if he focuses on a single story or style or at most 2 (like Murakami).

    But yes, he is still only a decade old and am looking forward to his later works as I feel he has a lot to offer.