Saturday, November 24, 2012

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Behind the times as usual, I first heard of David Mitchell's 2004 novel last month, apropos of the upcoming movie. I checked my library and discovered that all of the copies were out and also spoken for on their eventual return. I was so intrigued by what I had read that I ordered myself a copy, the first novel I have bought in years. My paperback copy arrived with a whole section of rave notices calling it "astonishing," "miraculous," "wonderful," and so on. I eagerly opened it and began to read.

Cloud Atlas is a highly structured experiment, an attempt to arrange disparate tales told in different voices into a semi-coherent whole. The theme seems to be how human actions and choices matter to the course of history. There are six tales, which we first encounter in chronological order and then the reverse, so 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. The first is set in the mid nineteenth century, followed by one in 1931, one in the 1970s, one in the 1990s, and then two in the future.  One is a journal, one a group of letters, one an interview, one an oral performance, one a first person narration, and one third-person omniscient. There is always a small connection between each and the next, although these connections did not really strike me as relevant or important.

Some of the voices really are quite wonderful. I enjoyed the letters of a rakish composer chased out of England by debt collectors, producing his masterpiece in a troubled exile, and I loved the two future pieces. The nineteenth-century journal was tedious, perhaps because in some ways it was too authentic to the genre of a nineteenth-century travel journal. The two more standard pieces, those from the late twentieth century, are dismal. I hated both of them. They are, as somebody in one of the stories comments, like bad movie scripts, with cardboard villains doing eeeeeevil deeds for no particular reason. One of them is the hinge of the story, too, showing most concretely how one person's actions can change the whole future. Since Mitchell is said to be such a sophisticated writer, this must have been intentional; but why? Perhaps it was an attempt by Mitchell to distance himself from the book's surface moral, which amounts to "do good and the world will end up better."

In the end I felt about this book as I do about most such experiments. What is valuable in Cloud Atlas has nothing to do with the showy structural games, the narrative tricks, the carefully planted connections between one tale and the next. The good parts are good for the traditional reasons: they are well-written stories about well-developed characters doing interesting things in a well-described and morally complex world. The rest is window dressing.

If you are science fiction fan I recommend getting a copy when it reappears in your library and reading the two parts of "An Orison of Sonmi-451," the best sci-fi novella I have read in years. You might also give "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" a try, if the narrator's dialect doesn't bother you. But I would skip the rest.

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