David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Is it a scam, I wonder, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas?

No, of course I don't mean that, or not exactly, but I'm a little worried that at heart, this celebrated novel is really no more than a more narratively complicated Da Vinci Code. Am I crazy for saying this? Is it blasphemous?

Admittedly, I had a wonderful time reading Cloud Atlas: I don't know that I'd call it hallucinogenic, one of the lazy reviewer's go-to descriptors, but it wasn't easy to put down, and images and scenes kept floating into mind throughout my days with this novel. The thematics fascinated me, the way that the novel emphasizes humanity's ascendance to have occurred so rapidly, in only a few centuries, and to have fallen so rapidly and completely as well. And it's important to recognize that the nested stories aren't a gimmick, or aren't entirely gimmicky, because you lose something when you read them one at a time, without the interruptions.

(I can say this definitively, about the nested stories. A friend in the book club asked me to, so I read each story completely before starting the next one; for me it was six consecutive linked stories, rather than five interrupted stories wrapped around "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After." You miss lots of the interlinked references, because throwaway lines turn out to have been foretellings or echoes or rosary beads, so to speak.)

Maybe I'm just bitter. Is there a form of schadenfreude that fits the case of being proved right that the world's going to hell? Suzukifreude or something: I'm often angry just at the bare presence of so damned much asphalt in the world, for example, so on the one hand I'm gratified to see the world depicted as doomed to what Mitchell calls "deadlanding" in the section entitled "An Orison of Sonmi-451." On the other hand, if we're doomed, where would the joy be in being right about that? Plus it's fiction, so it proves nothing. "Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong" is the title of William Gibson's current interview in Wired: "if you’re not getting it wrong really a lot when you’re creating imaginary futures, then you’re just not doing it enough."

Or maybe I'm bitter that the novel's form works out so well, that it's only kneejerk jealousy driving me to wonder if it's just too formulaic. Early reviews were laudatory, appearing in serious publications under the byline of serious writers, so who am I to doubt AS Byatt when she calls it "powerful and elegant," even "delicious"? I know, I know, every reader creates a world entire inside the frame of one's own skull, and -- misunderstandings aside -- every reader is every other reader's equal, but it's a lot more encouraging when I can find reviewers sharing my doubts.

If I have doubts. I never slowed down reading this book, and it's not that I found it over-complicated or pretentious or anything else: honestly, I enjoyed the experience, and I could imagine reading it again to see what I missed. Something about it, though, has me doubting the experience, and I haven't been able to let that sensation go. I wish I could.

Side note: After premiering at TIFF, the movie's opening widely in October, so you may want to watch the trailer. Tom Hanks is in a key starring role, but I SWEAR that's not what made me think of The Da Vinci Code....

Closing side note: here's a geeked-out review of the Cloud Atlas film script. Awesome doesn't begin to describe it.


theresa said…
Interesting, the notion of reading each of the stories separately. I found the middle bit out of kilter, somehow. It wasn't enough of a heart to be at the heart of the novel, if that makes sense. And yet what wrapped around that was often exhilarating. And innovative, structurally.
Fraze said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fraze said…
Okay, post-book-club, I think I've figured out the thing here. Why there's so much disagreement.

The structure of the novel is somewhat experimental. Not vastly experimental, but somewhat. And our reactions to that are coloured by how we feel about experimental structures.

If we've never read anything experimental, then the book is avante garde and startling and remarkable, and it works quite well despite all that. The wonder of the new structure complements the stories and the sense of embeddedness seems thematically brilliant, like the first time I saw Pulp Fiction.

If we have a bit more experience with experimental structures, then maybe we're not as impressed by the embedded pyramid of stories: we enjoy the work, but we aren't as affected by the new organization. We don't dislike it — it's just not that big a deal.

And here's the third group, which is the one that was throwing me off until I had this insight. If you're a writer then you have seen a bit of experimental structure before, but you have never seen it work so well. This book has actually used an experimental structural technique, and succeeded! The stories have all been tweaked to work in the context of the pyramid, and it's masterfully done. You're excited by what has been accomplished; it expands your own possibilities, enlarges the field of play for your own work.

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