This book is Exhibit A in weird marketing. Its fuschia and metallic-blue cover is misleading; its relatively slim size is misleading – everything it claims ostensibly to be, it is not. A few posts back, I referred to David Mitchell’s prose in this book as ‘smug’ without having even read it, and I assumed it would be so because of all the gushing praise I’d heard about it. Oh yes, I was a cynic – and I can’t say I’ve been entirely convinced of Mitchell’s ‘genius’. What I can say is if you can pause for a moment and consider Cloud Atlas as anything other than the pompous brainchild of a writer who likes immensely to pretend at cleverness, then you’ll be able to appreciate it for all its charm – and yes – its cleverness.
Okay, now the gushing praise begins. The thing I love most about this book isn’t that it is perfect, flawless etc etc, but that it maketh me think. I love that it is layered, not only in structure, but in meaning. At times, Mitchell makes himself visible from behind his wall of prose and presents his opinions on metaphysics and the artistic value of literature. I think to myself ‘puh-leez‘ at those times, but most of the time he is well-behaved and very subtle. Also, Cloud Atlas is no Soul Mountain, because nothing could be more intangible and fleeting and volatile than Soul Mountain, but there is certainly an elegant, yet playful, ethereal & dreamlike quality to its structure.
I’ll admit that I had my reservations about the structure when I first heard about it. I’ve long been fascinated by matryoshka dolls – i.e. those Russian nesting dolls – but how can you not be deeply suspicious about a novel which claims to have six (almost completely) unrelated narratives halved and arranged symmetrically in one book? Of course, now that I’ve read the book, I see that it’s not even remotely like a set of matryoshka dolls – although Mitchell seems to think it is:
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future
– Isaac Sachs in Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery
(Since then, I’ve learnt that Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller was the actual inspiration behind Cloud Atlas’ strange structure)
but more like clouds crossing skies, to quote another of Mitchell’s characters. It irks me that Mitchell feels the need to explain himself/the novel throughout the entire thing, but at the same time, I also appreciated the insights. For instance, I’m pretty thick-headed, but I didn’t realise the characters were reincarnations until Mitchell pointed it out in one of the later stories- very overtly, too. I’d assumed they were somehow related (as in, through family ties), but turns out they are reincarnate versions of each other.
Says Mitchell of his own clever little characters:
All of the [leading] characters except one are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark. … The “cloud” refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the “atlas”, which is the fixed human nature… The book’s theme is predacity … individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations
The quote above is from Wikipedia (of all the reliable sources in the world) but Cloud Atlas is pretty much doused in a liberal sprinkling of this sort of thing, thinly veiled as dialogue, or whatever.
On the whole, Mitchell’s writing is witty and light-hearted, though perhaps a little smug. His excursions into ‘experamentative writing’ aren’t exactly what one would call revolutionary, but he does transcend the usual boundaries of genre, time, language, etc. At times, it did feel as though Mitchell reached out of the book, grabbed my brain and gave it a solid shake – particularly in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, when the protagonist of that story (an editor) received the manuscript of the previous story in his mail. It caught me completely off-guard, and my my thought trail went from linear to mobius-strip, trying to figure out what the three previous interlocked narratives became, if one of them was purely fictional. All of a sudden, Cloud Atlas was not merely a set of interlocking narratives, but the story of fictional characters reading about and creating fictional characters in other peoples’ fictions.
Unfortunately, while this was quite clever of Mitchell, it was also precisely the point where the entire book began to fall apart. The first few narratives until then were fascinating, and were quite masterfully interwoven. Then, a little while after I had recovered from the shock of fictions within fictions within fictions, Mitchell finally broke the fourth wall. In a completely lame way, might I add?
pg 164: I opened my briefcase for a bag of Werner’s toffees but came up with Half-Lives. I leafed through its first few pages. It would be a better book if Hilary V. Hush weren’t so artsily-fartsily clever.
That was the first disappointment; the first inserted half-joking, trying-hard-to-be-casual defensive commentary on his own writing (they increased in frequency after this). Afterwards came An Orison of Sonmi~451, a dystopian story set in Korea, which I quite liked despite my not normally being a fan of dystopian fiction. What I didn’t like was the post-apocalyptic piece that came afterwards, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After where through th’ hole story M’tchill rote words funny – like Ha-Why instea’ o’ Hawaii an’ Hole World instea’ o’ Whole World – n’ thought it ter’bly clever to speak jus’ loike a pos’-Fallen bogen [transl: “where throughout the entire story Mitchell spelt words funny, and thought it terribly clever to speak just like a post-apocalyptic bogan”]. Hold on, luckily for me, Sloosha’s Crossin’ finished and it was back to Sonmi~451. And after that, the story progressed rapidly, rather like falling dominoes; I was so caught up in the story that I almost missed my bus stop. Going uphill is harder work than running downhill, and to be sure, the first half of the novel was more of an effort to read than the second. By the second half, I was familiar with the characters and with Mitchell’s style, and it was smooth sailing. (Do I find it funny that I always complain about writers using cliches, when I use so many of them myself? Why yes, I do)
It’s an ambitious book, to be sure, and the execution was far from perfect. Yet that didn’t matter much to me, because Mitchell was never too serious with himself. Cloud Atlas is stylish because it’s playful. In structure, in tone, in plot. There are so many moments where I literally LOLed, because he’d used some cliche plot device when I was least expecting it. A small example: in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (my least favourite of the narratives), Cavendish has this total schmexy fantasy about a hotel encounter with Hilary V. Hush, the author of Half-Lives, only to find that Hilary ‘Vincent’ Hush is some obese man. Although I normally grumble about these sorts of cheap writers’ tricks, I quite liked how every story had an unexpected surprise at the end, and I quite liked how the stories flowed seamlessly into each other.