Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cloud Atlas

People have been recommending this book to me for so long that it seemed inevitable that I would never get around to it. But then last fall my friend Edward forcibly lent me a copy--I found it in my mailbox at work--and, some months later, another friend spent twenty minutes of a car trip telling me how good it was. So I went to my office, got the book, and dug in.

The pleasures of this novel are many, as are my qualms about it. But the pleasures are great and the qualms are petty. It's really quite a masterful piece of work, with all of the qualifications that word unusual project of an unusual writer.

In case you haven't had the pleasure, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of nested novellas spanning several hundred years, from a recognizable past to a dystopian future. The novellas are connected in clever ways--primarily by theme, but also (successfully) by some interesting inter-textual shenanigans and (not so successfully) a series of identical birthmarks. Each novella is written in a drastically different style--there's a journal, a series of letters, a pulp mystery, a kind of neo-gothic comedy, a sci-fi story, and...well, I won't even bother trying to describe the last one. The stories are arranged in a kind of pyramid, each but the final one split into two, so that you get the first half of every story first, moving forward through time, and then the second half as you return to the past.

I tried to resist this novel: it is at times too didactic (especially the ending), too tricky, too virtuosic. But Mitchell is so good. I'm not terribly wild about the journal or mystery sections, but even those are executed with tremendous skill; the writer's ability to inhabit different characters, historical situations, and styles of language is simply incredible. Reading him, I kept hearing that line from Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," where the narrator is scolded by his friend for attempting to ape their wildly inventive teacher: "Don't you try to do it. You'll just sound like a jerk." It's hard for a writer to read this book--at times, Mitchell seems like a different species of creature entirely.

I guess my primary complaint with this novel is that it's all so arbitrary--the structure just seems like an excuse for Mitchell to show off his chops. But hell--I enjoyed pretty much every second of it, so who am I to complain? He's got a new one out, and a bunch of others I haven't read, so I'm going to dive in and see if Mitchell doesn't end up becoming my favorite new superhuman writer.


Levi Stahl said...

I felt much the same way when I read it recently (under very similar circumstances!). The arbitrariness bothered me more than perhaps it ought to have because, from the moment I first picked up the internal references from one story to another I was actively looking for their connections, hoping that they would offer some larger perspective or deeper connection. When I finished the book and realized that they hadn't, I was frustrated.

Anonymous said...

Yeah--I felt strongly as though, if he was going to go to the trouble to connect them, they should really be connected. And I still feel as though perhaps there's something I missed, that there are deeper connections he has intentionally buried. But I think that, ultimately, he just wanted to write a bunch of novellas.

Hugo Minor said...

Check out Mitchell's interview with the Paris Review in their latest issue. I read it in the Colgate library the last day of the conference. I have not read his work--I can't decide which book of his to start with!

Pete said...

I've heard here and elsewhere how masterfully structured the book is, which is fine - but what about the story itself? All the structural acrobatics in the world mean nothing if there's not a good story underneath.

Anonymous said...

It's not one story, but a bunch of different ones, and they are all quite compelling. The best of the bunch, in my view, is the series of letters from a destitute composer to his friend, who figures in the crime novel (which is not as good...indeed, it's the least impressive). It's a bit of a shame that the diary one comes first; it doesn't have a lot of narrative momentum. But keep at it.

Interestingly, I started reading the uncorrected proof version of this book, and ended up having to return it to its owner, and so finished reading it in a paperback copy I bought at a bookstore. And in the paperback, the first section ends in mid-sentence. But in the galley, it ends in mid-word.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Hugo Minor, I haven't read his other stuff yet, but reading this one first certainly has convinced me to go back and read the others.

Vistasp said...

Cloud Atlas is indeed a hugely inventive piece of work and even that sounds like a pathetic understatement. It's also the kind of superlative effort that is likely to make most authors (not readers, mind you) envious enough to suggest that he is a bit of a show-off. At the end of the day though, the work stands so masterfully on its own merit and so unlike anything one is likely to read, that it seems downright ridiculous when writers and critics just offer sort-of a grudging respect for this book.

And J, while the individual stories do measure up to the harshest scrutiny and could have worked as wonderful novellas, equally, there is undeniable skill in stringing all of them together and not making the reader feel even for a solitary moment that they don't belong there.

On my part, I can humbly count it amongst the most awe-inspiring and compelling pieces of fiction I have read in over half of decade. What I think will give it true and deserving respect and cult-status will be the passage of time.

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