By David Mitchell
I knew nothing about author or book until earlier this year when a friend (actually a couple, so do I say “a couple friend” in terms of them as a single unit?) voluntarily lent me Cloud Atlas with a high recommendation.
Yet I couldn't get past the first 30 pages or so, wondering if the entire novel was going to be about some 19th century American notary stuck in the South Pacific. I took a peak on the internets and became suspicious this was going to be another one of those epic stories about the interconnectedness of humanity that transcends geography and time. It sat unread on my bedside table for months. At some point I admitted having difficulty to one-half of said couple friend, who then assured me to stick with it - it’ll get better. So I gave it another go. Thankfully, she was right.
But as soon as I was starting to get quite absorbed by “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, it abruptly ends in mid-sentence! WTF?! And then it launches into a series of letters from a dropout music student who shacks up with a reclusive composer he admires in pre-WW2 Belgium. This section had some moments of pure comic genius. When Frobisher attempts to impress the miserly composer by playing Chopin on the piano, I couldn’t help but LOL when Ayrs interrupts with a whiny, “Trying to slip my petticoats off my ankles, Frobisher?”
It didn’t take me long to realize that this David Mitchell guy can really write or figure out what he’s trying to accomplish by jumping around in time and dabbling in different voices, style and genre. The entire novel is a tour de force of virtuoso writing, which is part of Cloud Atlas’ appeal but ironically, also its shortcoming. As one NY Times critic notes: “It is not unheard of for a novelist of exceptional talent to write a deliberately difficult book.”
Like some of those recent overrated movies (the horrid Crash, Babel, etc.) that portray seemingly disconnected people from disparate places and races who are somehow linked by some meaningfully profound commonality, when it boils down to it, is a conceit whose ultimate purpose is to showcase complexity in the service of talent. Cloud Atlas is pretty much the literary version of this. I mean, all the characters, though they live centuries apart, share similar circumstances and, get this, a comet-shaped birthmark! And yet Mitchell almost gets away with it (yes, he is that talented!).
I must confess that I only quickly skimmed the middle sections “An Orison of Sonmi~451” (an interview with an upstart cloned human or 'fabricant' in dystopian Korea before her execution) and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (a post-apocalyptic yarn about a Hawaiian goat herder whose tribe comes across the inspirational recording of Sonmi’s testimony). Though it may be a feat of genre-bending creative writing, 'twas a bit difficult losin' myself in the narrative and I wasn't in the mood to make a mental effort. I kept recalling one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction:
“Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop.”
Others may beg to differ and argue that the spec-fi/sci-fi sections are sheer poetry, so it’s likely I’m just a conservative (and lazy) reader at heart. Writers like AS Byatt absolutely adored every word in Cloud Atlas - perhaps Mitchell is more of a writer’s writer than a reader’s writer?
On the other hand, I very much enjoyed “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”. With Luisa Rey, Mitchell skillfully uses clichéd noir prose to tell a familiar tale of a plucky young journalist who uncovers corporate greed and conspiracy in Nixon-era California. With Timothy Cavendish, we have a hapless vanity publisher who’s like an evolved version of Ignatius Reilly, trapped in an old folk’s home presided over by a Nurse Ratchett-like figure.
Cloud Atlas proved to be quite a wonderful treat, but it wasn't exactly a cohesive work. Although the disparate stories are linked by a unifying theme, it felt like the author constructed the framework to also showoff what he can do. But when it works, the story and characters can really fly off the page. Without a doubt Mitchell is a brilliant and clever writer (like a friendlier Christopher Priest who doesn't try to mess with the reader's head and annihilate structure) and I look forward to reading his other books. But I would only recommend Cloud Atlas to those who like unusual novels or writerly writers ;-)