January 03, 2006

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Book review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I have a rule when reading books - if I'm not enjoying it after the first 100 pages, I put it down. It drives Mrs M crazy - she's a read it to the bitter end kind of gal - but if the first 100 pages aren't good, there's unlikely to be a good 400 pages to follow. And for the rare time that is the case, it's a risk I'm prepared to run.

What's this got to do with Cloud Atlas? It is one of those books that flirts with disaster, wearing its artifice on its sleeve. It is a series of six novellas, the first telling the sea voyage of a young American notary in the 19th Century, jumping to the letters of an early 20th Century musician, followed by a political/murder mystery, the delightfully titled "Ghastly Ordeal" of a minor English book publisher, jumps to the near future and then further future before working its way back in reverse order. Sound confusing? Each of the novellas are stories in their own right but with occassional links to stories forward and back. The book takes some time to get into, although it is easy to read and never impenetrable. At the start it feels slight but the pace quickens and the inventiveness kicks in...safely before page 100. There are some literary wonders to behold - the switching of voice and style six times mostly works, but this book is not one to read now and again over several months. While you can pick up the threads of stories as you return to them, it is a book best taken in quickly.

While watching this tight-rope balancing act, the author uses that oh-so-post-modern irony to reflect on the artifice involved, and does so several times. Its the stage wink in written form, a hint from the author that he knows he's showing off. In lesser hands it would come across as trite and contrived, but Mitchell has created a collection where the sum is greater than the parts. It's a book that covers grand themes so often told: alienation, the search for truth, a questioning of our reality and existence, our ability to impact events even as a small cog in a big wheel, to name a few.

There are very few forms of entertainment today that truly satisfy in any medium. There's plenty of content, but not much that you finish and sit there and think that it was worth the time and money involved. Cloud Atlas is worth both the time and money. It's one of those books that you anticipate with glee, enjoy as you read it, and close with a satisfied smile but with a tinge of disappointment - because such good reads are hard to find.

posted by Simon on 01.03.06 at 05:48 PM in the Reviews category.


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I actually didn't finish it, as it kept starting over & all the parts weren't equally interesting. The danger with this approach is things begin to seem random. Unlike, say, Calvino's If on a Winter Night a Traveller...

posted by: beautifulatrocities on 01.04.06 at 12:28 PM [permalink]

I thought Mitchell dealt with that rather well - each story was easy to pick up again after a page or two. I agree some parts were not as strong as others, but it's also coloured by what genres you prefer. He jumped between 4 genres and 6 styles. You can either view it as jarring or refreshing.

I'll take a look at that other book.

posted by: Simon on 01.04.06 at 02:24 PM [permalink]

The fractured narrative is in vogue, but it's difficult to pull off, because you keep losing fwd momentum, & the risk is you lose the readers/viewers attn. Wong Kar Wai is infamous for this, & I find his films gorgeous but inert. You might like Calvino, who manages to be cerebral & playful at the same time (unlike, say, Wong Kar Wai, who takes himself way too seriously, & seems to be sitting behind you kicking your chair to make sure you catch all the profound bits)

Excerpt from If on a Winter's Night a Traveller...

posted by: beautifulatrocities on 01.04.06 at 02:56 PM [permalink]

Talking of Wong Kar Wai, I see he's now threatening to make a movie with an actual plot!

posted by: beautifulatrocities on 01.04.06 at 11:59 PM [permalink]

I loved that book when I read it a few months ago. I pushed it to all of my friends. Strangely, most did not like it - my wife didn't like it much either. But I really felt it was a true work of genius. As you say, it is a showcase for the author's virtuosity, and in lesser hands it would have failed (or have been thrown off the roof of a building...). But the deliciously vicious characters of Frobisher and Cavendish, the Doctor, and some of the characters in the Orison and in the Luisa Rey story were all so well done and entertaining.

I considered what it meant after I had finished it - and above all, to me, it seemed to say that our ideas of civilization, or lack thereof, are incredibly subjective and should really be seen, or attempted to be seen, from a different perspective. I thought the device tying the stories together - mostly some sort of recollection or diary that falls into the hands of the next protagonist - was so effective from that perspective.

The fact that Frobisher, for instance, sees immediately that the Doctor was poisoning the first character (can't remember his name, was it Ewing), when it had not been obvious to me, also demonstrated that there is a certain universality to base human motivations that can be identified across the ages, especially by someone that experiences them himself!

Would love to chat at greater length at some point with you, because due to the
fact that the book does leave one without a true sense of closure...

posted by: HK Dave on 01.05.06 at 08:32 PM [permalink]

He's going to chair the Cannes Jury! Wong Kar Wai, I mean, not Dave or Jeff.

posted by: Simon on 01.06.06 at 08:44 AM [permalink]

When you attempt an attack by converging columns, you risk defeat in detail.

posted by: triticale on 01.06.06 at 02:56 PM [permalink]

Oh, the Euros LOVE Wong Kar Wai! My name is still mud in certain circles because several years ago I read a couple of raves for Happy Together, & was foolish enough to drag not one but a large group of people off to see this work of genius. They began looking at me at some point in the movie, & I slunk into my chair. Like all his films, it's slooooooooooow.

I was intrigued by 2046, & rented it. For the first 20 or so minutes, I was mesmerized by the visual style alone, the lighting, the color, the compositions. But then it just turns into another inert film about uninteresting & unsympathetic people (like Woody Allen in a maudlin moment)

posted by: beautifulatrocities on 01.07.06 at 10:37 AM [permalink]

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