Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (2004)


"Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books...? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. 'Admire me, for I am a metaphor.'"

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell is a travelogue being read by a composer whose letters are received by a scientist who is murdered in a mystery novel that is published by an editor whose memoir is turned into a movie that is watched by a clone in the future whose testimony becomes a historical document that inspires a religion after the apocalypse. It is complex, wide, and at many times very satisfying - humourously, poignantly, and tragically - but it appears, too often, to be a very long and unnecessarily contorted piece of literature into which the author can insert such philosophic assertions as the one above - many more of which exist, and, as it can be seen, are even grander and more wider-ranging:

"All those [boys] jammed like pilchards in cemeteries throughout eastern France, western Belgium, beyond. We cut a pack of cards called historical context - our generation... cut tens, jacks, and queens. [Theirs] cut threes, fours, and fives. That's all."

Although the book is well written, its philosophical musings perceptive, and possessed generally of a multitude of engaging moments, it feels like something written deliberately for Oprah's Book Club. These philosophical moments, which - owing to the fact that the book has no central plot line or premise other than the vague and supposedly profound wisdom that runs through it - are the very core of the book's wholeness and being, are presented to us in such a way - viz., intricately vocalized and explained, rather than revealed - that they lose most of their force. We are not ushered into wisdom, but, especially in the later chapters, have it beaten into our heads.

"People b'lief the world is built so and tellin 'em it ain't so caves the roofs on their heads'n'maybe yours."

The book is also fundamentally marred by its "apex" structure. The narrative is broken into six voices, and these voices appear - and the story is told - in the structure A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A. I actually find this structure new, and interesting in theory; but in practice it was very annoying. After finishing the first three sections of the book, I thought that Mitchell had put together a tome of cliff-hangars. Flipping forward, I perceived the structure and decided to finish the book. Suffice to say, this is not how a book should feel. In my opinion, at least, one should be driven towards the ending, not frustrated for its lack of them. But that's not all: the actual endings - the descent from F back to A - was not very climactic or exciting. The stories wrapped up, but their endings were not very spectacular. They just kind of dribbled away, the holes filled with - yes, you've got it now - burbles of wisdom.

"The media... is where democracies conduct their civil wars."

"Cloud Atlas" is an interesting book, and not without merit. But it is a very long book, in my opinion (500 pages), for a theoretical / experimental lark, and one that ultimately fails to deliver really, comprehensively interesting characters and stories - instead patching those holes with maxims that seem designed for consumption by those whose deepest thinking must be done by others.

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