Friday, August 13, 2004

Review: Cloud Atlas

I remember the first I ever heard of David Mitchell was when a friend of mine came back from touring europe with a copy of Mitchell's second novel, number9dream before it was released in the U.S. Well, he told me I had to read it. I loved it—lyrical, exciting, and intelligent. The novel went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I went back to read his first novel, Ghostwritten, and while I enjoyed it, it had it's failings. I thought number9dream while in no way a perfect book, was an improvemnt. When I first heard about his third novel, Cloud Atlas, I was both excited and anxious at the same time. I was excited for the obvious reasons—I love this guy's smart, almost poetic, yet clear writing. I was anxious because it sounded a lot like Ghostwritten in its structure (in that it is comprised of separate but intertwined stories about diverse people), which I thought was Ghostwritten's biggest failing. So what did I ultimately think about Cloud Atlas?

It's the best of both worlds as Mitchell's most ambitious and polished work to date. Instead of the loosely related, chronolocigally concurrent stories of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas uses stories that are temporally dispersed, instead of just geographically so, and for the most part Mitchell manages to avoid the biggest fault of Ghostwritten, the stories all have a powerful and recognizable impact on their flanking stories without seeming so contrived it takes away from the story. The story of an American Notary crossing the Pacific in the 1860's has an impact on the story (not just plot-wise, but thematically was well) of a Belgian composer in the 1930's which effects the story of the 1975 story of a Californian investigative journalist who recurs in the next story of an elderly editor in conteporary London who has an influence on the story of a Korean genetically engineered slave in the near future who in turn figues prominently in the central, post-apocalyptic world of young Hawaiian tribesman. However, let me sneak in a word on the novel's structure: unline Ghostwritten, in which each story was told in its entirety at once, each story in Cloud Atlas is divided right down the middle into two halves. The first half of each story is told in ascending chronological order. Then, when we get to the post-apocalyptic story, it is told in its entirety before the other five stories finish themselves up in reverse chronological order. Hence, we start in the 1860's, and we end in the 1860's. Each story is nested inside the chronologically earlier ones, and each contain the chronologically later ones inside. This structure is in no way a mere gimmick. Mitchell uses it to produce quite an effect.

During the chronologically progressive first half of the stories, Michell begins to unfold for the reader that what is happening in each story is contributing, seemingly inexoriably, to the bleak future of mankind. Mitchell seems to say that, given the prevalent greed in human nature, that's where we're going to end up, no matter what. Hence, he sets up the theme that figures so prominently in the end of Ghostwritten: the role of human agency in the face of the seemingly contradictory facts of human nature. However, nothing in any of Mitchell's novels is quite that simple. As the stories begin to unwind, we begin to see the role choice has played in all this, and we see the hope for mankind's future that each story's second half produces after the seeming condemnation of the first half of the book. We get to see the impact each character's life has on the lives of the other characters. It's something of a surreal experience to read.

Now, I also said that Cloud Atlas Also includes the best parts of number9dream. While the overall structure and driving force of the novel is descended from Ghostwritten, the novel's lighter, more playful side descends from number9dream. Like Mitchell's second novel, Cloud Atlas is very playful as far as what is real and what isn't. Again, it's up to the reader to decide what to believe and how exactly each episode relates to those other episodes surrounding it, and then what kind of impact that level of reality in that story has on the novel as a whole. It also incorporates the exciting aura of Mitchells narration and language found in number9dream along with philosophical moments that are out of place in the real world, but fit right into the context of Mitchell's novel as they do into the works of Don Delillo. We also get the depth of character in at least four out of these six stories that we get with Eji in number9dream that Ghostwritten didn't have time for. These characters have history, emotion, vulnerability, and the ability to adapt and change.

It's these literary hijinx that turned off many average readers to number9dream but that also got it shortlisted for the Booker. My recommendation? It's a FREAKING NOVEL. Let it be; let it tickle your brain; don't judge it's realism based on the standards of George Eliot. You'll be missing out on ever so much fun. Think of it as going to the circus: everyone likes watching the acrobats. David Mitchell is often a literary acrobat—it isn't something you see in everyday life, but it's sure fun to watch. Just flow with them—let them enrich your understanding of what Mitchell is trying to create without getting hung up on the thought that "I don't believe this." People seem quite willing to suspend belief for The Matrix, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings, but they get hung up on a literary novel.

Is this the greatest novel ever? No. As you can see, I give it four stars. It's amazing, and I wouldn't be saddened to see it get nominated for (or win) the next Booker, but Mitchell has not yet written his masterpiece. Often, he still comes across as heavy-handed, especially in his criticism of colonialism (massive running theme) and human nature. (For him, they are rather blurred together—something he tends to do much more often than many other British Post-Colonialist writers.) Also, occasionally he telegraphs a plot twist, gives us a not-quite-satisfying climax, or wraps up a story a little too quickly. These faults are most evident in the sixth story, but they occasionally become evident in almost every story to some extent with the notable exception of the story of the Belgian composer (this is the story that really ties the whole novel together, and is probably the single best thing Mitchell has ever written).

But overall, I highly recommend this book to previous Mitchell fans—it's definately his most well-rounded book—and I would also recommend this to fans of authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Don Delillo, Salman Rushdie, and others of their ilk. If you didn't much care for either of Mitchell's books, I don't really think it'll change your opinion.


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