Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cloud Atlas

It’s always nice to have that happy chance of reading a book that speaks to questions and concerns of another book I’ve just read. In this case, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) forefronts themes of destruction within human nature that echo McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—though between the two of them I’ve read more than enough quotes from Nietzsche to do me good for a while. Mitchell’s perspective offers a little more sunlight than McCarthy’s: whereas even the kid’s ever-so-small amount of resistance to violence was impossible, in Mitchell’s multiple storylines violence and benevolence are both possible outcomes that could occur in any encounter.

Cloud Atlas takes the form of a set of six stories nested within another, each historically distinct and chronologically arranged: you begin reading the oldest narrative, a mid-19th century travel journal recounting a trans-Pacific voyage, move on to a set of letters from 1930s, a 1970s mystery novel, a contemporary comedy, an official trial holographic record from the future, and, beyond that, an oral tale told several generations after civilization has destroyed itself and humanity has returned to tribalism. Each story, then, takes a genre appropriate to the historical moment it portrays. Also, the embedding of the stories works both ways: as a reader you work from the oldest story to the one furthest in the future, and then back out again as you read the second half of each narrative, but structurally it is the furthest future narrative that contains the rest. The narrator in the tribal future still has the hologram as an artifact and shows it to others; the protagonist of the hologram has seen a film version of the comedy; the elderly publisher in the comedy is thinking of publishing the mystery; and so on. What the narratives continually return to is the question of exploiting others versus adopting a more generous ethics, and whether violence is the dominant historical force.

Structurally and conceptually this seems like just the kind of thing that would appeal to me, and I had been looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas for some time now. So I hate to say it, but: a pretty hefty chunk of the book is just boring. The first half, in particular, is increasingly dull: the Louisa Rey mystery and the comedy are excruciating, with the mystery coming off as written by someone who is bored with the conventions of the genre but can’t bring himself to liven it up or even satirize it. The oral tale in the tribal future unfolds well, but the attempt at creating a dialect is overdone with apostrophes for excluded syllables—a few of those tend to go a long way, so when almost every word has an excluded syllable it gets a bit precious.

Not all is lost: the second halves of the narratives are better than the first, and the 1930s “Letters from Zedelghem” are often beautiful: Mitchell manages to evoke a deep relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith despite providing only Frobisher’s side of the correspondence. Still, for as long a book as this, I’m not sure the payoff sufficiently rewards the effort.

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