March 7th, 2005


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Finished Cloud Atlas and lo, it was good. I'm not going to write a proper review, instead I'm going to hang my thoughts off those of some other people. Primarily Adam Roberts and his Arthur C Clarke Award roundup - as previously discussed here* - but kicking off with immortalradical's review.

immortalradical's verdict:
a big work, not quite as important as perhaps it may have been or wants to be, but beautifully written, timely, and one that picks Mitchell out as quite possibly one of the leading writers of his generation.
I would say it inarguably picks Mitchell out as one of the leading writers of his generation, there is no doubt he deserves his place on the Granta list. I don't believe Cloud Atlas is a book that wants to be important, though it is one that wants to be relevant and taken seriously. A novel that aspired to be important would not contain a character like Timothy Cavendish, "the funniest and in some ways best drawn narrator" who is nonetheless utterly superfluous. Roberts describes this as:
the weakest of the six stories, a winsome and clumsy story of an elderly publisher getting into improbable scrapes in the present-day and ending up incarcerated in a sort of malign asylum.
You can see his point but it is also unremittingly hilarious and (like the Frobisher sections) showcases Mitchell's throwaway wit. This playfulness leavens the suggestion of any earnestness in Mitchell's rejection of the will to power.

I agree with a lot of what Roberts says about the novel in general: the journey up the mountain is more pleasurable than that backdown; the tricksy ending to Sonmi-451's story is unconvincing; the Louisa Rey sections can be a little formulaic (possibly deliberately but that hardly matters to the reader); the final ending of the beginning/final story is very well done.

On Cloud Atlas as science fiction I find myself less in agreement. Of the first SF sections he says:
Written well in a Q&A format, there's nevertheless something quaintly old-fashioned about this SF: it reads as late 1960s agit-prop sf, rather worthy and obvious, but compelling nonetheless.
This "I liked it but I didn't want to" seems very much like the traditional grudging compliment paid to those who choose to stand outside the genre whilst using its protocols. It certainly doesn't seem any more obvious or old fashioned than the majority of contemporary science fiction. (More on SF as genre and style here.)

The central, far future story is a little familiar but surely, like happy families, all post-apocalyptic narratives resemble each other. Roberts takes issue that it is "written in a frankly second-hand pastiche of the idiom Russell Hoban created for his powerful 1980 novel Riddley Walker". I have yet to read Riddley Walker (it is on the List) so maybe I shouldn't comment but the use of dialect is an inevitability given the rest of the novel so it seems strange to praise one pastiche and lambast another. Further this dialect seems to be rooted more clearly in Mitchell's admiration of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Update: It behoves me to point out this article by Mitchell himself:
I owe a more specific debt to Mr Hoban, however. The central section of a novel I wrote called Cloud Atlas contains the narrative of a character called Zachry. This teenager witnesses the last spark of civilisation being snuffed out on a far-future Hawaii. Like the characters in the novel's other time zones, I wanted his narrative to use period speech. For this, I needed a dialect that was the result of decades of linguistic continental drift and was studded with onomatopoeia and puns. Zachry's voice is less hard-core and more Pacific than Riddleyspeak, but Mr Hoban's singular, visionary, ingenious, uncompromising, glorious, angelic and demonic novel sat on my shelf as evidence that what I wanted to do could be done, and as encouragement to keep going until I'd got it right. So, many happy returns and sincerest thanks to Mr Hoban and Riddley Walker, from Zachry Bailey and me.
Then comes the really contentious bit:
What is the novel saying? It is saying that Racism is Bad; that we ought to take Care of The Environment; that People Can Sometimes Oppress Others and Be Nasty To Them and that this, like Racism, is A Bad Thing. And above all it is saying that, although it may not appear so to a superficial analysis, in fact We Are All Connected In This, Like, Cosmic Oneness That Transcends Time and Space Or Something.
Roberts starts by taking Mitchell to task for writing a banal liberal apologia and morphs this into an accusation of hippy-ness. He doesn't object to them on political grounds so does Roberts simply believe such liberal sentiments are so self-evident that it is gauche to mention them? After all Cloud Atlas is a long way from being a blunt polemical. Is it the case, as I said at the beginning, that the book doesn't try hard enough to be Important?

That final sentence with its arch capitals and sarky structure seems confrontationally designed to irritate. Now Mitchell used the transmigration of souls as a literal device in Ghostwritten and his protagonists do share a common birthmark that looks - Age of Aquarius alert - like a comet. However I don't think Cloud Atlas is concerned with cosmic oneness but rather human oneness. That is the novel is a work of secular humanism. Accepting this we are back at the initial complaint but I'm still not exactly sure what that is.

So needless to say I cannot agree with his conclusion that "ultimately it is a slightly preachy, rather middlebrow entertainment." I don't think evidence of a social conscience is the same as being preachy and middlebrow is the worst insult in the critic's arsenal and really should be saved for appropriate targets like, oh, I don't know, Sebastian Faulks.

My own thoughts are much more in synch with Roberts' prelude to his closing line (though minus the typo):
Actually it is to Mitchell's credit as a writer that his formal gimmick does not become tiresome; that we read through his box-of-tricks fluently and rapidly. Cloud Nine is a very entertaining read, a book it's hard to put down, and one with many moments of beauty, insight and finesse.
On the Peake to Green Golux scale rate me peake.

* coalescent said he was taking a break from Livejournal for a while. What he meant was he was having a month long word enema that is now gushing out of his bumpipe.