This one was a recommendation. I’d heard of it, but I had no strong yen to read it till it was thrust upon me. And now, I guess, it’s a film that sounds entertaining, if not particularly good. Of course, that describes 90% of what I go to see in the cinema so I’ll probably end up watching it (plus the Wachowskis have infinite credit with me for making what was, for a time, my favourite movie ever — hint: it’s not Speed Racer). Anyway… The book. Yes.
David Mitchell writes six sandwiched stories (mmm…story sandwich) transversing something like a thousand years from 1850 to a difficult-to-pin-down time somewhere in the future. In fact, it occurs to me that the structure is the same as that of The Wind Through the Keyhole (which I reviewed recently), though with a further three layers on either end. The first story, set in the 19th century, takes place on the Pacific — a notary travelling from Australasia to America must deal with a rowdy ship’s crew, a stowaway, and a parasitic doctor as islands are visited and adventures are had. The second is set in the interbellum years of the 20th century — a bohemian wastrel sees an opportunity to gain fame and fortune as the amanuensis of a reclusive musical genius. The third is set in 1970s America — a resourceful and courageous young journalist seeks to expose the truth behind a cover-up at a nuclear power facility. In the fourth, set in modern day England, an incompetent publisher on the run from the mob unwittingly ends up in a seemingly inescapable nursing home. The fifth is set in a hyper-corporate dystopian future in which psychologically constrained clones constitute the base of a capitalist hierarchy. The main character in this, Sonmi-451, is one such clone, extracted from her job at a McDonald’s-a-like, who blooms when rescued by revolutionaries and brought to a university. Given my SF leanings, it is perhaps unsurprising that this story was by far my favourite. The sixth is set further into the future again, when man-made environmental disasters have all but wiped out technologically advanced society. This story is set on one of the Hawai’ian islands. An outsider with access to seemingly magical abilities arrives to do a little exploring and anthropologising. She is assisted by a young man from a peaceful tribe — a tribe that must struggle to survive in a world where aggression is the norm. This story is the fulcrum of the novel. Following it is the latter half of each of the tales that we have previously encountered, until, eventually, we return to the 19th century for the conclusion of the tale that opened the novel.
Mitchell does a great job of writing in a distinctive style and tone within each of the stories. I particularly liked the noir feel of the journalist’s story, which contrasts sharply with the farcical flavour of its successor, and equally sharply with the upper-class manners of its predecessor. Given that this is supposed to be a novel, however, rather than a collection of stylistically disparate stories, it seems unfortunate that this stylistic disparity hindered my experience of the book as a gestalt. There were some light-touch thematic connections that transcended any one story, but in the absence of stylistic continuity, I would, at least, have liked some narrative continuity. There were a couple of easily discernible links between each story (e.g., the amanuensis’ lover in the second story is an assassinated physicist in the third), but these are few and tenuous and felt a bit arbitrary — just something to point to so that Mitchell could say “See! It is, too, a coherent narrative”. Perhaps the strongest sense of connection is between the future-set tales, where there is a clear extrapolation of environmental disaster to the post-apocalyptic setting in which the final story takes place. Essentially, I read the ‘novel’ as a sequence of highly enjoyable, but fundamentally disconnected, short stories.
As a succession of well-written genre pieces, Cloud Atlas relies on its structure to raise it to the status of high literature, but that structure feels a little too much like a self-indulgent experiment. It has both substance and style aplenty, but, unfortunately, the two have very little to do with one another.