Filed under: Literary Fiction, Reading Journal | Tags: book reviews, books, cloud atlas, david mitchell, literature, readalong
Last weekend The New York Times ran a review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The reviewer, Douglas Coupland, referenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example of a new type of literature that in a single novel crosses huge swathes of time and literary genre. Coupland writes:
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.
And yeah, that about gets at the heart of Cloud Atlas. I was passingly familiar with David Mitchell’s skill at literary ventriloquism, having read two of his novels, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, before starting this one. Swan and de Zoet are about as different in style and theme and place and time as two novels can be, so that it’s hard for me to imagine the same author wrote them. But Mitchell seems to do it so effortlessly – he seems as comfortable capturing the voice of a clerk living at a Japanese trading post at the turn of the 19th century as he does with a boy watching a neighbor heading off to fight in the Falkand Islands.
The first section of Cloud Atlas is the hardest to get through. It’s a short section of the 1850 Pacific diary of Adam Ewing, so we’re going with the antiquated speech patterns. Mitchell does it perfectly, of course, and by the time the section ends – abruptly, as if part of the diary has been lost – I was upset to see Ewing go. This is a trick that Mitchell pulls off again and again. The first half of the novel follows five stories (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher [1930s, young composer/layabout], Luisa Rey [1970s, journalist for a tabloid magazine, with her first lead for a real news story], Timothy Cavendish [a vanity publisher], and Somni ~451 [a fabricant – a clone – who has achieved consciousness]) and as each story comes to its sudden end – not conclusion, but simply end – I felt torn up again.
I’ve only read half of the novel, so I’m going to hold off making any judgements or guesses about what Mitchell is doing with this structure as a whole. What I’ll say for now is that it’s gorgeous and captivating, and that I totally get, now, why so many people have told me to read this book.
Mitchell connects the segments of the novel loosely. That diary of the first part is found by Robert Frobisher in the library of a composer he’s working for. Frobisher mentions the diary in one of the letters he writes to his friend Rupert Sixsmith, who turns up again as an old man meeting the reporter, Luisa Rey. Luisa Rey’s story appears next as a novel in the hands of the publisher, Cavendish, and Cavendish himself reappears when Somni ~451 describes having seen a film of the story we’ve just read. All the characters express some curiosity for the lives of the characters they read of, and they are also linked together by the prescence of a comet-shaped birthmark they all have. (This comet thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly artful, so I’m curious to see when it will reappear next, and what Mitchell is going to do with this thread.)
The publisher Timothy Cavendish writes:
England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.
That quote is, I think, as close as I can come to organizing my thoughts about the first half of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s characters interrupt and cross into one another’s lives. They seem marked by some sort of mission, by something they’re seeking: Ewing by the history of the Moriori; Rey by the coverup Sixsmith has told her about, that could be her first “real” story; Somni ~451 by the very ideas of consciousness and what distinguishes her from other clones and from humans. So far, though, they don’t appear to be searching for the same things. His characters do, however, take some comfort in the stories that have come before their own, so that a woman like Luisa Rey can read the decades-old letters sent to Sixsmith from Frobisher and find some suggestion of a life, and perhaps some commentary on her own life.
And, you know, that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Discussing books at the midpoint has never been my strong suit. I’m curious where Mitchell is taking things, how he is pulling everything together, and whether it’s going to become more clear (as he says in an interview quoted over at Care’s Book Club) that these characters are all reincarnations of the same soul (which would sure explain why they all seem so drawn to these stories they pick up at seeming chance). But for now, I’m just enjoying watching the writer work with these huge stylistic shifts. Each of Mitchell’s characters is so fully and perfectly drawn, even in the brief spaces they’re allotted, and each of the genres is done so well. As I’m reading, I’m totally aware of the fact that this is a novel – it doesn’t feel like one of those collections of stories clumsily drawn together into a “novel” – but also feel that in many ways, the sections of Cloud Atlas are complete and perfect on their own.