Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Goodreads says: “A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.”
There was a lot to unfold in this book, with its successive stories each moving forward in time, interrupting each other, addressing each other, and then concluding sequentially. Having read it, I think I can especially understand the more at-odds than usual mixed reviews of the movie, since adapting this for film seems an unusually tasking endeavor.

Mitchell has accomplished an impressive technical feat here, which is to leap between stylistic genres believably. Some (possibly those with a higher literary IQ than I) have also alleged that the “stacked” nature of this book is itself an accomplishment; for me it seemed a little gimmicky. A vague thread of existentialism ran through each of the stories, which were more explicitly tied together with notes like the narrator of one story reading the journal of the prior narrator’s story, or multiple narrators mentioning having the same birthmark (this seemingly random connection was lampshaded later when one narrator, an editor, scoffed at the random inclusion of two other nested characters having the same birthmark.) Each of these stories also borrow heavily from other works of art (literature, film, music/music history), as acknowledged by Mitchell himself, so in a way, as the stories string themselves together, they are also tied to our living reality. It is very clever, all of these tenuous threads, but at the end of the day your enjoyment of the book as a whole probably rests mostly on how you respond to each of the different stories. I read someone else’s review recently (I’m sorry to say I don’t remember whose!) that addressed the idea that sometimes appreciating what the author has done is different from enjoying it, and that’s basically what I experienced here.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy any of Cloud Atlas. I just didn’t enjoy all of it. My personal favorite stories included “An Orison of Sonmi~451″, which was the sci-fi Blade Runner-esque account of a replicant type who became sentient. It’s presented as an interview with her as she waits on what is essentially death row. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek with its inclusion of many of our favorite sci-fi tropes in such a short story, and as a fan of the genre I appreciated the wink and nod. I also liked the story that comprised of letters from 1930′s composer Robert Frobisher to one Rufus Sixsmith, and the delightfully cheesy noir mystery of Luisa Rey. Conversely, I didn’t like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (I think I could the apostrophes correct!) much at all — the forced pidgin was an absolute chore to read and I gave up on it entirely, other than to scan through and find the connection, which was that Sonmi~451′s story had survived and elevated her to God-like status among some.

It’s hard to say if this book will, ultimately, ascend to the status of literary classic, or be defamed as hacky and pompous after some time. In the present though, it’s worth reading.

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