Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Sceptre: paperback published 2004: 529 pages
‘Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies…’
Six interlocking lives – one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of time, genre and language to offer and enthralling vision of humanity’s will to power, and where it will lead us.
I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. I’d heard good things. Then they made a film about it and the trailers bewildered me so much I realised that I definitely had to read it (especially if I ended up going to see the film, as I inevitably will).
I’ll be honest – reading it isn’t as much of a brain-melt as I expected; it was far easier to follow than people had warned me. Beginning in the 19th Century, we whip through history and into the future at a heck of a rate, linger over a post-apocalyptic world (where language has got really lazy), and then scuttle back through the ages to the beginning again.
The characters are cautiously sketched out – not many of them are particularly likeable, which makes me think Mitchell was too afraid to invest too much in them in case he lost the reader – but are solidly believable (again, because none of them are particularly likeable and you know you’ve met several of the like in your lifetime… and you might even be one yourself).
I found myself more interested in a couple of the characters, leading me to skim through the chapters that don’t follow them with a slight sense of boredom. And it nearly lost me completely during the middle section. The dystopian setting itself was good – clear and authentic and plausible – but the way it was written was really tough going and I had to force myself to carry on.
Each section is written in a particular way that appeals to that era (the 19th Century is in diary form, the current day is a memoir, and the pre-apocalypse future is an interview). However, the post-apocalyptic section is written as if it were spoken – and as I said before, language has got really lazy…
Old Gerogie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what the fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me… so gimme some mutton an’ I’ll tell you ’bout our first meetin’. A fat joocesome slice, nay, none o’your burnt wafery off’rin’s…
For 76 pages, this is what you read. In a way, this is great – Mitchell is not afraid to play with language and, as proven in several chapters, isn’t afraid to assign new names to things (during the futuristic “corpocracy”, a coffee is called a starbuck, shoes are nikes and cars are fords) or play with meanings. He does this here, but the truncated way of speaking, combined with having to remember which word means what now, can make the 76 pages feel a lot longer.
Mitchell does the right thing opening with Adam Ewing – his naivety is appealing and the format of the story is recognisable. Even the conniving and selfish Robert Frobisher is interesting, and then Luisa Rey and Sonmi~451 are characters to invest in (the Tim Cavendish parts were another exercise in skim-reading for me I’m afraid). Mitchell can and does write good characters, whimsical plot and his clever use of setting and language makes the book entertaining.
But there was a slight sense of over-ambition with the book. I can’t say that each character could stand on their own – I think they fit just right into the allotted amount – but I feel that the book has tried to do too much at once. This is not a pretentious post-modern novel attempt, where it tries to be different (which is a good thing because I can’t bear novels that make a fuss about being experimental), and because of the overarching idea of reincarnation, it actually makes a lot of sense structurally. But it feels too much. There are too many threads to pick up, too many ideas to keep in your head from one chapter to the next, and even an underlying moral to the story that you feel that somehow you’ve missed.
It was an enjoyable read because I picked it up and put it down so often; it works in short and sharp bursts. But as a novel I felt that it lacked the joie de vivre that I was searching for in a novel so critically acclaimed they had to make a film of it starring Tom Hanks.
Next book: I’m on beta duties with the indomitable Emmie Mears and Amanda Byrne, so there is currently no book – I’m pouring my energy and enthusiasm in to that. (And if you have no idea who they are: 1- who are you, and 2- get on over to Twitter and follow Emmie and Amanda now). Which means there may be no book review next week… unless I finish beta-ing (is that a word?) in super quick time and get my hands on a copy of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (pure nostalgia).