Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories, separated by genre, locale and time but linked by motifs, themes and perhaps a soul. As clouds move across the sky, so do people move across the expanse of time, similar yet unique. The novel is structured like a palindrome, sections running in the order A B C D E F E D C B A, as follows

A. the diary of an American notary sailing from Chatham Islands to San Francisco in the 1800s
B. letters from a young ne'er-do-well musician staying at the home of an aged, formerly great composer
C. a suspense thriller about a journalist investigating corruption at a nuclear power plant
D. first person account of a British publisher who runs afoul of gangsters
E. a science fiction story, an interview with a clone in a corporate-run future
F. a post-apocalypse story about a primitive society encountering someone from a more advanced civilization

Except for the post-apocalypse story, each story is split in two, with the first half ending with a cliffhanger resolved in the second. Each story is read (or experienced) by a character in the succeeding section, so that the diary in A is read by the letter writer in B, whose letters are in turn read by the main character in C., etc. As mentioned above, there are also recurring motifs and themes in each story and the novel presents a fairly bleak overview of human history. Yet reading it is anything but bleak. Mitchell is an entertainer; this is meant as a compliment. Each section is fueled by the primary narrative need: the desire to find out what happens next. I’m a fidgety reader by nature but this novel commanded my attention and I finished it much faster than normal. Mitchell is a master at elements of craft that are easily overlooked, such as pacing the flow of ideas, creating rounded characters and writing in different genres and forms. Reading Cloud Atlas is a pleasure. It’s after finishing the novel that frustration sets in.

A book exists in your mind in two forms: one while you are reading and the other in memory when you think about it after finishing. It was during the latter that my opinion of Cloud Atlas lessened a bit. The stories are linked but any attempt to create a coherent narrative for the novel as a whole based on these links and repeating motifs is inevitably frustrated by something within one of the stories. These contradictions don’t indicate the novel is deliberately ambiguous or slyly playful so much as it is without a larger design. The memory of the pleasure I experienced reading Cloud Atlas has been subsumed by the frustration I feel that there is no larger point beyond the presentation of six clever tales, enjoyable but ultimately as substantial as clouds.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Today's Reading

A nice refutation to those who criticize fiction for being too unlikely or unrealistic, this excerpt is from Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. It reads like something by Thomas Pynchon and best of all, it made me laugh out loud.

One day in 1948 or 1949, the Brentwood Country Mart, a shopping complex in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was the scene of a slight disturbance that carried overtones of the most spectacular upheaval in twentieth-century music. Marta Feuchtwanger, wife of the emigre novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, was examining grapefruit in the produce section when she heard a voice shouting in German from the far end of the aisle. She looked up to see Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of atonal music and the codifier of twelve-tone composition, bearing down on her, with his bald pate and burning eyes. Decades later, in conversation with the writer Lawrence Weschler, Feuchtwanger could recall every detail of the encounter, including the weight of the grapefruit in her hand. "Lies, Frau Marta, lies!" Schoenberg was yelling. "You have to know, I never had syphilis!"