Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

[Reminder: I’m not doing a full review of this because it’s a recent book by a living author. On the other hand, it’s not THAT recent, and given its popularity and the film coming out, it’s unlikely the author would ever see this review, so I’ve gone a little further into personal opinion than I might otherwise]

What is this book?

Cloud Atlas is not really a novel in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a collection of six novellettes (novellas, novelines… I’m not up on the precise distinctions); I’d say they were tangentially connected,  but that’s doing a disservice to tangents. Instead, I’ll say that they’re, as it were, connected by conceit – characters in different stories are proposed to be reincarnations of the same souls. Furthermore, each story exists as a story or history within at least one other story. The stories are nested, the first half of each being told, followed by the second half of each in the reverse order. Each story is in a completely different style: a 19th century sea journal; a 1920’s upper-class composer and cad fleeing his creditors and seeking fresh employment in Belgium; a semi-noir conspiracy action-mystery set in (slightly altered) 70’s California; a curmudgeonly, tragicomic lament on modern Britain by an elderly vanity publisher; a Korean dystopia as described by an imprisoned clone; war and slavery in post-apocalyptic Hawai’i. Not only the content changes – the whole narrative voice in each story is entirely different.

What is this book good for?

It’s clearly an impressive demonstration of Mitchell’s writing ability. If you were applying for a job as a writer, and for some reason they demanded an entire novel as evidence of your ability, this might be the sort of thing you’d submit – it shows his ability to write in a diversity of styles and genres.

The stories themselves seem to me variable in quality, but that may in part reflect my own preferences. It was no surprise to me, for instance, that I found the Dick/Huxley story by far the most interesting – since that’s just a lot closer to what I’m interested in. But all of the stories create coherent and understandable protagonists, who in most cases will seem broadly sympathetic to the reader. Some of the stories – the Dick/Huxley and the California piece in particular – had fairly effective adrenaline-spiking plot progressions. There are moments of pathos, bathos, wit and insight. It’s a good read, if you don’t mind the tonal and narrative disconnexion between the component stories.

What problems does this book have?

Should books exist to show off how smart the author is? Take out the conceit of how many different styles he can write in, and what we’re left with is six basically unrelated stories, each one broadly enjoyable in an accessible, low-expectations way. At times – too many times – the author seemed to be reaching for profundity, wisdom, meaning… but all I could see was fortune-cookie cliché and, frankly, vapidity. Some of the quotes that people have picked out and listed on Goodreads: “…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”; “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”; “If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass”; “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence”. And there are whole lectures of it – the book basically ends with a lecture.

Of course, not every book has to be deeply meaningful. It can just be enjoyable. But there is one big problem the book faces on that front too: the entire thing, other than perhaps the conceit of the six stories in one novel, is disappointingly… unimaginative. We can recognise that each story is a different style and genre precisely because it so immensely apparent what style and genre each one is. It would be cruel to call them pastiches… but there is nothing original, nothing surprising, nothing ingenious here. The dystopia, for instance. Well thanks, but I’ve read Brave New World and I’ve watched Blade Runner, and my consciousness is saturated with so many portrayals of dystopias and cloning, and dystopian cloning… these settings can be interesting, of course, but either you’ve got to do something new with them, or you’ve got to do the old thing really well. And Mitchell does exactly what you expect him to do all along, and he doesn’t do it any better than the people he’s copying. Or the Hawai’i section – I’m sure I’m not the only one who, the whole time, had half of my brain constantly thinking ‘this isn’t as good as Hoban’s version’. Because I know the story already, I know it down to its weird fake-primitive dialect (and, btw, that really is weird if you think about it, since within the context of the story it’s made clear that they aren’t actually speaking anything that would be understandable to us, so the decision to ‘translate’ it into a more accessible form of Hobanese is purely a matter of obeying genre conventions). The same is broadly true of the flippant English bounder, the over-the-top conspiracy mystery, and the black humour satirical farce with a character who sounds like a letter to the editor of the Telegraph – sure, I don’t know those genres well enough to name the specific authors he’s copying, but they’re sufficiently ubiquitous in our culture that I never felt I was somewhere unfamiliar. The pacific journal was a little more novel (people have compared it to Melville, but I’ve never read Melville), but unfortunately it was also the least interesting as a story in its own right.

I’ll also add two further, more minor problems: first, that Mitchell doesn’t actually completely grasp the proper prose style in all his sections, as he tends to over-do it and make each voice more-X-than-X, as it were; second, his repeated postmodern comments about his own book expressed through the characters (including the complaint that the pacific section seems not to have exactly hit the diction correctly, and the complaint about postmodernism, which he postmodernistically makes himself) didn’t excuse the flaws, but only called attention to it, and to the author, in an annoying way. It’s a convenient excuse, when you have each story be a story in another story, to blame the deficiencies of a story on the fictional characters who wrote it – but that doesn’t actually make the story better, since we all know that, in the end, the author is still the author.

In Short?

I hope I haven’t seemed too harsh on the book. I think it all depends on what you want from it. If you can’t decide what genre you want to read, you don’t want anything challenging, and you’re not looking for a masterpiece, this is, broadly, a good, enjoyable, pleasant, entertainment. Unfortunately, if, like me, you are excited by all the hype and come to it expecting something memorable…  that’s not so good.

I think this is the sort of book people read to be proud of themselves – because it’s just unusual and soi dissant profound enough to make people feel literate for reading it, but at the same time it’s actually just a good yarn, so people get to enjoy reading it while at the same time feeling proud that they’re enjoying something a little bit more clever.

[Perhaps the film analogy would be Inception. A fun brainless popcorn film if taken in its own right, but it portrays itself as more than it is, and the audience have bought into that for their own reasons].

I’ve no doubt at all that Mitchell can be a really good writer. I’m just not sure that, this time, he really had anything to write about. It’s like watching a really clever, sophisticated, powerful engine whizzing around with no actual load to pull.

Verdict?

Mixed.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Some sections 5/5, especially since the structure puts 6 finales in a row. But the cost of that is that much of the first half is a little dull and slow.

Emotion: 2/5. It’s hard to get caught up in characters in such short stories, particularly when they do not feel original.

Thought: 3/5. It’s clever, but not as clever as it thinks it is; in particular, it’s quite a let down that the stories don’t integrate more closely in the end, which wasted a fair amount the time and energy I’d expended trying to work out how things were going to fit together.

Beauty: 3/5. There are some pretty lines, particularly in the cad section.

Craft: 4/5. Have to commend the author on his grasp of genre and his versatility of prose. Mitchell looks like a really talented writer.

Endearingness: 3/5. Could have given it worse, because there’s something about its attention-seeking superficiality that I really don’t like… but I can’t be too harsh on it because in places it’s genuinely funny, and in other places it’s a jolly good read.

Originality: 2/5. The originality is in putting six such different stories together in one book in the guise of a single novel. The stories themselves are almost entirely familiar.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Going by the scores above, this is on the border with only “Not Bad”. However, since I recognise that part of my dissatisfaction comes from having expected too much for it, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and nudging it up to Good. Because I think, if I’m being fair, this is a good book.  It’s pretty fun to read, and it’s certainly well-written. It just isn’t… exceptional. In my opinion.

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