Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas received nearly universal acclaim when it was published in 2004. The book is comprised of six stories nested within each other, such that the first story cuts off half-way through and the second begins, and so on until the sixth; the sixth story is told straight through; after which the second half of the fifth story picks up, the fourth picks up when the fifth/seventh ends, and so on. The book is very ambitious in scope: the stories span centuries of time and take place across the globe. While I found it to be entertaining and I enjoyed each story as a stand-alone and as a whole, I found the nesting-doll-story device to be a bit too clever for its own good.

There is no denying Mitchell's excellent storytelling. Each of the stories is interesting and compelling and exciting on its own. The connection between them only increases these merits, and makes for an epic novel. The first/eleventh is the diary of a young man returning to California from Australia on a cargo ship in 1849. The second/tenth is a series of letters from a bisexual composer, living in Belgium in 1931, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. In the third/ninth, a journalist in 1970s California attempts to bring major corporate corruption to light. The fourth/eighth is a comical account of a present-day publisher who flees a vengeful client, only to end up accidentally institutionalized. The fifth/seventh, set in near-future dystopian Korea, is about the effort of a genetic "fabricant" (a clone) to achieve true humanity. The sixth is set in Hawaii in the far future, after the complete destruction of civilization across the globe.

I won't tell you exactly how these stories are connected; that would ruin it for anyone who wants to read it. But I will say that the central message is that it's a dog eat dog world out there; eat or be eaten. While I suppose I understand why Mitchell chose to lay out the narrative in this format, I think it could have been more powerful if told in a straightforward - and less confusing - manner. Complicated and ambitious books do not intimidate me (War and Peace, Infinite Jest and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle are all in my top 10!), but complicated should never be just for complicated's sake.

Next up: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

No comments: