Cloud Atlas

Latest in my attempt to Read More Books, Dammit, is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I finished last week. Niall has inadvertently reminded me by posting about the Clarke shortlist. 🙂 It’s a book that’s almost impossible to talk about without spoiling, because part of the pleasure is the puzzle-box way it unfolds.

The book is structured like a Russian Doll, with a series of short stories nested inside one another in a really quite intricate and technically ambitious way. Each story is chronologically later than the last, and each is written in a pastiche of a particular genre or narrative voice. Part of the accomplishment is how very different Mitchell makes these voices. There’s a danger that each pastiche, though well done, is more of an exercise in clever imitation than a genuinely creative example of its own particular genre – certainly the SF stories teeter on the brink of cliché at times – but in fact I think that the writing is generally good enough for most of the stories to stand in their own right.

The stories are all linked in tenuous ways, partly by the explicit idea that the characters share a soul in common, or come across some part of each others’ experiences during their lives (or even, though the book doesn’t say this outright, because they’re all the subject of the same novel). On one level this is sheerest contrivance of the kind which is sometimes used to pretend that short story collections are really cohesive novels. On another level, the gradual revelation of the structure is highly satisfying, and the book aims for a sense of interconnectedness between the characters and stories, and tries to examine the common themes of history. It’s about the way that any era – past or future – is simply a projection of what we think they were or will be: that there is really no distinction to be drawn between historical fictions and futuristic fictions, since ultimately they are all about exploring parts of ourselves. It’s also about using this to reveal commonplace moral truths: that the lessons of history must be learned in order not to be repeated; that history moves in cycles; that the human race must learn to control its selfish drives if it is to survive.

It’s fair to say that the book is sometimes overly concerned with its own technical cleverness at the expense of achieving something genuinely revelatory and profound. It does have a few explicit infodumps towards the end, to the point of providing a meta-commentary on the novel’s creative process. Most of the observations you can make about the book’s structure are pre-empted by the writer himself, and there’s a sense throughout of being able to hear the clanking of the book’s machinery in the background. The sense of contrivance needed to link the stories ever so slightly overpowers the things that would really make the book sing – intuitive lateral connections between the different parts of the novel. At times – especially in the second half – it needs to have a lighter, subtler touch in drawing parallels and synchronicities.

However, even if the book doesn’t quite succeed in hitting all its philosophical targets, taken as a whole the package is still unique and ambitious. It’s certainly a great deal more accomplished and cohesive than most books of connected short stories. In fact, it manages to take the extreme difference between the narrative voices and genres and make that part of the point. In my opinion it does, ultimately, succeed in being a complete novel. It’s also highly readable and entertaining, with a dry wit that permeates most of the stories. There’s something to be said for a pleasing fusion of literary flair, intricate structure, ethics, and entertainment. And if the structure does poke through the surface of the book at times, well, it’s a very nice structure and I enjoyed looking at it.

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