Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I was inspired to read this novel after listening to a discussion about the movie on one of my favorite podcasts. I had known nothing about Cloud Atlas except that it was being made into a movie, but from the podcast learned about its structure, and that it was probably better than the movie, and was intrigued enough to download it onto my Kindle.

And then about a third of the way in I finally figured out that I'd downloaded The Cloud Atlas - completely different book. Oops. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I'd been wanting to read and I had to go out and get the right book. I still haven't finished The Cloud Atlas, but I just finished the book I originally intended to read, and it left me feeling like I needed to process it a bit more, which can be a good or a bad thing.

After a night's sleep, I'm ready to give my personal assessment.

First a quick overview. Cloud Atlas is structured as six embedded novellas, with each story half-told until you reach the sixth story at the center, after which you proceed back through the other five stories and reach the conclusion of the first story at the very end: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. The stories proceed forward (and then backward) through time, from a 19th century ship traveling the Pacific, to a postapocalyptic Hawaii some hundreds of years in the future, and each is written in a very different voice, and even style. On the surface the stories are mostly unconnected, except that each is also embedded literally in the other. For example, the first story is written as a journal, which is found and read by the main character of the second story. The fourth story becomes a movie seen by the main character of the fifth story.

I actually quite enjoyed the book. At first it felt a bit like a "should read." I found the writing a bit difficult, and it was hard for me to really invest in the first couple stories (and when you know that these are the stories the book will end with, it makes it hard to stay motivated to continue to the end). But the further I got, the more I enjoyed the book, and the more invested I became. And while I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, by the time I finished the sixth and began proceeding backwards, I actually found myself looking forward to the reading the second half of even the stories I hadn't cared for. I felt as though each story colored the stories that came before, and I returned to each story with a different eye than my first time around.

And I was impressed with the writing. Sometimes I have trouble with very intelligently and cleverly written books because they feel pretentious or unreal to me, but as difficult as I sometimes found the prose in Cloud Atlas, I didn't get mired down in pretentiousness. Mitchell brilliantly captures six very different voices written in six very different genres. It's clearly all coming from the same pen, but each story is nevertheless impressively distinct.

My main complaint about the book is that I think leads a reader to believe it is doing more than it actually is. When I finished the book, I felt like I needed to go digest it, look for the connecting threads that I had missed, to figure out what it all meant. I'd just been taken for a ride, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed the ride, but I felt like there was more than just a ride (albeit an intelligent and fascinating and thought-provoking ride). The problem is, I'm not sure there is more, or at least much more, than what I got on the first pass. Either that, or the meaning is so abstruse or deeply buried as to be invisible, or not worth the work it would take to uncover it.

In short, this is no beach read, but it's also not a slog (although it might feel that way at first). It's definitely not for everyone, but as long as you don't hold out for a grand, startling connection between the stories, and instead just let yourself be swept along, I think it's worth reading.

No comments: