Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Among the Clouds

I've been talking about reading it long enough, and I have finally finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The book has received glowing reviews and now I know why. The novel is composed of six separate narratives with different characters in different times. But we only get to read one of the stories, the sixth, in an uninterrupted entirety. All of the others are broken in two, sometimes abruptly, and are picked up again in reverse order on the other side of the sixth story. The book is as one of the characters, Robert Frobisher, describes the musical sextet he is composing, his "sextet for overlapping voices:"

piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.
The effects are cumulative (cumulus?). In the first half it isn't clear how the voices are connected. There are glimpses to be sure, but nothing to hold onto with any confidence. It was a risky thing for Mitchell to do. If the reader does not trust the author or is not engaged by the various narratives and the various mysteries they present, it would be easy to give up on the book. But Mitchell amply rewards the reader who does not give up. In the second half of the book, all becomes gradually clear. This gradual revelation produces an exhilarating and frightening vision, intensified by the way it creeps into the reader's consciousness. I like the way I am not hit over the head with the point of the book. I like the low key and at times subtle way in which it is handled. Mitchell makes some humorous comments on literature and fiction, some of them, like what I quoted above, veiled, some not, and some self-referential. The best place for these is the narrative of Timothy Cavendish, an editor and publisher of dubious morals. Here are two of my favorites:
As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. I make no apology, however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair.
Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. "Admire me, for I am a metaphor."
I like that last bit, makes me laugh every time. The writing in the book is sumptuous, but its richness does not weigh it down, it also floats, like a cloud. The only thing I regret about this book is that I read it in such a slow and choppy manner. As a result, when I got to the second half I had to work harder to remember the first half of the book. This is a book that needs the reader's attention, and deserves it.