Cloud Atlas: a review

Posted on September 20, 2010

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David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been called not only “experimental,” but “Postmodern,” and “ambitious” as well. What are the results of this experiment? not much. Is it Postmodern? Yes, but in a non-alcholic beer kind of way. Ambitious? Ok but ambitious toward where?

The structure, though not necessarily “Groundbreaking” and “Innovative,” is certainly odd. Six different stories compose the book, five of which are cut in half, then aligned chronologically, the oldest story taking place first, ending in a cliff-hanger, followed by the next story ending likewise, and so on till the middle story, which is whole and un-cut taking place in the distant post apocalyptic future. Then the book returns by going back through time revisiting and completing each story.

This structure has a name, it is a chiasm. But so what? Aside from oddity itself what is the purpose of this oddness? A cliff hanger works because it keeps the suspense, the tension ratcheted, and makes us to want to keep the light on and read just one more chapter before bed. It does not work when one has to read three hundred pages to find out what happens next. By the time I had reached the end of the middle story, and was set to return through all the continuing stories, I had lost interest in their outcome: I felt I had already finished the novel.

Did the stories need to be cut in half? Do we have to return? The Unbearable Lightness of Being uses Nietcheese’s Eternal Return to great effect, making Tereza’s love for Thomas the more filled with grief. Cloud Atlas’s Eternal Return, its metaphor of water into clouds and clouds into water does not fare so well precisely because though the stories are each linked to the last, they lack the simple contingency of Evaporation.

The stories are linked, but vaguely. Each preceding story contains the previous story transcribed as a form of media. The First story is a journal which is read by the narrator of the Second story which are letters having been written to a character in the Third story which is a pulp novel manuscript read by the narrator of the Forth story which is in fact a movie that is watched by the interviewee of the Fifth Story, which is a projected hologram idolized by the narrator of the Sixth and last story. Each of these connections are not at all contingent. (The contingency in the book has to do with the evil nature of science and technological progress, and happens largely off camera {declaring that “Science is doom” is a wonderful thesis. Besmearing science is my flavor flav[which is a continuation of PTWSTSTS’s great Column “why I hate science”]}). In which case the link or trace connecting each story seems rather arbitrary and irrelevant. Which is to say that if you removed all connections between the stories, the stories would not change. The fact that one character is interested in the previous story is, in itself not interesting. Also not interesting is the stories’ shared poetic bits on clouds and the cloud like lightness of being. These musings are clever writer tricks—so that when one reads the word “cloud” we perk up our ears because we know from the title that this part must be meaningful—and are for the most part doggerel.

All this being complained, I will say that each of the six stories are delightful. One of the great virtues of the novel is the difference in tone and voice between each of the various sections, engendering by rhythm an oblique emotional force that makes the last section—where we began—rather weighty and apparently significant. This is both curse and blessing. Because isn’t it one of literature’s great falsehoods that the last page/chapter is more significant than any of the following? In that sense, the structure appears to work, for it allows the book to have two endings: the one in the distant future, and the conceptual one in the recent past and at the same time to have no ending at all for the narrative will only continue back through time. But because the stories, lacking contingency, do not deserve the concept, the concept of the return itself, the chiasmic structure, is nothing more than gimmick.

Which poses another pedantic question to moon over: is the connection between Form and Content arbitrary? and in an insane inversion! is that question itself arbitrary?!

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Posted in: literature