Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

January 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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In David Mitchell’s remarkable book Cloud Atlas, a young composer, Robert Frobisher, spends perhaps a paragraph describing an unusual piece he’s writing. Named Cloud Atlas Sextet, he describes it as “a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color.” He goes on to describe the sextet’s structure: In the first of two sections, each instrument performs its solo but is cut off halfway through by the next solo, which is cut off by the next, and so forth. Then, in the second set, each solo is resumed and completed by the instruments in reverse order.

In just one of several metafictional games being played in the novel, the structure of the Cloud Atlas Sextet is, in fact, the structure of the novel, Cloud Atlas. The novel is comprised of six different stories, and as with the soloists, each story is cut off by the next and then finally all resume in sequence. Just as each solo is performed by a different instrument, each story is in a different time period, narrated by a different character, in a different style, and the story told is in a different genre. Most astonishingly, this bizarre structure actually proves to have a subtle, nearly profound effect.

Cloud Atlas was on a lot of people’s best of the year lists back in 2004, and recently I’ve seen it on more than a few best of the decade lists. It’s easy to see why. One of the most difficult challenges in writing fiction is providing a first person narrator with a voice distinct from that of the author. David Mitchell provides six completely distinct voices in the same novel, all forming layered characters, and that’s an extremely impressive accomplishment. His facility with different genres is somewhat less unusual but still quite good. Despite their incredible diversity, each story is compelling and interesting.

There’s no doubt the book is very good, but for me it falls short of being a masterpiece. As dazzling as the novel is technically, the actual content seems to fall short of its high aspirations. Part of the problem is that the stories are connected only superficially. That’s not to say there aren’t some strong thematic resonances, particularly between the first (Adam Ewing) and sixth (Zach’ry) story, but ultimately these just accentuate the lack of resonance in the third (Luisa Rey) and forth (Timothy Cavendish) stories. Various commentators, including the author himself, have identified the book as being about human nature in general and “predacity” in particular, but in my view it has surprisingly little to say on these subjects. The result, for me, is a novel where the whole is only barely greater than the sum of its parts.

I say for me, because judging by the reactions of others, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like this even more than I did. And I liked it quite a bit. Even if Cloud Atlas is not my new favorite book, I feel more confident recommending it to anyone than anything else I’ve read lately.

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