Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell--first impressions

There's just about the right amount of time to get in a quick initial post on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Hailed as one of the best books of the last decade on a variety of lists, and popular with the more literary minded of our staff when it first came out, it's one of those books that I long planned to read but never quite got around to. But last month I did manage to convince my book group to read it, which is my way of bumping a book right to the top of my To Be Read pile.

As we got a bit of a late start this time, one of our members asked if we might do this one as a two parter and everyone agreed. Don't read on if you don't like even the structure of a book to be revealed ahead of time, but in fact this is actually a perfect book to read in halves. The novel is actually six separate stories, which nest inside each other, so that the first half of the book is the first half of all stories and the second completes each of them. Concentric rings is one way of looking at it.

Having just finished the central story--central in a physical sense but not, I think in any sense of importance, I feel as baffled as ever about what the intent of the novel as a whole is. I trust that there is a whole, and I trust that Mitchell's structure is intentional, but I am not quite so convinced that I will figure out what those intentions are myself. Whether this is particularly important, I don't know.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I am not all that fond of linked or not so linked stories as a way of putting together a novel. I particularly have a hard time with stories or even series where you get invested in a set of characters and then find yourself jumping into the future where you suddenly are dealing with a whole new cast of characters. An example of the type would be Zoe Heller's The Believers, which begins with a scene in London where two characters meet and fall in love and jumps in very short order to a time near the end of their marriage, with the husband in a coma and life unraveling or at least changing for his wife and children. It's actually a very good novel, but I missed the development of those early days all through the book. This isn't a flaw in the writing, though. This is a shortcoming or at least a preference in me. Still, I might not be the only one.

The Cloud Atlas has been an interesting test for me in this regard. These are six very different strands of life and even genre and yet Mitchell was able to recapture my attention in all of them. He is obviously an extremely gifted writer, not just capable of mimicking any style he sets his mind to, but of at least seeming to have the expertise and breadth of knowledge to put across the backgrounds of these worlds without flaw. And even my problem will be addressed by bringing all these abruptly cut off stories to closure in the second half. But there is a risk that all this cleverness actually works against the reader's experience to some degree.

Because once you know that the writer is going to break the story off, isn't there just a little less engagement with it as a result? Isn't there some sense that the guy's just messing with your head? It's one thing when you have the rug pulled out from under you the first time. But when you can look ahead and see that it's going to happen at least four more times, doesn't that do something to the degree to which you immerse yourself?

Put another way, isn't it hard enough for any reader to sustain disbelief long enough to enter a story without having the author whispering in your ear all the way that it isn't real, I'm making it all up, don't get too comfortable? I know that some readers do like that experience--they want to share in the writer's experience of constructing fiction, they want to be in on the trick. Well, for better or worse, I am not really that reader.

I will add that Mitchell does not actually, in his heart of hearts, appear to be that kind of writer either. I don't know if he personally gets invested in his characters, but he certainly makes it possible for you to invest in them. The distancing does not come from the stories, it comes from the structure.

It will be interesting to see if anyone else in the group tonight has this problem with the book. Initial reports have been favorable.

I shall report back.


  1. Thanks for telling me about the structure of Cloud Atlas, a book that has been lying around the bookstore where I work, half read, for weeks, nay, months...by my boss, who has moved on to other readings and perhaps forgotten it!

  2. Half read is sort of ironically perfect for this book, Kathleen.

  3. Half read is sort of ironically perfect for this book, Kathleen.

  4. Half read is sort of ironically perfect for this book, Kathleen.