I tire of much contemporary fiction because, for the most part, it pales in comparison to older, mightier literature of the canon; and as I find myself “reading against the clock” (to borrow Bloom’s words) it’s hard for me to expend my precious reading hours on literature that doesn’t have a payoff confirmed by many ages before myself. Still, I take chances in the name of curiosity and, I suppose, keeping at least a pulse on the state of current fiction. And yet oftener and oftener, when I take these chances, I find myself disappointed and wishing I had allotted the time to, say, absorbing some unread Shakespeare play, Borges short story, or perhaps tilling the soil of some of Montaigne’s vast corpus of wisdom. But—alas!—with this treasure of 2004 from one David Mitchell, disappointed I was not! Far from it, in fact.
If you haven’t read this book, please do yourself a favor and stop reading this review. Surely the best way to read this book is simply to take a chance and read it cold—that is, without any prior knowledge (except the inevitable knowledge that we all seem to have that (1) it’s a tough book; and (2) the Wachowskis adapted it for the big screen in 2009). Allow me to jettison the idea that the novel is difficult. For any real reader of books, the novel is one big homage, one big love letter to the act of reading and to books and authors in general, both in its content and its form. The only two reasons I could see the book being abandoned are the style of the opening story and perhaps the unfamiliar structure of the book. But, be apprised, both of these elements are deliberate (almost every one of Mitchell’s words are) and serve to enhance the majesty of this masterpiece.
As for the opening story’s style, like that of, say, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Mitchell chooses to write in the manner of a late nineteenth-century travelogue (Mitchell’s first of 7 total styles!), and as has happened with the aforementioned Pynchon book, this will act as a sort of colander that will sift out certain readers from others right from the start. Some will think, “There’s no way I can read a whole 500-page book written in this manner” and the will to endure the work will wane if not depart at once; others will delight in their Golden Age syndrome, savoring the atmosphere of the illuminated past, only to be disappointed about 40 pages further. Thus, as I’ve already informed, my advice to those who are turned off by the opening style is to persevere. Mitchell writes for those who suffer short attention spans. And, there is major payoff.
For me, the structure of the book is the highlight that elevates a contemporary novel into the annals of art. As one of Mitchell’s characters lays out: this book proves that we must stop begging for literature to be original in the way we’re asking and realize that art is the how, not the what. Stories are recycled throughout the ages of artistic creation—this is well known. But forms change. What does this sound like? Well, to me, this alone is the metaphor of a cloud: same material; an infinitude of possible forms. So, yes, the stories interlink in various ways and repeat themselves in various ways, though they’re seemingly so different due to being far removed historically. Anyone can flip through the book, finding the story divisions, reading the titles, and conclude the manner in which the chronology is set. Mitchell himself indulges in invoking the concept of the sextet explicitly in the stories themselves (the book’s own analogy of a Matryoshka egg is my favorite!). Lastly, whoever was in charge of the production of the printed Random House US paperback delighted this reader endlessly with the little cloud at the tops of the pages (no doubt this is intended as the reproduction of a certain birthmark). Cheers!
Reading Cloud Atlas, I kept thinking of this as a Ulysses for our time. Just as Joyce contrived to create a collection of episodes in the day of a life of Leopold Bloom around the story of Homer’s Ulysses, while also playing with the style and voice of every episode, and including things like making each episode correspond to a particular human organ, so too does Mitchell create a glorious artistic contrivance with his masterpiece. In fact, one of the later episodes in Ulysses narrates scenes of birth and is written in the various phases of the English language from beginnings to the present as the episode progresses! Well played, Joyce, and now Mitchell! But there’s one place where Mitchell sets his work apart from Joyce: the stories aren’t simply a day in the existence of one fellow (well, ahem, let’s just leave that alone). Each story and the bridging story at the middle of the sextet are immensely enjoyable and enthralling on their own. And only as you begin to see the interlinking of the sextet will an already enjoyable experience be pitched into a time of literary transcendence.
Still, if you cannot handle the demand of the book but you’re still curious about the buzz, try the lighter fare of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas offshoot Slade House.