Sunday, March 2, 2008

David Mitchell/CLOUD ATLAS

I probably find myself here - not for the first time in my life - in a dissenting minority. This book appears to have been rapturously received by most reviewers and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. It was also very highly recommended by the writer friend who sent it to me as a gift; and I hate to seem ungrateful, but..... While many people seem to see this as a work of breathtaking genius, I found it to be a work of colossal self-indulgence.

I don't dispute Mitchell's talents as a writer: here he proves himself adept in a succession of different genres and styles, handles both humour and horror effectively, and creates some highly distinctive narrative voices (indeed, for the two sci-fi episodes, he forges new languages). Yes, he writes marvellously, and this book is a very entertaining read; but I find the 'cleverness' too self-conscious - it seems to me to be empty showing off rather than serving any useful purpose. And there are other failings too: the resolutions of the individual stories are perfunctory and unsatisfying; and collectively, the different strands just don't hang together.

This is my major objection: Cloud Atlas is not a novel at all; it is a collection of long short stories, arbitrarily sewn together. There is a very flimsy and irrelevant linking device (a recurring birthmark hinting that key characters in the different stories are reincarnations of the same soul), but the stories are quite unconnected. There are also a few structural links, where each story is referred to briefly in its successor (sometimes as a historical document, sometimes as a piece of fiction; sometimes as a written work, sometimes as a film). I suppose this is a post-modern conceit intended to provoke reflection on the distinctions between fact and fiction. I just find it irritatingly obtrusive and pointless: it does nothing to advance the stories (I gather Mitchell is fond of recycling his characters in different books as well - another self-indulgent silliness that just bugs the crap out of me!). Some admirers of the book have also suggested that there is a strong thematic connection between the stories, in that they are all, in some sense, about the innate brutality of mankind, the abuse of power to create oppression, and the struggle to survive. Well, yes, but that's a very broad theme: a huge number of books touch on this idea; it scarcely makes for a strong or distinctive unifying device.

The gimmicky structure is also rather unsatisfying. The six stories are nested within each other, cut off at the half-way point, to be concluded - in reverse order - in the second half of the book. Only the central story is told in a single instalment. Guess which the most satisfying of the six stories is. If I re-read this book, I think I would ignore the author's arrangement, and just read the two halves of each story together. There is a further problem, I feel, in that without exception the concluding halves of the stories are far, far less engaging than their openings. Moreover, the first (and thus also the last) story in the collection is, in my view, much the least impressive: I didn't find the narrative persona (a sickly 19th Century lawyer on a voyage across the South Pacific) entirely convincing here; the use of period vocabulary seemed a rather heavy-handed showing off of the author's research; and indeed, the entire episode seemed to be primarily an excuse for introducing a little history lesson on the genocide of the Moriori, the native people of the Chatham Islands, by invading Maori.

The two middle stories, set in the far future, are probably the most effective. The dystopian adventure about a cloned slave girl who is raised to full consciousness as a scientific experiment is the most moving, although it all gets a bit hectic and formulaic in the latter stages (Mitchell is a gorgeous stylist, but he seems to lack discipline or insight in shaping his stories). The central tale about a post-apocalyptic world reverted to medieval conditions, an oral history of his exterminated people recounted by an old man, has the most compelling narrative voice.

The two more humorous tales are also very enjoyable: one, an account of the misadventures of a London publisher who finds himself imprisoned in an old people's home, is a very slight story, but it is distinguished by the characterisation of its narrator - a frightful reactionary snob, who somehow still manages to elicit your sympathy; the other (my personal favourite of the six) is the story, told in a series of letters, of a louche young musician who insinuates himself into the home of a famous, elderly composer but then finds himself terrorised and exploited by the eccentric old bully (this episode is in part inspired by the last days of Delius).

The pulp thriller pastiche is competently done, but fails to engage. And, as I've said already, I find the lawyer's journal which opens and closes the book to be rather dull and unconvincing.

How on earth did Mitchell persuade his publisher to accept this ragbag of writer's sketches as a novel?? Very good sketches they are; but they are none of them quite fully realised; and they certainly don't fit together to make a coherent novel. Perhaps it was the publisher's idea? Maybe he presented this as a collection of short stories and was told something like, "Oh, David, that's such a step backwards for you. We're promoting you as a novelist, not a short story writer. Couldn't you find some way of linking these together?"

Many reviewers - and general readers - seem to have been blown away by the 'skill' with which Mitchell has stitched these disparate stories together. No - the linking devices here are utterly facile. It's not clever. It's not difficult. And there is absolutely no point to it.

I'm afraid I get the impression that Mr Mitchell is rather too intoxicated with his own talent - and that his editor is altogether too deferential to him. Someone really needs to tell him that this Emperor is only half-dressed. He certainly has the makings of a great, great writer; but, at the moment, reports of his genius are greatly exaggerated.


angelle said...

i have this on my to read list. but. i read ghostwritten and had a similar reaction in the "this is loosely connected and barely a novel" way. also, you're right, he tends to seem self-indulgent. but ghostwritten was OKAY. i'll read this one at some point and let you know what i think.

Anonymous said...

I've never read Mr. Mitchell;
I need to check him out.
Thanks for sharing.

Terry Finley

Lisa said...

I agree that he is a brilliant stylist, so please read Black Swan Green and tell me what you think. I just loved it and there are no acrobatic tricks, just a straightforward novel, but with some truly brilliant (in my opinion) writing.

I have Cloud Atlas and I've been saving it. I'd already put it into the "experimental fiction" category, sort of like Calvino or Sebald. Your review has confirmed that suspicion and despite your disappointment, I'll probably still give it a shot one of these days.