“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

Following from the … er … success of my putting up on this blog a review I had written for my book group a few years ago, here is another: this time, the book is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

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I just looked under R in the Oxford Dictionary of Tired Hackneyed Expressions to Describe Novels (invaluable for all those reviewers who really can’t be arsed) and found this under ”rollercoaster”:

“Big novel, flamboyant, usually of more than 500 pages, with the narrative ranging widely…” (or is that ‘wildly’?) “…across both time and space, touching on big themes (but no more than touching on them), and often employing a variety of narrative styles. Novels described thus usually contain less than meets the eye, but if what meets the eye is sufficiently entertaining, that’s not a problem.”

Cloud Atlas has been described by more than one reviewer as a “rollercoaster” of a novel, and it certainly ticks all the boxes.

This is a sequence of six novellas spliced together such that when we’re half way through any one novella, it stops, and the next one begins. The sixth in the sequence is told uninterrupted, and then there follows the second halves of the other 5 in reverse order, so at the very end, we have the second half of the first novella. In each novella, there are references to the previous one. So the first story, which is in the form of a journal written by a mid-19th century American notary as he travels across the Pacific, turns up in a library in the second narrative; the second narrative is in the form of letters, and these letters turn up in the third narrative; and so on. What is the purpose of such a structure? As far as I can see, none really. Some hints are dropped that the narratives may be connected, and some of the themes they deal with are similar; but I didn’t find any narrative shedding much light on any other. But as a structural conceit, I suppose it’s intriguing enough.

The main thing is that the narratives do, on the whole, hold the reader’s attention: there is no doubt that David Mitchell is a sufficiently skilful writer to do that. Some of the narratives are more interesting than others, but they all move at a good tempo, and there are few longueurs. And when the proceedings are entertaining – as they generally are here – one is generally happy not to ask the question “What’s all of this leading to?” But when, as in the middle section, we do get a few longueurs, that question becomes inevitable.

One review I read (I think it may even be one by A. S. Byatt) spoke of Mitchell having a very distinctive authorial voice, and also of not drawing attention to himself. I think I disagree on both counts. Mitchell is a superb mimic: all the voices here are very good imitations of other voices. But I couldn’t find Mitchell’s own voice in any of these narrations. That’s as it should be in mimicry: one shouldn’t expect the mimic’s own voice to be apparent.

And of course it draws attention to itself. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is quite right for a showman to draw attention to his performance, and, to judge by this novel, Mitchell is a showman – and a pretty good one too. He puts on a flamboyant performance, and there’s no questioning its entertainment value.

The stories are as follows:

1. An American notary makes his way across the South Seas in the mid-19th century, and witnesses the impact of colonialism. We’re in Herman Melville territory here, I think, with, perhaps, a touch of the Conrads.

2. An amoral but gifted young musician becomes the amanuensis of an old, syphilitic composer. Sort of sub-Evelyn Waugh territory here, although some aspects of the narrator reminded me of Wodehouse’s Ukridge more than anyone else.

3. A thriller set in the 70s, telling the story of an intrepid investigative journalist uncovering murky deeds behind the public façade of a nuclear power company. This is written in the style of an airport novel – with a breakneck tempo allowing no pause for characterisation or for thematic development, and written in the blandest of styles.

4. A tale set in modern times of an ageing publisher who ends up trapped in a ghastly old peoples’ home. The title of this episode – “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” – suggests Wodehouse, but the curmudgeonly tone seems closer to the fictional world of Kingsley Amis.

5. A futuristic science fiction story depicting a world ruled by corporates, in which people are cloned to carry out specific duties. Ideas are obviously from Huxley, but I haven’t read enough science fiction to identify the style. However, once you’ve realised that brand names are used as verbs and nouns as often as possible, the style doesn’t seem that interesting.

6. This takes us even further into the future, after some holocaust, when most of humanity has reverted to barbarism. This owes more to Huxley’s Ape and Essence than to Brave New World, and the language is a sort of primitive slang.

After this sixth part, we go back again, in order, to finish off the earlier stories.

In both content and (I suspect) style – although I can’t vouch for the models for the styles in narratives 5 & 6 – these stories are, as I implied, derivative. Some are entertainingly so: I particularly enjoyed the second story, for instance, which is clearly based on the real-life relationship between Fredrick Delius & Eric Fenby (although from what I know, Fenby was far from the amoral young man that Frobisher is here). This was the story I wished could have been longer: these characters have the potential for treatment at greater length. I also enjoyed “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, which is a fine piece of comic writing (although some of the plotting seemed a bit dubious: for instance, would a book published by vanity publishers get reviewed?) At other times, you wonder why Mitchell has bothered to copy something that is so uninteresting in the first place. The airport thriller, for instance: the mimicry, as ever, is superb, but to read some hundred pages of such bland and uninteresting prose, unenlivened by any particular insight, was about as dull as reading the sort of novel it mimics. The story is old hat, but all stories have been done before – and even a story such as this could have been transformed by a fresh, individual style: look at the various novels of James Ellroy, for instance. But this particular section, perhaps the least successful section of the novel, is deadly dull, and even the Oxford Dictionary of Tired Hackneyed Expressions doesn’t offer anything here other than “bland” to describe it.

Or in the futuristic 5th narrative, we have a very hackneyed situation an authoritarian future where most people don’t rebel because technology has provided them with a superficial happiness, but where a resistance movement tries to fight against it. Some 30 or 40years ago, Woody Allen parodied this in Sleeper: even then it was old hat. How can we be expected to take such a story seriously now – especially given that the style in this section is so uninteresting?

Another aspect of the novel that I found myself disliking was what I suppose may be called its “postmodernist irony” (is there any other type of irony these days?) For instance, the first section was a fine imitation of a 19th century writing style; however, there were a few sentences that struck me as more obviously the work of an early 21st century novelist. When this narrative turns up in a library in the second narrative, Frobisher, who finds it, comments that although the language was of the 19th century, there were some sentences that didn’t seem to him quite right. For some readers, this is clever on Mitchell’s part: to me, it’s just Mitchell covering his back. He seems to be saying: “Yes, I know there are a few shortcomings, but look – I am pointing them out to you! So that makes it postmodernist irony, and that makes it OK.” No David, it doesn’t. We have something similar a bit later later when Timothy Cavendish comments on the airport-thriller style of the third narrative. It gives the impression that Mitchell isn’t taking his narratives seriously – and if the author isn’t, why should the reader?

The themes touched upon are certainly big themes: civilisation and savagery, the nature of time, colonialism, man’s innate capacity for self-destruction, the human soul, and so on. But I can’t really see that any of these are any more than touched upon. Quite frequently, there are passages rather ham-fistedly inserted to discuss these issues. So, in the South Sea journals, a minister explicitly states his theory of a hierarchy or races, and justifies the slaughter and enslavement of the races he considers inferior, while a doctor counters him; or in the second narrative, Frobisher, the protagonist, visits and meditates upon the battlefields of WW1 in Belgium; or in the airport thriller, the intrepid journalist (quite incongruously, given the style and narrative pace of this section) meditates on the nature of time; in the 6th narrative, the narrator – a member of a backward tribe – discusses with a member from one of the remaining technologically advanced nations the nature of civilisation and barbarism. I found these passages clumsy: the themes should arise naturally from the narrative, but discussion of the themes is far too explicit, and seems too contrived by the author in order to give his novel some semblance of substance.

As it is, even with these passages, I couldn’t really find too much of substance here. But that’s not where the appeal of the novel lies. Mitchell may want to be regarded as a serious novelist who addresses profound themes, but his most obvious talent (apart from his gift for mimicry) seems to be his ability to tell a story in an interesting manner, and keep the reader entertained. And, except in those narratives where the style mimicked is a bit too hackneyed for comfort, he does succeed rather well. There may well be less here than meets the eye, but what meets the eye is entertaining enough: and I suppose one can’t really ask for much more than that. Rollercoasters are unlikely to provide life-enhancing experiences, but they are what they were intended to be – good fun.

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