A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

A fascinating novel, mostly made so by its intriguing structure and deft handling of many writing styles. Cloud Atlas consists of six different narratives, each taking place at a different time in history (and some in the future), dealing with different characters, and employing different styles and methods of narration. The novel begins with the narrative furthest back in time (call it Narrative A), continues with the next narrative in chronological succession (Narrative B), and keeps going through its several narratives until it arrives at Narrative F, then works back in time through each narrative once again. So the structure looks something like this: ABCDEFEDCBA. Eventually it becomes apparent that there are connections among these seemingly separate narratives, and Mitchell's skill in handling this structure becomes increasingly clear as he works his way back down his narrative ladder (on the EDCBA side, if you will). Working the hints of connections into the first half of the novel strikes me as something not overly difficult; backing out through the second half of the narrative and picking up all those disparate threads to make the whole create sense and answer questions seems like it must have been mind-bogglingly difficult. For manipulation of this structure, for making it work, I give Mitchell all the credit in the world. His skill at working so well within so many different styles is also remarkable. He succeeds, as well, in making the reader care about each of his narratives, about all of his characters, despite wrenching her away from each narrative just as it is getting really good and asking her to invest in yet another scenario.

I came away from Cloud Atlas impressed by Mitchell's writing and his ability to reel one into a story and wowed by his handle on structure. But in the end I was never sure what all of that structural whizzbang was for (beyond being an incredible feat in and of itself). I'm not entirely sure what the novel means to say about the interconnectedness of people and events or about our ability (or inability?) to recognize those connections. Without that understanding I was left a bit befuddled. Which is not to say that I think this isn't a book worth reading. I think it is. There's enough here that is satisfying to outweigh that discontent in the end. And the novel avoids feeling like an experiment which succeeds technically but fails to tap into the emotional life of the reader. The novel is an amazing achievement, if not a wholly satisfying one. But absolutely worth the read, even if only to marvel at how Mitchell works that ABCDEFEDCBA structure. Seriously.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.