“A multitude of drops”: Thoughts on Cloud Atlas
While I was in Los Angeles over the weekend, I finally finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which over the past few years has gradually emerged as a consensus choice for one of the major novels of the decade. It first gained critical attention, and a fervent cult following, both for its striking structure—six nested novelettes, arranged like a series of Russian dolls, with each story commenting obliquely on its predecessor—and the virtuosity of Mitchell’s language and command of genre, which ranges from dystopian science fiction to thriller to period pastiche. And while I do have some mild reservations about the novel, which is probably unavoidable for book that pushes the envelope so consistently, there’s no doubt that Mitchell is a formidable talent, and an author I’m looking forward to reading for years to come.
The element of Cloud Atlas that I enjoyed most, surprisingly, was its commitment to genre and plot. Despite what other critics have said, I don’t think the tone of the individual stories ever degenerates into simple parody, not even in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which some have called a satire of an airport novel. For my own part, I feel that Mitchell loves and respects his sources too much to dismiss them so easily. If anything, “Half-Lives” reads more like a tribute to The Crying of Lot 49 by way of a 70s thriller, which turns out to be a surprisingly heady combination, even if it’s likely to be underrated simply because it’s so readable. The same is true of “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” which, until its rather predictable closing twist, qualifies as a near-great science fiction novella, and the work of someone who clearly has great affection for the form.
That said, I also suspect that Mitchell’s fondness for the genres he’s inhabiting prevents him from weaving the novel together more tightly. A work like Cloud Atlas needs to walk a fine line between seeming too tidy or contrived and spinning apart into its separate components, and I think it strays a bit too close to the latter: I wanted more resonance, more jangling, between the constituent parts of the story, and the connections seemed either too obvious (the birthmark that all but one of the central characters share, with the implication that they are reincarnations of the same soul, perhaps on its way to Bodhisattvadom) or nonexistent (as in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” a segment which, while fun to read, fails to justify its presence). Obviously, this is a matter of taste. But I can’t help but thinking that a writer like John Barth or Nabokov would have given us a more elegantly structured edifice, even if it might have been less true to the genres of the stories themselves.
Still, it’s only been a few days since I finished the novel, and on going back, I’ve already begun to appreciate some of Mitchell’s more subtle associations. I also have a feeling that this is a novel that will gain much on rereading, which is something I plan to do fairly soon—certainly before the movie version comes out. The adaptation that has been announced, with Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis directing, seems utterly unnecessary: if anything, it should be an anthology piece, with a different director tackling each segment, or at least a virtuoso acting challenge, with the same actors tackling roles in various time periods. Neither, it seems, it going to happen, which makes me skeptical about the outcome. No matter the result, though, we’ll still have Mitchell’s novel, with its richness, its ambition, and its only occasional lapses into tedium or obviousness. It’s a startling hydra of a book, and seems likely to endure for a long time.