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Sometimes I’m very late to the party. There’s little to do in those cases, but make my apologies as I make my entrance. That’s the situation I find myself in, now, endeavoring to review David Mitchell’s excellent and award-winning novel, Cloud Atlas, more than ten years after its release.
I’m not entirely sure how I missed reading this acclaimed novel a decade ago, while it was still making headlines and the literary world was abuzz with a mixture of adulation and disgust regarding the novels difficult structure and sometimes brilliant prose. In my case, however, that may have worked out for the best. Sometimes all the hype surrounding a famous book gets in the way of simply engaging the text for what it is, and what it is not. Experimental structure is hardly new in ambitious novels, and make no mistake, this is an ambitious novel.
Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories whose relationship with one another isn’t immediately clear until after the sixth and final narrative. Each of the first five sections is abruptly truncated during pivotal scenes, an authorial decision I’ll admit I found both frustrating and disorienting. None of the various parts share a common voice, narrative thread, or even prose style. The first story is set in 1850, and the final story takes place in an unspecified, vaguely post-apocalyptic future. Only after the sixth section are the unresolved threads of the first five sections finally taken back up and knitted together into a whole, so if the individual stories were numerically ordered, the overall skeleton of the whole would look like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
Now, generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of authors showing off just for the sake of proving how clever and facile they can be. I’m especially skeptical of technique-as-showmanship, because all too often, that showmanship seems to be covering a multitude of failings with regard to plot, characterization, or storytelling skill. I’ll freely confess that I approached Cloud Atlas expecting just that sort of stylistic showmanship, ultimately lacking in substance. I was wrong.
There was no one character in the book I especially cared about or identified with, but the book ultimately works because of its sure handling of the overall sense of how relationships and cultures work, and our very mortal interconnection. While the actual characters of the novel aren’t particularly richly-developed or sympathetic, ultimately the whole book succeeds brilliantly as a stitched-together panoramic snapshot of history and potential future; a somewhat-distorted lens capturing the landscape of our humanity, our triumphs and failings.
(Random House, 2004)