Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's hard to review a book that you've been told by dozens of people is amazing, brilliant and revolutionary, when you didn't like it. But here goes. I found Cloud Atlas pretentious and gimmicky and boring.

I read it for book club, which is the only reason I read it at all (and why I didn't give up on it.) If you don't know about the convoluted structure, the book tells six very loosely related stories that go forward in time (first one is in the 1800s, second one is in the 1930s, then the 1970s, and so on. The last two are set in the future.) But it only tells the first half of each story, until you get to the last one, and then you get the full story on that one, and then the second half of all the other five stories in reverse order. Only two of the stories did I like at all, the story of Luisa and of Sonmi (interestingly, those are also the only two stories with female protagonists.) The other stories I found pretty boring, especially the first two. I had hoped that upon reading the ends of the stories, they would be redeemed, but that didn't happen. In fact, once you get the setup of each story, for the most part you can guess what's going to happen in the second half. Supposedly Mitchell is discussing Great Themes, but the only one that stood out to me is that Slavery is Bad (really? I had no idea?) Also, apparently, civilization is doomed because we like shopping too much. Oh, and Soylent Green is people.

In one story (the one in the 1930s), the protagonist is a composer and he composes something titles The Cloud Atlas Sextet, which apparently is exactly like a musical version of the book, in which there is a piece written for each of the six instruments to be played sequentially but they each interrupt the one before, and then they reverse order and play the ends of their pieces. The character says he doesn't know if this will be considered revolutionary or gimmicky. I found it completely gimmicky. I found no rhyme or reason for the structure outside of Mitchell just seeing if he could pull it off. If each story had been told in full before the next one, I don't see that it would be detrimental to the overall novel at all. I didn't think the links between the stories were strong enough (in each one, one character has a birthmark shaped like a comet, which never factors into anything. Are we supposed to believe these are all the same person reincarnated? If so, to what end? There doesn't seem much point to that except to be a ham-handed way to tie the stories together.)

I will give Mitchell props for writing in very distinctive styles, from a 1800s ocean-going journal to a 1970s pulp-mystery to making up a futuristic island patois (that is very hard to understand). He was successful in those endeavors, with making the different eras feel authentic solely through the writing style, and his exercise also in varying the narrative form (journal, letters, interview, as well as traditional straightforward narratives) was successful. But to me it still felt very much like a narrative exercise. I don't think those varying conventions added much to the stories, aside from making it easy to not get the different stories mixed up (although they were so very different that shouldn't have been a problem even if they were all written in a straightforward fashion without the additional era-defining characteristics.) I felt no passion in the book. I rooted for almost none of the protagonists. In fact, a couple I actively disliked (Timothy and Robert.) In the end, I felt like Mr. Mitchell really wanted everyone to say "Ooh, how clever," but I'm sorry, I need more than that. A novel isn't just a way for an author to show off his techniques. It also has to tell a story that readers care about and that failed miserably here. Next time you want to show off and see just how you can push things and if you can carry it off, feel free, but keep it to yourself. Next time you have a great story to tell, that I'd like to read.


Jo said...

I feel like after reading your review, that I am quite okay with my decision to not read this book (at least, not in the forseeable future). It sounds like an interesting idea, but not really an interesting book. :)

Riv said...

Nice review. You pointed out a few things I had problems with regarding this book. I agree that the stories were loosely connected and that at times it could be taken, as you say, "narrative exercise".

But aside from that, I did enjoy it immensely. Maybe not even because of the plot flow but because of the different eras mixed and different and somewhat clever writing styles he used. My favourite was the second story (Robert Frobisher?). Felt like a proper beginning-of-the-last-century drama-queen artsy-type of guy. It was hilarious and amusing :)