Saturday, January 27, 2018

Book Review - Cloud Atlas

I saw the trailers for the movie Cloud Atlas a few years back but never saw the film. In 2016 I read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and found it to be intriguing and engaging. It wasn't my favorite book of the year and I had some problems with it but I generally enjoyed it enough to be willing to give Mitchell's work some additional attention in the future. Cloud Atlas was written about a decade before Bone Clocks and someone mentioned to me that even though they can't be necessarily thought of as a "series" in terms of plot or the one being a sequel to another, they are related in terms of some of the structure (and even allusions to theme and character). So, I decided to give Cloud Atlas a whirl.

One of the first things a reader should know going into Cloud Atlas is that it is an ambitious read and one that will potentially frustrate and confuse while working through the entire novel. It's not that it's a difficult novel but rather it's that Mitchell has built the novel as a structure of 6 different novellas and most of those novellas are broken into two parts. Often the break point for the novellas happen in undesirable (for the reader) locations. In fact, the first novella ends mid-sentence. Of course, this is intentional on the part of the author and works to put the reader off balance. It certainly works but unfortunately (at least for me), the effect of being thrown off balance wasn't entirely beneficial to my approval of the book as a whole.

Taken on their own merit, the individual novellas/narratives aren't anything amazing. To a certain degree the stories felt like somewhat expected tropes for their given setting/genre. Don't get me wrong, I did find some creative elements and slight twists that kept the stories interesting but overall, I didn't find them particularly remarkable. The main accolade I can mention with regards to the individual stories is that it showcases Mitchell's ability to write stories in different voices and in different tones/genres/eras. Admittedly I am not scholarly enough to analyze his accuracy of historic vocabulary, spelling, mannerisms or racial/social diction, etc. nor did I do an analysis of his consistency of usage in the spelling and grammatical differences he employs. I can say that I found his use of vocabulary and diction to be generally believable as coming from the characters he created in the world he presented. I can say that I had an easier time with the archaic words and phrases from the historic sections than with the modified language in the futuristic sections. However, I did find some of the language to be distracting and annoying at times.

*Minor plot spoilers in this paragraph*

Critiquing the plot of the novel is difficult not because it's a difficult plot to follow but because that really isn't the point. As mentioned above, I didn't find the individual novellas to be anything remarkable. Each story has its own plot complete with unique characters, settings, rising action, climax and some degree of resolution. They are adequately entertaining stories but no single one of them is something that I would personally seek out or recommend. As far as the overarching plot of the book (as far as such a thing exists), we are following the trajectory of a reincarnated being from their first (?) life as a notary traveling by sea in the 19th century to the last (documented) life as an islander in a post-apocalyptic world. Each of the 6 stories shows some events in the life of this being and very coincidentally each life is peripherally (or sometimes more closely) connected to one or more of the former lives. The threads weaving the various lives together seemed to me very fragile and contrived. The only one that felt vaguely interesting to me was the relation of the second to last life (Sonmi-451) and the world of the characters in the sixth novella. It felt like there was too much effort put in trying to build plot points to keep these characters involved with one another and to me this was a disservice to the story.

*End plot spoilers*

So, if the plot isn't the point of the book and the novellas aren't remarkable, why read it? Why indeed? As an experiment on style and structure, this is an engaging study and worth looking at. While the plot as a storytelling element didn't resonate with me, perhaps elements of the plot will work better for other readers or perhaps some will be very interested in one or more of the novellas. It seems to me that the importance of this novel (and perhaps the reason for its praise) comes more in terms of the themes or ideas that it tries to present rather than the plot itself and at least equal to or possibly more than its novelty in form and structure.

While it's not heavy handed in its presentation of theme or thesis, I felt like the book does put forth the idea of knowledge and language and their relation to power and influence. The various unique voices of each novella act as illustrations for the impact of language on the world and the inhabitants. The ability for language to inform and to obfuscate is clear not only in the choice of words but also in the structure of the novel (such as ending a novella mid-sentence to put the reader off balance). The knowledge of the relationship between the characters in the novellas is intentionally kept hidden from the reader (and from the characters) until the author wants to make it known. As more and more knowledge is shared, the risks grow larger due to greed and struggle for power and influence. Eventually power corrupts and the world falls back into a time where language and life is more primitive. Our characters and our novellas come nearly full circle in terms of worldly capabilities and the relation of the language in each novella's language styles help illustrate this.

Is the novel effective in carrying out its purpose? I don't know. Partly because I don't know what Mitchell truly intended. The book certainly gained a lot of praise and even had a movie made. (Personally, I'm curious as to how well the movie would hold up since, as I mentioned above, I felt that the plot was secondary to the structure and theme) For my reading tastes, I much preferred Bone Clocks to Cloud Atlas. Bone Clocks had some similar concepts of reincarnation and similar uses of narrative and language structure in terms of the storytelling. But Bone Clocks also had stronger plot elements and linked together the reincarnated lives in a stronger way. Granted, Bone Clocks was likely trying to accomplish something different and appeal to readers differently.

Overall, I can't wholly recommend this novel but I wouldn't dissuade readers from it either. I found it to be an engaging read and something I found myself thinking about even while the book was back on the shelf. I admired the efforts of Mitchell to create an ambitious form and to weave his ideas and theme through an intricate tapestry of lives and language. For students of contemporary literary experiments, this is a book worth exploring. For somebody looking for a casual "beach read", this isn't necessarily something to pick up. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking work. I'm still thinking about it, though part of my thinking is honestly trying to think about if the whole thing was worth it. *grin*

3 out of 5 stars

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