“A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect . . .” Thus sayeth a blurb on the back cover of my copy of Cloud Atlas. That is all true and, as has also been said elsewhere, Mitchell is a genius and the book should be read by all serious students of contemporary literature for both its brilliance and its flaws.
The brilliance shines in six stories stretching over untold centuries, six genres and a multitude of well-conceived and well-limned characters and scenarios. These include a nineteenth century sailing journal of adventure on the islands and high seas of the South Pacific; letters from a 1931 Belgian chateau where a sexually adventurous young composer is mentored by a dying maestro; a 1970s cross between The China Syndrome and a cheap detective thriller; a modern London farce with a dodgy publisher on the run absurdly imprisoned in a retirement community planning The Great Escape; a near future corporate dystopian clone-slave revolt; and a farther future descent of humanity into a twilight of barbarism in Hawaiian paradise.
The flaws glare in the structure as five of these stories are split and centered around the chronologically last so that we read them in the order 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. For one thing this means that by the time we return to the nineteenth century it has been a helluva a long time since we’ve been aboard ship and a great challenge to the reader’s memory. This in itself is not a flaw if it serves some artistic purpose but it does not. The structure smacks very much of unnecessary, even distracting, gimmickry. Perhaps one could argue that Mitchell wanted to return to the nineteenth century narrator to give him the final philosophical coda that (sorta) ties the book together with its comments on the predacity of humanity upon itself, but I would have much rather read the stories in order and had that coda delivered by the last narrator, a future Hawaiian version of Huck Finn whose simple yet deep observations at the end of civilization as we know it would have carried greater impact.
The reason I have called this My Cloud Atlas is that my opening quote is just the sort of thing I have been writing towards myself. Substitute “Carl Stevens” for “David Mitchell” and the “brilliantly original fiction” is four books so far published (The Canterbury Tales in Neverland, The Time Traveler’s Fool, The Charging Bull of Terry County and They Call Me Merlin Sherlock) written with something like my opening quote in mind. Each presents its own challenges to the reader, challenges in style, structure, diction, syntax and perspective, but I try very hard to avoid arbitrary challenges. I include no difficulty merely for the sake of difficulty. With Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas the ascent up his stories through time is an enjoyable challenge, the descent, an anticlimax. Complicated structure and authorial virtuosity in support of theme can be beautiful, as mere display they are meretricious. In my writing, the fireworks are more than glittering evanescence.
In an interview Mitchell summed up his theme in one word, “predacity.” One word themes require unpacking like any bags hiding their contents. One expansion upon the word based on Mitchell’s nineteenth century coda might be that humanity’s predacity upon itself, perhaps greed would ring more clearly for some readers, gave birth to civilization and will also give death to it. If I were to play the same game with my first four books, I suppose I could say the theme is “story.” Unpacked that reads as story is our greatest source of knowledge and our most unreliable. It took Mitchell six stories crammed into one book to unpack his simple theme. I will leave it to the curious to unpack what they may from mine.
Addendum upon watching the film
Mitchell is right. They do a good job. As always they change things for the film. Some things are dropped, some conflated, others added but it all rings true as an adaptation of the book. I would even say it is a better movie than the book is a book. I could proceed to write a whole book on that last sentence, but I will not. I will close with the observation that I want people to write whole books about my own work, but I do not want to write whole books about others; not at least in the direct way of a critic. I have spent a life training myself as a creator who builds fiction from the work of others and from the living off that life. I am sure that someday Cloud Atlas will work its way into my writing. I am not seeking a job as a critic.