The critical literature on Jack London’s Martin Eden is extensive and you do not need me to add much to it here. If you are reading this then it is likely that you are either an early discoverer of my fiction or it is a few years down the line and I have achieved enough fame that your high school English teacher is forcing you to write a paper on that Stevens guy. Let it suffice to say that Jack London is one of the most widely read and seriously considered American authors around the world, but in his own country he is known as the guy who wrote a couple books about sled dogs. When I was younger and even less well known I read Martin Eden as one of the thousands of books I considered essential to my autodidactic training as a writer. It stuck with me because of that egotistical trait of many a writer of seeing ourselves in characters, whether our own or those written by others; for the truly egotistical only the best model will do. Martin Eden is a self-taught self-styled writing genius who suffers terribly for his art and finally achieves fortune and fame to which he responds in a characteristically unique way. I have done my own version of that all except for the – to some- surprise ending. It’s a good book. Read it yourself to find out what I am talking about.
“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.
As a major best-seller with numerous in-depth reviews out there, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature hardly needs me to explicate in general so I will do so in particular for those who care how this book and others have contributed to my own writer’s philosophy which I have variously termed “literary survival” and “resonance.”
Rorty attacked analytical philosophy’s obsession with the image of the mirror of nature at the cost of recognizing the human nature of philosophical and, indeed, all discourse. One illustrative quote states that “(i)n this attitude, getting the facts right (about atoms and the void, or about the history of Europe) is merely propaedeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus of coping with the world. From the educational, as opposed to the epistemological or technological, point of view, the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths.” Or, as I have stated elsewhere, sometimes asking the question is more important than having the answer. Literary survival/resonance means that, as with Rorty’s idea of edification as the never-ending always fruitful conversation with new ideas, my fiction resonates with everything I have ever experienced. “Literary survival” calls attention to my allusive style wherein I engage with literature from ancient classics to modern pop culture with the overarching theme that the classics survive as raw material for my 21st century art. The title of The Canterbury Tales in Neverland quite explicitly calls attention to the fact that everything from the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer to the latest movie re-make of Peter Pan resonates in my work. The Canterbury Tales in Neverland also resonates with the theme of the epistemological quandaries of storytelling. Stories, whether passed down through the ages or made up afresh over a campfire, are the sources of knowledge with which the characters wrestle every step of the way. The struggle, whether with reading Chaucer and Shakespeare or arguing with friends and enemies, is an essential part of our edification, our education that never ends.
I wanted to write a classic regular folks would actually read. I wanted to write an adventure academics would find resonant with meaning. You tell me how well I did.