Sunday, 19 February 2012

Send In The Clouds

It's entirely possible I'm forgetting something, but I do believe Cloud Atlas is the first book I've read that was even shortlisted for Man Booker.  I was persuaded to leave my normal literary hunting grounds by the fact I was given this book as a birthday present (a few years ago - I'm running badly behind), and because its giver VM promised me at least one third of the story would take place in the future, and therefore be cool.

And cool it is, in the main.  It strikes me as more of an experiment with form, rather than anything else.  The novel is made up of six connected short stories in which the nth story, rather than following on from story n-1, is actually nestled inside it.  Only the last story to begin, "Sloosha's Crossing an' Ev'rythin' After", runs from beginning to end uninterrupted.

All of the short stories within themselves are at minimum fairly good ("The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" and "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" are the weakest offerings here, the former of which is interesting rather than entertaining, whilst the latter is entertaining, but too long for what it contains), and at best are genuinely very impressive ("An Orison of Somni-451", "Sloosha's...")  Moreover, as has been noted elsewhere, the difference in tone, setting and language across the stories is remarkable, especially since Mitchell barely puts a foot wrong.  Barely two pages go by without someone saying something very smart, or pretty funny, or both.

So it clearly works as a short story collection.  By arranging them as he has, though, Mitchell is asking us to judge the work as something else again, and I'm not convinced that he's persuaded me.

First of all, the internal justification for this unusual set-up struck me as overly cute.  Each story is being read or watched by a character in the following story, and so the interruptions track with the point where those characters were forced to break off.  I guess you could argue that this feeds into the theme on interruptions that runs through the stories, but really, what is fiction but descriptions of interruption?  "Life is what happens when you're making other plans", as John Lennon said.  So I don't think there's any thematic justification.  As I've said, it seems more likely (I've not read any commentary from Mitchell on the subject) that this is merely experimentation with a new structure, which makes the weak explanations for some of the interruptions ("This book has been broken in half", "I must have left the rest of the manuscript back in London") rather more annoying than anything else.

Leaving aside the mechanics involved, though, there are other two questions - really one in two parts - to be considered: what does Mitchell do with the structure to justify using it, and how well does the book link the narratives into a whole?

On this front Mitchell has mixed success.  The main conceit, that five of these six characters are reincarnations of the same soul (the sixth is presumably an exception, since his life overlaps considerably with that of another, and he lacks the tell-tale birthmark that the others share) would be on its own terms a fairly poor link, which is to say, essentially no link at all.  Any collection could claim the same, with only the insertion of a few extra lines here and there, and with careful choice about when each character lived and died.  The repeated theme of the exercise of power upon those who cannot feasibly resist is also not enough (which is not to say that said theme isn't deftly handled, for all its lack of originality). 

On occasion, Mitchell goes further, and begins to take full advantage of what his structure allows.  Phrases that seem innocuous or obvious in one story take on new meanings when another is completed.  A character will pass comment on a previous story and change our own take on it, giving a new context when we return to it.  There's also, without wishing to give anything away, something very powerful in the setting of the final story to begin, given what we know of the fifth story, and still more power once both stories have ended.

For every such moment, however, there are at least two in which Mitchell pokes fun at his own enterprise (two stories are dismissed by their readers as either not realistic, or just flat-out not very good).  One story, set in the mid '70s, takes place in a fictional US State, Beunas Yerbas (some have assumed Beunas Yerbas
is just a fictional city in California, but since it's described at one point as Beunas Yerbas, BY, the state must be fictional as well).  Does that make every story in the progression just as "unreal"?  Or is that story a fictionalised account of "real" events?  Whether you find this kind of metaphysical horse-play interesting or not is a matter of taste, but at the very least, I'd think it might have been worth using the links between narratives for something a little more useful.  Maybe this is just Mitchell letting us know he's not taking any of this too seriously.  Indeed, one character has a similar idea for a piece of his own, and confesses to us that he's not sure whether it's "Revolutionary or gimmicky".  Reassurance that the author is in on the joke?  Or an admission the author isn't convinced that any of this will hang together?  I've no idea.

In any case, if this is the metric by which we are to measure it, Cloud Atlas is certainly not revolutionary.  On the other hand, it is certainly too well-constructed to be accused of gimmickry.  I'd be tempted to suggest "lightweight" as a more apt description; a whole only fractionally more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, they are very good parts, and I'm not immune to the argument that maybe that should be enough.


Tomsk said...

I've only read Ghostwritten but I understand Mitchell is the go-to author for odd story structures. Ghostwritten has the same slightly contrived air but also very cool.

SpaceSquid said...

Does it also pass the Calamari Cool Test, most succinctly described as "has shit wot can't happen in it"?

Tomsk said...

That depends whether you think a malign, disembodied artifical intelligence could happen or not.

Oh, and there's a ghost of course. (I can't remember if they were one and the same thing).