Monday, May 12, 2008

A Good Concept Is Not Enough: Cloud Atlas

I have a feeling this may well become my mantra. A Good Concept is great, but it Is Not Enough. David Mitchell, take note.

Cloud Atlas has a very good concept, but is only mediocre-ly executed, in my opinion. It contains six interlocking stories which have been recorded in various media. In each consecutive story, the manuscript of the previous story is discovered. In this way Adam Ewing's Pacific Journal (his account of his time voyaging in the Pacific Ocean) is discovered by the aspiring composer Robert Frobisher in the home of his mentor Vyvyan Ayrs in the Belgian countryside. Frobisher's letters to his British lover, Rufus Sixsmith, are discovered by a young journalist, Luisa Rey, as she investigates the mysterious death of the eminent physicist Rufus Sixsmith. Then Timothy Cavendish, a broke publisher, is given a copy of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery to edit and possibly publish. The film made of Timothy Cavendish's life is watched by the genetic fabricant Sonmi-451 in a dystopian Korea of some lost time of the future. In the final story, Sonmi-451 has been elevated to the status of a god by the people of a post-acopalyptic Hawaii. So you see how Mitchell has succeeded in his aim of creating a set of stories like a Babushka doll?

I love this concept, and maybe it spoils it for a reader to have it explained to them as I just did, because much of the pleasure from this book for me was watching as the patterns emerged, his aims revealing themselves gradually to me.

But I thought the individual stories were not particularly well-realised. The first two, of Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher, were slightly above-average historical fiction, but not really anything special. The Luisa Rey story was a thoroughly unremarkable thriller. But I've yet to encounter a thriller that I don't find thoroughly unremarkable, so there you go. Timothy Cavendish was... meh. I couldn't bring myself to care. Sonmi-451's dystopia was dull. For me, dystopia has been explored so thoroughly by so many authors that it has to either explore profound moral and ethical dilemmas or to be radically different from every other, and this example of the genre did or was neither. And Sloosha's Crossin' and ev'rythin' that happ'nd after (the post-apocalyptic Hawaii story) was positively painful. Writing in a dialect is all very well, but it is so. hard. to. read. that it takes away any pleasure I could somehow have found in that rather uninteresting tale.

There were some interesting and relevant ethical (actually I don't think that's the right word) dilemmas touched upon, such as the plight of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands in Adam Ewing's Pacific Journal, and this general theme of dispossession by a more violent race was touched upon again in Sloosha's Crossin', but I didn't find that it was examined in enough depth to make it worthwhile.

One of the main problems with this book, in my opinion, was that, due to the constraints of the concept, the stories were necessarily short. For me, much of the wonder of a novel is the building of a storyline that arches over everything, dictating structure and form. This seems to me to be the thing that is most difficult to do well. Thanks to the concept, this book couldn't do that at all, so I had no opportunity to admire the storytelling prowess of the author, much as I do admire the concept very much.

I don't really see why everyone makes such a big deal about the 'linguistic brilliance' of writing in different styles. Maybe I'm naive and/or big-headed, but I don't find it at all difficult to write pastiche, and this makes it difficult for me to admire it in anyone else because it doesn't seem like a difficult thing to do. As I said above, what I do find difficult is the over-arching plot thing, so maybe this is why this book completely failed to speak to me in any way.

Actually, many of the stories were quite entertaining in their own right, but the rapid switches between them were very irritating and broke up the flow too much.

In fact, after writing this review, I'm finding this book much more interesting, because it required me to examine a concept that seemed brilliant on the surface and discover its faults and weaknesses. One of my theories about art in general is that anything that forces me to think and examine my beliefs is a good thing, even if I don't like the work of art itself. I've spent longer thinking about Cloud Atlas than I do about most books, so I suppose I must take back much of what I've said and say instead that Cloud Atlas is, in some ways, an excellent book.

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