No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, February 28, 2005

#17: Cloud Atlas -- David Mitchell

I've heard so much about this novel, from SF fans and readers of literary fiction, and I was fascinated by the premise: six different voices (the earliest from around 1850, the latest in a post-apocalyptic future) in narratives that nest like Russian dolls. I held out for the paperback edition (technically out today, but my Amazon order arrived on Saturday) and ... was it worth the wait?

The bare bones of the story -- the rollercoaster ride towards that apocalypse -- don't seem especially novel to me, though I suppose they might to a reader who's unacquainted with genre tropes. And the links that join the six narratives are sometimes tenuous in the extreme. (Mitchell did something similar, stylistically, in Ghostwritten: it seems to work better here, though I'm still not sure that Timothy Cavendish fits into the cycle as well as any of the other narrators.)

What I especially admired (and what made me want to write something, anything) was the distinction between the voices. Adam Ewing, somewhere in the Pacific in the 19th century, is as stiff and stilted as a caricature, but he has sufficient depth of emotion not to be a stick-figure. SF readers may find the assimilation of brand names in Sonmi's narrative ('nikon', v. = to photograph; 'disney', n. = an audio-visual entertainment , etc) stale, but it's rather nicely done. Robert Frobisher is sly and wry, and his fatally flawed character is redeemed, for me, by the way Mitchell writes his all-consuming passion for music. Zachary's 'voice', all untaught and colloquial, hooked me on the rhythms of the words.

Sometimes I think Mitchell's touch is too light: I read almost all of the novel in one day, which made it easier to spot allusions and echoes, and yet I feel I've missed a lot of the hair-fine web of references that link the six narrators. I'm not even sure if the whole story arc makes more than vague sense to me: but the writing, and the conceit, and a couple of the characters, are spectacular.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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