I’m a terrible, terrible snob. Somewhere along the line in my literary life, I have acquired a vision as myself as the cultural elite. I cram my bookshelves with classic works I’d never have dragged myself through were they not on my degree’s syllabus, I read foreign authors because I feel I “should” have sampled their work rather than for true curiosity, and I raise a curling brow at the popular tables in Waterstone’s as I push my unnecessarily thick-rimmed glasses further up my nose and head deeper into the shop.
So it should come as no surprise that bestowing the title “Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year” on a book actively deters me rather than acting as the publishers eagerly anticipated. I deigned to purchase Cloud Atlas with a scholarly sigh; I might as well see what all the hoardes were fussing about.
But there’s no getting around it: Richard and Judy were right. Cloud Atlas is absolutely fantastic. Best book of 2012 until I tell you otherwise. An absolute triumph.
David Mitchell hath feasted of the Frankenstein cup of novel structure, in which separate narratives fit inside each other. Here, six stories stretching from past to future nestle inside one another before unfolding once more. It’s a testament to Mitchell’s astonishing abilities as a story-teller that with each successive interrupted story, you’re hooked and reluctant for it to end, even on the return back through the layers of narrative in the second half of the book. It’s expected that as you read into the future, the momentum will grow as you rush to learn the destiny of the world you’re exploring. But it’s evidence of masterful technique that as you read the second half, that feeling grows again until you’re desperate for the final outcome – despite it being the oldest in the sequence of the story, so intuitively the least interesting part as the consequences are already known.
Here at the end, the threads are elegantly and lightly drawn together into an uplifting and inspiring cry for belief and investment in humanity that you wouldn’t expect coming from a book which includes “The Fall” of civilisation, led by mankind’s voracious selfishness. Somehow, Mitchell spins the novel into an assertion that each individual has his role in creating the future; that they should work to create the world they want their children to inherit. This message is given without religiousity or posturing, or even a shadow of worthiness. Profoundly satisfying.
However, my favourite sections were those set in the future – the thrill and horror of the potential direction that the world is going in. Mitchell’s prodigious imagination paints a rich world of technological advance and spiritual regress, but draws its roots from our past and present, so that despite the more fantastical elements there is an emotional truth.
So what didn’t work? Several things. “Cloud Atlas” as a title was levered into the books a few times with awkwardness to articulate the link between these characters which was better made more lightly – merely suggested. In the novel’s returning gallop, Mitchell attempted to locate each narrative in its precursor, so that the letter/music/orison is found shortly before that narrative beginning. Such a literal approach is clunky and unrealistically neat, particularly as the numinous quality of the links between narratives and characters is the the intriguing and profound heart of the novel.
It’s a mark of a book’s success if I take to the internet to get more about it to soften the blow of the last page, and my googlings quickly uncovered news of a film in post-production with a glut of Hollywood stars. I’m intrigued but immediately set to be disappointed; at its best the book wears its profundity lightly through a storm of action, but at worst I can easily imagine the noise of the film’s action sequences will only be exceeded by the hammer blows of the handling of this deeper content.
Five stars to David Mitchell, and, fine, I’ll say it: Richard and Judy too.