Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

I have had several encounters with metafiction this year, a style (genre? form? I'm not sure what it is, exactly) that I find fascinating and so full of promise. I was sometimes disappointed and other times very ambivalent, and so when I decided to read Cloud Atlas (in preparation for the movie), I was not sure how to feel. Excited? Nervous? Bored?

The experimental, metafictional quality of Mitchell's novel is that we get six different stories, which interrupt one another and connect back to each other. This makes more sense with an example: the first story is given the title page "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", which is the diary of a man sailing from islands in the Pacific to Hawaii. This narrative interrupts itself to start a new one, called "Letters from Zedelghem", the epistles of a musically-inclined young man who starts working as an amanuensis to a dying composer. While living with this musician and his family, the main character (Robert Frobisher) discovers a book in the library called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

And so on. This repeats six times, with the final story running without interruption; after its course is run, the other five close themselves up so that the last section of the whole novel is Adam Ewing's journal again. I was afraid that this would be gimmicky, because even trying to describe it makes it sound so. It's easy to think that David Mitchell is going to rely on this technique as a crutch, that it's going to be the only thing interesting about the book, but have no fear!

Cloud Atlas managed to make me invest myself so fully into the stories of six different characters and their locations and situations (~1850 on the Pacific Ocean, a futuristic corpocracy Korea, and a modern-day English nursing home, for example) that I never once felt that the book was leaning on its gimmick too hard. Mitchell has a powerful gift in the creation of interesting characters, as each of them stands out in my head as unique and fully developed. There is not, for me, a "weak" tale in the collection. All of them manage to shine.

The narrative jump was not nearly as intrusive as I thought it might be. At first, it was disarming (especially because the first story ends mid-sentence, but none of the others do), but after the second jump, I was eager to find out where we'd be taken next, and then eventually to see how everyone's stories conclude. I looked forward to the jumps because each narrative manages to evoke a different emotion than the last.

And this is Mitchell's true strong point: we are able to feel so deeply and powerfully connected to characters we don't get to spend very much time with them (at 509 pages and 6 sections, that's about 85 pages per story). It's an amazing feat to make me feel heartbroken for a character I've only spent ~100 pages with, because there are books out there that are much longer but cannot get me to care about their characters at all.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas succeeds in so many ways: as an experimental novel testing the boundaries of narrative, as a six-fold character study, as a flood of emotion. If you come to the book because you like metafiction or because you like beautiful fiction, you will not be disappointed. Cloud Atlas is magical.

My rating: 5/5

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