A Somewhat Gloomy Forecast

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

image via www.aksara.com
image via http://www.aksara.com

The missus urged me to read this book because, I think, she wanted us to see the now-released movie, and wished me not to be too confused by the elliptical plotting and the horde of characters. So I obliged.

It took only a few pages to realize this is written in the postmodern style I’ve yet failed to appreciate. As a group, these novels are cynical, overly erudite in places, with too much attention to the story’s voice and not enough to the remaining characteristics of good novels, i.e., sharp dialogue, tension lessening scenic depictions and  broad narratives. And Cloud Atlas fits perfectly in the bullseye of such a description.

It’s a difficult plot to summarize, but I’ll try – in a hundred words or less. The book begins and ends in an epistolary account of the relations of South Sea islanders and whites in a particular century of European colonization. Then there’s more letter-writing, between composer Robert Frobisher to a friend, Sixsmith, concerning RF’s 1930s alliance with a famed Belgian composer Vyvyan Ayrs and his family, followed by some seesawing time changes in which big corporations are hiding their screw-ups, even as they’re screwing over the people of the planet. This begins a slow slide into apocalypse in which tribal life returns, but with some vestige of technology. Shades of Plato’s Republic!

First, I’ll be nice and say I admire Mitchell’s imagination, his vision for such a monumental work. Clearly, much thought has been put into this novel. Each of the several segments contains excitement, suspense, and many elements of a good mystery. Kudos for that.

image via www.guardian.co.uk
image via http://www.guardian.co.uk

But his dialogue, while sizzling in places, seems a one-note samba emotionally, and in one section in which he resorts to a made-up dialect, it’s downright distracting. His various narrators’ voices overwhelm any stabs he might have made at setting and complementary moods. Overall, the text is a sprawling affair that often invites boredom. If you haven’t read the book but plan to, my advice is to read fast. Either that or tie a flotation device to your ass to save you from drowning in the book’s pretentious depths. Okay, that’s pretty snotty – I apologize.

Still, the book is worth reading. Mitchell has a grasp of many of the implications of modern times’ so-called progress. As he writes near story’s end, “…one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself…Is this the doom written within our nature?” Surely this question must be asked, over and over, in as many ways as possible, as Mitchell tries to do, if the human experiment is to be worth its existence.

My rating: 14 of 20 stars

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