David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: Genre-Pogo Sticking, and Doing it Well

A multitude of apologies to any who held me to my promise to report on Gravity’s Rainbow.  As the great poet Amanda once said, the best laid plans of mice and men are oft thwarted by their own incalculable sloth.  I wanted a book, I was upstairs, Gravity’s Rainbow was in the basement, Cloud Atlas was in the guest bedroom.  Cloud Atlas wins by proximity.

I had put the book on my Christmas list knowing next to nothing about it.  An author in the New York Times’ book review had opined that all students of literature should read it, and I had thought, “Students of literature? Why, that’s me!  Someone’s telling me to do something!”  So, like any well-programmed English major automaton, I sought out a book because the “experts” say I should.  Now, this robotic behavior is only re-enforced, because Cloud Atlas is simply stunning.  I love you, experts!

I’m only a little more than a third into the book, but the post simply couldn’t wait.  I am quite enthusiastic about the experience so far.

A review from the Boston Sunday Globe is printed on the back of my Random House edition, and it describes the defining characteristic of the book best, I think: “One of the biggest joys of Cloud Atlas is  watching Mitchell sashay from genre to genre without a hitch in his dance step.”  I couldn’t agree more.  The book opens with a entries from a kind of travel journal written by a credulous, wholesome, and rather dense character.  The year is about 1850, and Mitchell does a pretty great job of mimicking the spelling, phrasing, and general mindset of the times.  (Some of the colloquialisms–“backcountry,” “refused to take a cent for it”–ring a little inauthentic for the 19th century, but whatever…since another character later mentions feeling the same way about the phrasing in the travel journal in another section, I wonder if it won’t be addressed later in the book).  Mitchell demands some investment from the reader right away, which may be off-putting to some.  It’s hard to orient yourself to what’s going on in the first few pages, and the writing is rather dry.  This is because the character writing is himself a grandmotherly milquetoast, not because Mitchell lacks zest as a writer.  He is plenty zesty and proves it in the next section.

The first section ends abruptly.  I mean, mid-sentence abruptly.  It’s jarring, which, I assume, is calculated.  The next section is written masterfully and was such a pleasure to read.  It consists of letters written by a gregarious, rougish young musician living in Europe in the 30s to his friend, Mr. Sixsmith.  The character is despicable but immensely entertaining, and the letters are wonderfully done.  Mitchell balances perfectly the language of a man of high English breeding who engages in lower-class behavior and acts on socially-rejected, promiscuous or frowned-upon desires, and Mitchell never misses a beat as far as era-appropriate language goes.  This young man stumbles upon the travel journal from the first section and sells it to a collector.  (And then prostitutes himself to the collector. And then robs him.)  Voila! The first two pieces are connected.

The rest of the sections continue to be like that–connected in unexpected, interesting ways.  The next section is a suspense/mystery piece set in the 70s, with a young journalist protagonist (a woman refreshingly not romantically defined) who meets Mr. Sixsmith, recipient of the previous section’s letters.  She winds up finding those letters, among other things.  This section, in keeping with the genre, is comparably readerly, though not brainless.  It’s a  page-turner, and I had difficulty putting it down.

The next section is written by a crotchety old Englishman, and  it is hilarious.  I’m not even sure what the genre is.  Irreverent 2000s realism?  The section’s narrator is an editor, and a mystery woman sends him the contents of the previous section to examine for publication.  Connection!

This collection of interrelated-short-story-type of snippets is extremely appealing to me.  I almost feel as if I’m a part of an exclusive club or part of an inside joke.  Every new section talks about people I already know from before, and I get to maybe learn more about those people or see what connections they have with other people or events.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s why magazines like People attract eyes at the grocery store or being in the gossip loop is so valued–because we all have this interest in finding connections between people, and we bond over these connections.  Like, “Ooo, an actress, I recognize her.  And she knows this actor, who I also know, but never knew that she knew.  And they’re having a baby, creating a hybrid person out of these people I know…”  Maybe these new interrelated-short-story collections are my version of People magazine, because I really enjoyed Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad for the same six-degrees-of-separation-like reason.  Each section elaborates on a person I’ve already met, and I get to see who that person winds up knowing and how their stories affects others’ stories…

May I just say, too, that I am tickled by the presence of an author, living and writing NOW, at this VERY MOMENT, who does not feel a compulsion to include Superfluous Raunch in his book?  Construction of any type of media these days is apparently considered unfinished without the inclusion of some S.R., and it’s a breath of fresh air to see its absence in Cloud Atlas.

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