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David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

I suspect I would have liked this more if I liked Calvino more. Mitchell can write, and when he's not overreaching he manages fine things. Unfortunately, the best ventriloquism is in the outer two sections (nineteenth-century South Seas journal, letters from a down-and-out interbellum composer), followed by a journey into less interesting territory: a fake thriller, a contemporary picaresque, a predictable dystopian story, and a section in postapocalyptic argot that owes something to Hoban's Riddley Walker, though it’s easier to read and less wowing. The links between the segments are generally gimmicky and sometimes don’t make sense—why on earth would a revolutionary of the future want to prepare for her execution by watching a comic film about the misfortunes of a British publisher? Clearly Mitchell is aware of using trite material; the segments tend to comment on the excesses of those preceding, and his contemporary narrator even announces the coming dystopian segment with a quote from Soylent Green, of all things. So it’s a pastiche of cliché, which is not automatically damning; Ulysses is a pastiche of cliché too. The question is what it adds up to.

In this case, the answer is “not much.” Halfway through the book, once it began to loop back through previous sections, I felt the same frustrating hollowness as at the end of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the realization that the connections are superficial and that the whole thing is an exercise. It’s impossible to take any message from it beyond some airy sentiment on the order of “Wow, reading is neat... and we’re all... connected....” I did finish it, since it concludes as it begins with the best two sections; but the overall effect is that of a quite talented writer producing an uneven story collection whose publisher has screwed up the page ordering.

 

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2005.12.03 =>

up (2005.11)

The Warm South
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