Friday, August 17, 2012

Cloud Atlas

And so begins the horrendously long review/discussion of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I saw Laini Taylor raving about the movie trailer on her Twitter, and holy freaking god did it get me hooked. I went to the bookstore immediately after work because I couldn't even wait long enough to go home before starting the book. Before you go any further, dear reader, watch the trailer. Also check out this article, which has a neat little video from the three (3!) directors who are all way smarter than most of the people on the earth. The movie's out October 26! I've been making everyone I know watch the trailer. Here's an interview with the author (where I think he cleverly managed to NOT answer every one of the questions), and the BBC World Book Club interview, specifically about Cloud Atlas (no spoilers, I promise!).

A synopsis, from BN:
Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, inveigles his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. And onward, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

       But the story doesn't even end there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

To be honest, I was much more into the potential of the book than I was into the book itself. I couldn't wait to get to the part where everything clicked together and became Holy Fucktastic Awesome (!) and it became my favorite book of all time because of it's dealings with reincarnation and souls drifting through time. But really it was just six novellas that only mildly coincided with each other, and on the trailing half of the book I was reading it just to finish the damn thing. (You can tell how excited I sounded in the first paragraph, which I wrote last week so I didn't forget any of the links I wanted to include.)

I held out hope until the very last page (there were an overwhelming amount of Amazon reviews that said they immediately flipped to the beginning after finishing the book), but then I got to the end and I just don't get it.

Okay. I get that the characters are the same souls, reincarnated and finding each other through time. I get that. But aside from a couple of obvious references to the other stories, I just don't get how the stories are supposed to "talk" to each other. I expected an epic turn-around point when the middle story ends and we start going back into the past. But there was nothing there with any kind of meaning other than "Ok, on to the next story."

I was originally going to talk about each novelette, because while I was reading I had so many questions and so many plans for a great discussion. But then the stories would finished, and none of my questions would be answered, or even hinted at, and it all amounted to just a disappointment. Seriously, am I missing something? Is there a vein running through the book that I completely overlooked? Maybe it was my expectations. I've heard so many good things about Cloud Atlas I expected to rethink my worldview. Or an amazing love story that stretched over the millenia. I don't want to talk about each story, because I wanted to talk about the book as a whole.

But listen. The book did wonderful things with language, and in a way is a study in how language evolves and cycles through time. If your into that kind of thing, reading a book for the way it plays with words, then you may still love this book. I'm thinking Clockwork Orange, The Confidence Man, and Tom Jones here. I didn't like any of those books. I wanted a story, not a thinly-veiled study in linguistics.

I guess I shouldn't be so beat-it-down harsh. I still enjoyed parts of it, especially Sonmi's story, and it still made me laugh out loud at times. But ultimately it suffered from short-story syndrome, where I just can't get into it and fall in love with the characters. Sonmi's story was my favorite, and Zachary and Robert's stories are pretty close for second place. Robert's had the best ending.

I'm still excited for the movie, and for the actors' and directors' interpretation of the book. I am more than happy to let them to all the existential pondering for me so I can just sit back and watch the translation on the screen. I can get so much more out of body language from an actor than I can from 19th century literature.

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