Monthly Archives: January 2010

On reading ‘Cloud Atlas’

And then I woke up on a cloud.

I can tell you, it’s like being suspended by your eyelashes and bathed in troposphere.

It is said that poetry is best read in coffee shops with ostentatiously crossed legs, and atlases under the drawing room table, and that espionage novels should only be opened in the evening rain – I prefer to read in bed. Which is lucky, for having finished Cloud Atlas it was necessary for me to lie down.

My emotions at this time are now curiously hard to place. Certainly, I wondered how on earth I had come to be so far above it. Nevertheless I soon turned to my memories of land, the elbowing hills and full voluminous lakes, and to the peculiar seething of the wind behind the moon.

People seem to have reacted to Cloud Atlas in various different ways. Eithne Farry was pleasantly ‘boggled’, AS Byatt was ‘enticed’ onto a ‘rollercoaster’, Wayne Burrows’ mind was ‘bent’. I fell asleep.

“… a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the whole world came to an abrupt end”.

It’s true that this was probably not the reaction David Mitchell had in mind. I had the most fantastic dream, though – clouds, all the mysteries of the universe revealed to me, say no more – and in some ways it is quite apt, a very succinct appraisal of a mesmeric, exhaustingly pleasurable novel. Pleasurable, because it is demanding but not at all leaden; an airy, unburdened peregrination through nonetheless uncertain territory.

Oh no – entirely painless. I scanned the roof of the sky with all the scope of my two wide eyes until they dropped to the horizon – at which point something was severed from me as if guillotined.

Cloud Atlas is an intricately tessellated sequence of six separate narratives

“an infinite matrioshko doll of painted moments…”

that link to each other in curiously indeterminate ways, enfolding each other. The novel considered as a whole is an extraordinary feat of versatility and eclecticism: a strange meeting of nineteenth century diary, thriller and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

I saw immediately that the great muddy revolving sphere underneath me was moving independently of the clouds in our second sphere, and the comets were chasing their tails above, and that there was no music. My thoughts moved in silent formations, like ants on a plate of glass.

In its own way, Cloud Atlas circles some Big Tiring Issues (eg. Power, Death, Time),  but only irresolutely, with a wary and suitable ambiguity.  If I were to write a proper review, I’d mention the sense I got that Mitchell is aware of how little can be written convincingly about this these things , that accordingly he refuses to complete the circle arbitrarily.  Structurally his book reflects the impossibly complex connectedness of life, which after all is only the accretion of moments that we attach meaning to.  Mitchell is awake to the dream of it all. He’s written my favourite book, I think, of the last decade.

Breathlessly I saw also how the clouds moved without moving and all at once I realised the utter imposibility of ever recording this, but I was somewhat comforted by the chiming of a clock somewhere behind my eyes…

“We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me like a heartbeat.”

Louder, and still louder.


The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

In the snow it is best to read a book by someone long dead.

With this in mind, yesterday I read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; a whimsical, lyrical, melancholy thing. It was never published in O’Brien’s lifetime (see how accurately the snow accumulates?) despite his admirers including Joyce and Beckett. It is, as reads the most perfect blurb I’ve read for some time, ‘A murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable of unending guilt.’

The novel’s first sentence is a measure of what is to follow:

Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Having murdered with some success, our narrator (unnamed, orphaned, an unemployed scholar) is surprised (in truth, he is somewhat shaken) to discover his victim alive and not a bit accusatory. It is altogether an ‘insoluble pancake’. He is nonplussed to find that his soul is an irascible fellow called Joe. He will later come upon an lonely constabulary that contains two policeman who know the road to eternity, and will take him there; he will learn of a postman who is at least 75% bicycle and meet the leader of a deadly gang of one-legged men.

The snow piles quite imperceptibly.

The Third Policeman is a remarkable novel, an almost-allegory of purgatorial eternity and an expertly conjured vision of absurdity. O’Brien is a superb lyricist and writes frequent passages of unexpected beauty; he spirits the languid airs and heaths and bogs of rural Ireland into existence with ease. And he can be very funny: the novel is peppered with footnotes pertaining to the obscure theories of De Selby, a man of ‘many ingenious if not convincing’ arguments including for the ‘accretions of black air’ of which he thinks night is chiefly composed. O’Brien excels at these deftly ironic, mock-academic asides.

The whole novel is written in a sort of verbose, aloof, aphoristic chatter (which I find entirely suits the twilit impossibility of snowed streets) – it is the bewildering exposition of a virtuouso eccentricity. It is trivial, delicate and weighty separately, and then is all three at once. O’Brien succeeds in sustaining a totally absorbing, constantly inventive, disconcerting, morbid, surreal narrative, and in transcribing what appears to be the occasional whitterings of an estranged second cousin of profundity. Recommended.

And after all it is best to read in the snow of the dead.

A Christmas haul:

“And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.” John 21:6

Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Borges
The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
Number9dream, David Mitchell
The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
Dart, Alice Oswald
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

And my only resolution is to blog on every book I read this year.