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.


6 responses to “On reading ‘Cloud Atlas’

  1. I also like it. Enough said.

    • Not nearly enough. I want 500 words at least, and you’ve got to tell it from the perspective of a slumdog kid.

      Thanks for commenting, Mike. I’m getting all trippy in my unemployment. :)

  2. Dreaming sounds like a very apt response to the novel – dreams are themselves tessellated sequences of often separate narratives. Lovely review, as ever, although I’d like to know more about why you liked the book – but that’s possibly just blog-greed on my part. :)

    • Yes – it’s not an awfully helpful review, is it? I’m trying to get away from the commonplace reviewer’s idiom (which I find a bit boring) and write something that’s nearer ekphrasis, or “reviewing for reviewing’s sake” – a phrase I’ve literally just made up but will endeavour to remember. Anyhow, I can understand why it might make frustrating reading; I can only say I’m glad you bothered. ;)

      I was going to ask you sometime: are there any other literary bloggers you’d particularly recommend? I’ve come across an awful lot of casual ones which are fun to read but I’m probably more interested in those that try a bit harder to write really thoughtfully and engagingly. Your blog is a good example of the sort of things I’d like to find more of.

  3. dervish, you are too kind. Thank you. It’s true that I haven’t come across huge numbers of literary blogs that really get down with the books, or if they do, they can be academic, or simply grinding axes. I like Wuthering Expectations, who has incredibly eclectic material, but always interesting points to make, and there’s A Commonplace Blog, which can be good on literature, but watch out for the discussions, the blogger is a bit of a troll. I also like Incurable Logophilia, but that blogger has just had a baby and isn’t posting so much of late (although the recent discussion of misogyny and Philip Roth has been good). And there’s an American academic who blogs at maitzenreads.wordpress.com, can’t think of the name of the blog as I’ve only recently found it, and she looks quite intriguing. If I think of any others, I’ll come back and mention them.

    Oh and i quite understand and applaud your desire to do something different. There is such a huge scope for doing something different, if only we could think of it – so don’t stop. :)

  4. I had to come back to correct something – the blog Novel Readings can be found at this address:

    not wordpress. It pays to check!

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