Monday, October 15, 2012

Adventurous nesting dolls

Book: Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Published: 2004 (Random House)

Pages: 509

This is like five novels dissected and nested into each other in a narrative structure that sounds so gimmicky it should get its own reality show.

But it works! So well! And it’s all David Mitchell’s fault!

A missionary’s Pacific diary gets into the library of a famous decaying composer whose scheming protégé writes letters to a scientist who helps an investigative journalist dig into a radioactive conspiracy whose story becomes a novel manuscript sent to a failing vanity press whose owner…something something, connection I forgot to a cloned servant whose life of awakening and rebellion in a futuristic China is recorded and preserved into the rebuilding of a post-apocalyptic society. And back again.

Each section has a completely unique voice that fits seamlessly into its time period, narrator temperament, and angle of adventure. (There’s always adventure.) This is David Mitchell’s strength—like, he must lift character voice weights five or six times a week because his words absolutely disappear into pitch-perfect dialect and internal monologues of whoever he’s writing for.

The interrupted style of narrative also helps keep the strong verbal ticks of each section from overwhelming the stories here, except in the middle. That one, the post-apocalyptic society trying to rebuild its connections with the rest of the world, is uninterrupted (cascading to the back ends of the others) and also leans the heaviest on self-developed slang.

But it’s so worth it. Each of the narratives touch on the one behind them in natural ways that emphasize the connectivity of time instead of winking and nudging the reader. Each one deals with revolutions and revelations and sends out branches and roots to reach out to each other and sketch out a very rough map of a giant chunk of human history.

The A.V. Club podcast says the movie doesn’t use this structure but is instead like a giant montage sequence, which I now have to see to decide if that’s a genius or terrible way of adapting this. Read the book for sure, though. (In fact, read David Mitchell in general. His Black Swan Green shows yet more of his range through a painful, pitch-perfect year in the life of a British schoolboy during the late 1980s.) Bookshelf! 

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