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Thursday, February 10, 2011

David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS

David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas  is on a lot of people's lists as one of the best innovative novels of the last decade, and for good reason. So far in my read it is symphonic in its structure and reach, virtuosic in its command of style and texture, and a fantastic, fast read all in one.

The book is divided into six very distinct narratives, taking place decades and even centuries apart, with different plots and characters in each. Five of the six narratives appear twice. If the narratives are represented by letters, they go as follows — a,b,c,d,e,f,e,d,c,b,a.

Right now, I have completed the first three narratives, a,b, and c. a is entitled "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing." It concerns a man who begged his way on board a Dutch ship as it went east across the Pacific to San Francisco in the1830's.

This is an example of a few typical sentences: "Torgny the Swede knocked on my coffin (i.e. cabin) door. Surprized and intrigued by his fertive manner, I bade him enter. He seated himself upon a 'pyramid' of hawser and whispered that he bore a proposal from a ring of shipmates. 'Tell us where the best veins are, the secret ones you locals are keeping for yourselves. Me 'n' my fellows'll do the pack work. You'll just sit pretty and we'll cut you in a tenth share."

Torgny was referring to California mining fields, which he assumed Ewing was aware of. What's of interest in this passage is the pompous and melodramatic word choices: "bade" rather than "asked." "pyramid" instead of "pile." "Whispered" instead of "spoke quietly." "Ring" instead of "group." In this little paragraph we learn a lot about Ewing and, since he is the narrator, a lot about the narrative as well. It is pompous, overblown, and not particularly observant. Why should Ewing trust Torgny?

The next section is also in first person. It is entitled "Letters From Zedelghem" and is set in Belgium in the early 1930's. A young musician and composer, Robert Frobisher, is serving as an aid to Ayrs, a great, but elderly musician. Together, the two of them begin to excite the music world once again. Frobisher's writing is tighter, more direct, often leaves out the assumed subject, and is cynical and skeptical. In other words, miles from that of Ewing.

"Cause for minor celebrations. Two days ago. Ayrs and I completed our first collaboration, a short tone poem, "Der Todtenvogel." When I unearthed the piece, it was a tame arrangement of an old Teutonic anthem, left high and very dry by Ayrs's retreating eyesight. Our new version is an intriguing animal. It borrows resonances form Wagner's Ring, then disintegrates the theme into a Stravinskyesque nightmare policed by Sibelian wraiths. Horrible, delectable, wish you could hear it. Ends in a flute solo, no flutterbying flautism this, but the death-bird of the title, cursing the first-born and last-born alike."

All of Frobisher's writings are letters to his friend Sixsmith. We may question his behavior: he apparently sends over a valuable book he had no right to to Frobisher so that he could have some money. Frobisher's sense of himself is quite high. He punches out verbs with no subjects, banging away at the idea that he had perhaps more to do with the creation of these pieces than he is given credit for. It's a fascinating juxtaposition -- the dry, worldly Frobisher versus the foolish, melodramatic Ewing.

There is one explicit connection between the two. While in Belgium, Frobisher comes across a copy of Ewing's diary and reads it. Other than that the connection is nebulous.

Not so with the next narrative, "Half-Lives: The First Luis Rey Mystery." Here, the Sixsmith of the previous narrative is in his 60's, it is now the 1970's, and he is a scientist working for an energy company building nuclear power plants. He has found out compromising information, and they may want to kill him for it. The 39 pieces tend to be straightforward, third-person vignettes told from the perspective of more or less one character. They are a page-turning mystery.

I don't want to go into it any deep other than to say it's a genre piece: it is a mystery, filled with the sort of clichéd talk and clichéd characters you might expect there. What rescues it? Well, that it is in the middle of a novel with such interesting stuff going on around it. I am not yet sure why it is here and what it is doing. But it was fun to read. More later as I move through this important work.

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