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Good Writing but Overambitious
le 15 janvier 2013
When I heard about the movie “Cloud Atlas,” I was intrigued enough about its unconventional storyline and narrative to want to read the book on which it was based. A story that spans several centuries and told from different voices and perspectives, with elements of thriller, historical and science fiction, seemed like a perfect match for my own interests. However, while it has certainly turned out to be a technically and narratively remarkable book, I was decidedly underwhelmed with it.
“Cloud Atlas” is comprised with six different stories, each of which except the sixth is punctured in the middle with the subsequent one, only to be returned to in the inverse order later on. The book has a form of one-dimensional nested Russian-doll. This is a very clever and technically challenging narrative structure, and with the right kind of material it could have been a real masterpiece. However, in the end I didn’t find this working out all that well. First of all, the stories are VERY loosely related to each other. Their tenuous connection relies more on insinuations, allusions, off-narrative developments, and certain stratagems (reincarnation?) that are never fully and explicitly developed and feel more like deus ex machina ploys than organic plot developments. Furthermore, it was really hard for me to get into most of these stories, with an exception of maybe one and a half of them. They seemed contrived, and it was not easy to start carrying for a whole new set of characters every forty pages or so. And once I did, the stories abruptly broke off, oftentimes at some of the most interesting points. By the time I returned to them, I had mostly forgotten what they were about in the first place, and cared even less about “what happens next.”
Finally, there is the whole issue of language. Mitchell is definitely very skillful writer, and for the most part pulls off very convincingly various narrative viewpoints, styles, and dialects. This works very well as an exercise in writing skills, but as a novel meant to be read by a wide audience I find this approach verging on overbearing and pretentious. A turn of phrase or an idiosyncratic narrative voice would be forgivable in Melville, but not so much with a contemporary writer pretending to be Melville. It was also very hard to follow some of these stories because of their linguistic peculiarities, particularly the one written in Hawaiian pidgin.
I was also unimpressed with the moralizing and dystopian aspects of this book. Many of the themes were explored with much more conviction and credibility in works that were ostensibly far less ambitious in their scope. (“Never Let Me Go” comes to mind for instance, as well as a handful of sci-fi movies.)
This is certainly a very ambitious and technically sophisticated book, but it overreaches and fails to deliver on the level of pure plot development. It took me really long time to actually go through this book, much longer than for any other literary science fiction book I have read in a long time. Parts of it are interesting and thought-provoking, but as a whole it left me very much underwhelmed.