Friday, August 20, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 3: Discuss


Just as I expected, this book made for great book club discussion. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone preferred certain segments over others. Everyone had a unique experience with the book.

But figuring out how to sum it all up is proving more difficult than I thought.
In fact, the publisher clearly couldn’t even sum it up, as the back cover blurb reads:

“A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokvia love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwice, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.”

Have you ever read such a summary that says absolutely nothing?
So it may just have to come down to this: Cloud Atlas cannot be summed up. To get something out of it, Cloud Atlas requires a discussion or analysis or maybe a re-read if you have no one to discuss with.
The one thing most of us could agree on is that Mitchell used a unique format to tell the story (some found it more appealing than others; some found it gimmicky). Because each story is told in a different genre of literature, chances are you’ll find one that is appealing to your reading tastes. Historical fiction, noir thriller, sci-fi…it’s quite the variety. To me, splitting the stories in half increased the appeal, as each was left as a cliffhanger begging me to finish. And in my experience, I was much more interested the second time around, when things started to come together.
While pieces of individual stories came together, they never really came together as a whole. We were left questioning, “OK. What was the point of all that?” While I understand his overall point to the novel, why did it take him 509 pages to say what he pretty much concluding on the last page? Mitchell apparently isn’t one to blatantly point things out; it’s subtle and somewhat open to interpretation.
Like this comet birthmark I mentioned earlier. What was the point of that? Not much, except to hint that this one soul reincarnated. But that was apparently a literary reference to a Japanese (?) work, of which I would’ve had zero clue. See why I say this is too smart for me? And I still have to question why things like that are necessary. So that pretentiously smart people can discuss and impress themselves and each other when they catch a literary reference?
One conclusion we seemed to come to was that this was a book amount moments. It’s a collection of stories where we don’t necessarily get an entire picture of the characters and situations. We can’t say we really know all the characters Mitchell created. All are faced with decisions; some choose the high moral ground and some don’t. It doesn’t necessarily tell us their character, instead merely how they reacted in a certain moment. And we see how these moments and decisions affect the future, even in the tiniest ways.
There are a lot of themes thrown around; things like power (though I would like the woman who said that to please explain rather than throw around the word “power”) and greed and morals and human behavior and, essentially, the self-destruction of the human race. Pretty big, discussion-worthy ideas. But is this book going to be considered a master work of literature in ten years? Eh. As someone noted, it’s very a much a work of the early 2000s. Whatever that means.

[Read my earlier thoughts on Cloud Atlas: Part 1 and Part 2.]


Selena said…

I'm less scared to try this one… as it's been sitting on my shelf for years. It always sounded so interesting but the style and stories made it just a bit too much for me.

I'm glad that it generated a lot of discussion. I'm curious though, did anyone in the group dislike the book entirely?

Steph said…

I forgot about the comet birthmark, and I didn't realize that was referencing something else, but I guess the thing I felt about that, is that unless I am forgetting something, not every character in each story had the birthmark, did they? And even so, was that reincarnation angle really necessary? Because it seemed like it was an eerie way for the stories to unite, except Mitchell does that more explicitly anyway, by having the tales all nested within each other anyway.

I'm glad this book resulted in good discussion. I only wish I had been able to read it four years ago when my book club chose it!

Kari said…

No, actually, no one really disliked it. A couple people weren't too enthusiastic about it but they just admitted they were confused. I also don't think anyone loved it outright. Everyone liked some things, disliked some things.

Kari said…

About the birthmark thing, I think 4 out of 6 characters were referenced as having it. The only two I'm not sure about are the Timothy Cavendish story and the Sloosha's Crossing one. It did seem a little unnecessary because if that was a main point–that all these characters were really the same soul reincarnated–that telling feature was not developed very far.