Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is divided into 6 separate stories that encompass 6 distinct genres told in 6 distinct writing styles. Its designation aCloud Atlas by David Mitchell is divided into 6 separate stories that encompass 6 distinct genres told in 6 distinct writing styles. Its designation as a novel, despite some ham-fisted echoes of one story within another, is really up for debate. It is also one of those post-modern “experiments” that self-reflexively defends itself against its critics.
So, before the reader can decry that the thriller section, entitled “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” is sub-par Crichton and Grisham, another character remarks that the very text you have just read is written in “neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay.” But, I guess my question is: if a character knows the writing is hackneyed and clichéd, and by proxy, Mitchell, the author, knows he is riffing on the supermarket checkout potboilers, does that make it anymore pleasurable for me to read 98 pages of this stuff?
And, before one gets too hung up on the weaknesses of any one particular section, the polymath Mitchell has already moved on to another literary form and voice: a journal echoing Melville’s later name-checked Typee, epistles rife with Victorian turns of phrase, a biography of a “veddy, veddy” British cad, an interview with a “fabricant” right out of Dick’s Blade Runner, and so on and so on, around the bookstore we go…
By the time I reached the novel’s center, a post-apocalyptic vignette told in a created patois mimicking slave narratives, I became ever more sure that Mitchell was great at literary gamesmanship, but he was very poor at holding the attention of a reader like myself who usually embraces a challenge. I love the post-modern trickery and difficult allusions of someone like Delillo, but in contrast, Mitchell’s experimentation comes off as a masturbatory exercise in search of engaging character and narrative. Maybe the fact that I’m not a fan of some of the authors and genres that Mitchell so openly uses as ventriloquist dummies only exacerbated my frustrations.
So, where do I come down on this one? The sheer audacity and scope of the novel is awe-inspiring at times. Several times I wondered, how could someone write this? (Of course, maybe a more apt question would be, why did someone want to?). And I was engaged by the end by its exploration of oppression and the power of storytelling to record facts and fictions alike—themes that are really more clearly delineated (even didactic) by the novel’s close than I initially suspected they would be. And, I probably wouldn’t dissuade another adventurous reader from picking this novel up. But, boy, it sure is a slog…
Being as it is near impossible to gauge the narrative strength of “A Christmas Carol”—the basic story and its many film and animated adaptations so inBeing as it is near impossible to gauge the narrative strength of “A Christmas Carol”—the basic story and its many film and animated adaptations so ingrained in our culture—I still can’t help myself from wondering if “The Cricket on the Hearth” would not be an even more beloved holiday staple if only more people knew of it. “Cricket” was, after all, more beloved in Dickens’s own time. The narrative twists and beautifully written passages give ample reason why a 19th Century readership, if not even a 20th and 21st century one, would prefer it. Of course, how many people are even thinking of Dickens’s knotty sentences and didactic moralizing in his original “Carol” text when they claim to love the book? Aren’t they usually just thinking of Alastair Sim or Mickey Mouse?
The real dud out of these first three of Dickens’s five holiday novellas is definitely “The Chimes,” another supernatural holiday story about the mistreatment of the poor, this time at New Year’s Eve. However, instead of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of literature’s most villainous of characters who is in due need of his comeuppance, Dickens’s New Year's goblins pile their heartbreak upon the seemingly good-hearted and undeserving Toby “Trotty” Veck. Clearly an attempt by Dickens to try to cash in again on the earlier success of “Carol.” ...more
Vowell describes Americans as “fun-loving dopes” and admits that she has come to appreciate her “one dumb-ass little passion” of Pop-A-Shot arcade basVowell describes Americans as “fun-loving dopes” and admits that she has come to appreciate her “one dumb-ass little passion” of Pop-A-Shot arcade basketball precisely because it has “no point at all.” And, while such an ethic can provide for a breezy and intermittently smirk-inducing read, the inclusion of some essays in this collection for seemingly “no point at all” (toss-offs on Tom Cruise, former Dallas cowboy coach Tom Landry, and New German Cinema particularly read like non-sequiturs) starts to make the columns of Maureen O’Dowd almost look like probing and restrained editorials by comparison.
Luckily, for both Vowell and her readers, her deft handling of topics like the commodification of natural and historical sites, our growing divide from our parents and distinguished figures of the past (the great “The First Thanksgiving”), and our national want to create an unvarnished historical record of our country (the two standout pieces, “California as an Island” and the titular, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”) add some much needed heft to this hit-or-miss collection, in the end warranting a few hours of your time to weed out the gems.
Choice line: “A person keen on all things French is called a Francophile. One who has a thing for England is called an Anglophile. An admirer of Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s is called Pat Buchanan.”...more