James's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jul 25, 2010

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Read from July 17 to 25, 2010

"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late."

So Robert Frobisher describes the composition of his "Cloud Atlas Sextet" in one of the six novellas that make up this one, big, baggy novel. In the end it (Mitchell's book I mean) is probably more gimmicky than revolutionary. He's an amazing ventriloquist: the six novellas are in the style of Melville, Mann, Kesey, Chandler, and Huxley. This isn't just me being clever; five of the six are pretty obviously pastiches of other novels and genres. The sixth, set in a postapocalyptic future, is probably referencing some sci-fi author I don't know about. This is both what's good and bad about this: it's amazing that DM is able to mimic all of these styles so well, but in the end it's just mimicry and the novel doesn't develop a cohesive voice, or narrative, of its own. The six novellas themselves are uneven: some of them are great (the ones about Luisa and Robert, specifically, and those two connect interestingly as well). In general, though, the connections between the novellas are loose and gimmicky: all of the protagonists share a comet-shaped birthmark, for instance, and occasionally there will be weird collisions between the story worlds. But these seem like afterthoughts. Overall, I think Mitchell was trying to turn his non-revolutionary talent—-he's a gifted, traditional storyteller--into a revolutionary novel, and it didn't come off that well. His more recent novel, I gather, is straightforward historical fiction, which seems like it would be more up his alley.
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