Greg's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Aug 01, 10

bookshelves: fiction, life-is-shit
Read from July 25 to 30, 2010

One morning while reading Cloud Atlas I was leafing through The Lie that Tells the Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne and I opened to a page talking about how you have to leave room in a book for the readers to do some of the work. The readers need to fill in some of the gaps. According to Dufresne, this isn't just some advice that a writer can't give every piece of minutiae in a book, because that will make it unreadable, but also that readers want to put in some of the work. It makes them feel involved in the work, it invests them. Maybe Dufresne says this, but I was only leafing through the book while going to shelve it, but I think that this is one of the most important parts of a novel and something that maybe everyone else is going to be like, 'well duh', but that I only have somewhere in the back of my mind and rarely put words to the dim thought.

Two days ago I wrote the first paragraph. Now is two days later. I've thought of this some more. I realize that DFW talks quite a bit about this idea in the Lipsky book.
I've also thought of a rough scale of books that expect you to bring something to the table / put some time into them to get something out of them.

Children books
Newspapers / Self-Help-ish type books
Average Non-Fiction / Journalistic books
Average work of fiction
Literary Non-fiction
Literary Fiction
Philosophy / Poetry / Avant-Garde (whatever the fuck that means) Literature.

I have more distinctions to draw in almost all of those categories, and seriously your average newspaper / new bestselling 'expose' by Glen Beck, or a how to big up a woman using lying and deceit book all demand the same amount of work on the part of the reader, zilch. It's better actually in all those cases if the reader just doesn't think much at all it lets the message seep into the mind better that way.

Your awful boilerplate James Patterson-esque novel requires a higher degree of reader interaction with the text. Even if it is just to (un)consciously fill in the appropriate gestalts that will allow the author to work his / her twists of the plot on the reader. In this case it's the readers mind working against the reader and for the author as the reader attempts to solve the mystery going on and the author and mind are working in tandem at misdirection. As one continues up the ladder here more and more is expected on the reader's part for the work to succeed.

Part of the trick to finding a book one will enjoy is to find a work that is in synch with the amount of work you are willing to put into the book. A lot (but not all) of the people who say they only read non-fiction are in effect saying they are pragmatic people, when they read they want to be told what to think and get the meat out of the book ASAP. They want to know X so they read a book that will tell them X. For example if X is the secret to existence, they want to read something that tells them the secret (even if it's wrong) than say wrestle with a hundred pages of say Samuel Beckett to find out what that secret may be. This is a very silly example but it's sort of the kind of thing that people do in fact read books for. I'm not going to say anything about critical faculties or correctness, it's just that a self-help / new age book is going to present material in a way that the reader takes on a relatively passive position, they are told things; as opposed to other types of literature where if the reader doesn't bring something to the text there is just a bunch of words that tell some story that who really cares about. Like, I didn't read Proust because the thought of reading a few thousand pages about a guy who spends a lot of time laying around in bed was riveting to me. There is something more that I'm hoping to gleam from the book, and the book isn't going to just spit that something up without a bit of something from myself.

This is one of those books that demands a bit of work on the part of the reader to put the whole thing together.

I don't really know what the book means. I feel kind of the same way as I do about Infinite Jest as I do about Cloud Atlas they both are big in scope, but at the same time so myopic. The book almost feels like it could have been a TV show from Jonas Wergeland's "Thinking Big" TV series in the Kjærstad novels. The novel is a bunch of stories whose sum is greater and smaller than the whole, depending on what way you decide to look at the work.

Cloud Atlas is six temporally successive stories broken up into 11 sections. The first five stories are split into two, with the first part being told in the first half of the novel and the second in the later half. Only the sixth story is told without any interruption. One could re-read this novel by reading the six stories as six complete stories and look for different connections between them, and maybe they would read differently than in the way Mitchell lays them out. The way that he does put the stories though creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold. I want to almost say that there is something of a mobius strip quality to this novel, but I don't want there to be any Joycean undertones here. If there needs to be a literary anchor for the term than maybe John Barthes' short story "Mobius Strip" as a referent.

I'm saying a lot without saying much at all.

I want to say that this book is awesome, but that you have to want to work with the book. The book might ultimately fail to fully do everything that Mitchell wants it to do, but I'm not sure what he does want it to do. There are arrows pointing to where the author might possibly want the reader to go, but there are also nods and winks that give the reader the choice to pursue other avenues of thought. The only problem with these winks and nods is that the narrative is not fully contained. There is no big act of misdirection being played where the reader can be surprised but ultimately comforted, and without the comforting part there is an unease left in this kind of novel. But it's the really good kind of unease that authors like DFW, Evan Dara and Pynchon expose for us.
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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine I actually can't wait to see what you think of this. I have been half way done with it for like two years.


JSou Are you going to review this?


Please?


Greg Yes, I am going to. Probably tomorrow morning I'll write it!


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Really looking forward to this review as well. I really liked Mitchell's first novel (Ghostwritten). It's the only one I've read so far, but I've been really interested in Cloud Atlas since joining Goodreads and reading a bit about it.


Greg I think I could have summed up a lot of what I said more succinct manner.

Elizabeth, I agree with being willing to work as long as the author isn't expecting me to do all the work. The authors who expect the reader to do more, than what I'd feel, their fair-share of the work are some forms of avant-garde fiction / poetry. Some Beckett falls into this category for me.

One of those game / pick-up artists were in the store yesterday and he was using the line, "I only read non-fiction" to a girl he was trying to impress with his seriousness.


karen i envy you for knowing how to make your a's and e's connect.

that is all.


Greg I don't know how to do that. I copy and pasted the name to get it to look right.


karen oh. well, i only read nonfiction so nyah nyah.


message 9: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Awww snap! It's a good thing no one on this website is devoted to exclusively reading non-fiction (other than karen). Someone might get his (or, ahem, her) feelings hurt.


message 10: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine yay. I did the second way or reading maybe that is why I never finished it.


karen my copy of this book is in a stack under 51 other books. it will probably be awhile before i read it, just because of my book-avalanche-fear.


message 12: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine That is a valid fear


message 13: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Did you make that number up? Is it really fifty one books?


message 14: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine I can't remember where I put a kind of intimacy I don't know how karen even remembers where they are let alone the exact number of books above it.


karen i counted. fifty-one. time well spent.


message 16: by oriana (last edited Aug 08, 2010 12:35PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

oriana I can't believe you name-checked Kjærstad; that's the coolest. (And Karen, if you have a Mac it's just option + ' )


message 17: by Carol (new)

Carol Neman That's Greg, wordy as usual, but spoken from the heart.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I missed this somehow when you first posted it. Great review.


message 19: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Paganus Thanks for a great review, Greg.
I rushed out and bought the book (because I loved his first two) and read it before I read any reviews or interviews.
I was my own guide, and I think I was misguided (i.e., I misguided myself).
I might have another crack at it based on your suggestions.
Sometimes, something novel is a lot easier the second time around.
You can pay less attention to the minutiae and more attention to the signposts that might have been there all along.


message 20: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I would cavil that good children's books actually do require work. It is slightly different work because it is for newbies; stretching exercises before the mind gets to the strenuous stuff.


karen yeah, you jerk!


message 22: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Miriam wrote: "I would cavil that good children's books actually do require work. It is slightly different work because it is for newbies; stretching exercises before the mind gets to the strenuous stuff."

You are right. I think I might have been thinking of children books being read by adults, but even that has some problems. I actually remember thinking of board books in particular when I was writing this, and I think what an adult would have to bring to the board book to get the message or lesson the book was looking to teach.

I am an asshole.


karen agreed!


karen that you are an asshole


message 25: by Miriam (new)

Miriam There are certainly ones that don't require work, like some of the purely didactic stuff, maybe.

It's interesting you were only thinking in terms of adult readers, though. I suspect some children's books are actually more work for adults because they require an openness to the unexpected or impossible that decreases as we learn how the world actually works. To extend my lame stretching metaphor, it's like how somersaults are a lot easier when you're light and flexible. And maybe some of the adult dismissal of kids books is a reluctance to admit that they're harder than they should be for us.


Scribble Orca I like your description about pragmatic readers. I've a new label. Terrible to admit but true.


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