I’ve recently read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlass and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and they have reminded me how much our expectations shape our experience of reading.
Cloud Atlas is a palindrome novel of six nested stories–that is, the stories begin, are interrupted, and then are taken up again in the reverse order: abcdefedcba. Much of the fun that the book has to offer comes from the wild variety of times, styles, and genres, as you can see from a summary of the six threads:
- The diary of Adam Ewing, a well-meaning but rather dim American notary trying to find passage home from New Zealand in the 1850s
- Letters from Robert Frobisher, an upper-class British composer in 1931, an impecunious rake with expensive tastes and no scruples about finding someone else to foot the bill for them. Imagine one of the flakier guys from Brideshead Revisited.
- A 1970s political thriller starring Louisa Rey, fearless young muckraking reporter.
- Slimy vanity publisher Tim Cavendish’s notes for a screenplay about his terrifying experiences fleeing from scary Irish mobsters and scarier nursing-home attendants. Cavendish strongly resembles a crabby-geezer narrator from a John Banville novel.
- Sonmi 451’s deposition before her execution, telling the story of her transformation from a gene-slave in an Orwellian North Korean future McDonalds into a rebel fighting the unholy alliance of corporate greed and totalitarian oppression.
- A fireside tale of adventure in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Our narrator speaks a Riddley Walker-ish patois that sounds to me like a mixture of Huck Finn and Mr. Maui.
The stories are linked together, one might say, horizontally and vertically. Each story appears, as a book or movie or whatever, in the next (for example, Frobisher finds a book containing Ewing’s diary in a country house library). There are also all kinds of parallels in the stories (embarrassing falls, loose teeth, references to the Society Islands, etc.), including a pervasive concern with reincarnation; indeed, it probably doesn’t give away too much to mention that some of the characters are clearly reincarnations of each other. There is also a pervasive atmosphere of exploitation and predation that gives the book its human pull, as we follow the characters’ attempt to find some shelter where they will not be manipulated and crushed by the evil and powerful (which are mostly synonymous here).
This may give the impression of a neat puzzle, like one of those movies that nobody can understand without watching the DVD commentary track (if you’ve seen Donnie Darko, you know what I mean). Instead, Cloud Atlas, as you would expect from the name, has a nebulous, sliding quality, where you can make out shapes but aren’t tempted to align them into a definitive ultimate map. This is largely created by the weaving of the different stories: for example, in reading Adam Ewing’s diary, it struck me that his diction was rather odd, and I couldn’t tell if this was an attribute of Ewing or a failure of Mitchell’s. Then when Frobisher has found the Ewing book, he comments that “the language is a bit off.” This means that Mitchell was aware of the strangeness, but does it mean simply that Frobisher and Ewing spoke different versions of English? Does it mean there’s something suspect about the diary? After all, not all these peole live in the same universe, since Frobisher’s letters are read by Louisa Ray, whose story is a pulp novel sitting on Tim Cavendish’s desk.
Louisa offers another example. At the same time that we root for her to survive and triumph, we are aware that she lives in a pulp-fiction world (at one point there’s even a chase through a warehouse where they pull down stacks of boxes to slow their pursuers, a tableau familiar from a thousand genre movies). We are left hovering between the worlds, and I found this mostly a pleasing place to be.
After Cloud Atlas, I kept expecting The Thousand Autumns to take a sudden left turn into postmodernity, and when it remained a straight historical novel I felt a strange disappointment that, in itself, the novel had done nothing to earn. Thousand Autumns is rather similar to Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies in that both are tales of colonial trade in Asia that try to recognize what that experience was like for the Asians. In this case Mitchell, who lived in Japan for eight years and is married to a Japanese woman, is writing about the Dutch attempt to trade in Nagasaki with the closed Japanese empire of 1800. It is an engaging story, with many of the same elements as the stories of Cloud Atlas, especially the way that ordinary lives are threatened by the brutality of bullies both petty and grand.
But there is a certain flatness–I suppose that Mitchell knows a lot about Japanese culture, but his picture lacks, for me, the ability to defamiliarize the white people that Ghosh possesses (perhaps this is because Ghosh is not European, more likely it is an art of the anthropologist). And here, it’s hard to pin howlers on anyone but Mitchell and his editors–why would a Western-leaning astronomer tell his daughter that Venus’ orbit is in the opposite direction from the other planets? Why would a Dutchman who doesn’t speak English quote from a poem by Coleridge, especially one that hasn’t been published yet? Why would a Bible-quoting American talk about the “ninth book of Genesis”? (Genesis is a book. It has chapters.) These are all little things, but when a writer makes a total hash out of subjects that I know something about, it erodes my faith in what he says about things of which I am ignorant (which is of course most of what is contained in the book).
One other thing–Thousand Autumns has a pro-Christian spin that strikes me as rather gauche in a story about colonialism: the most appealing characters are mostly devout (in some cases secret) Christians, while the most evil characterss practice a bizarre and murderous paganism, and I don’t think any Japanese religious tradition is presented in a very sympathetic light. What’s weird is that Cloud Atlas doesn’t exhibit this attitude at all.