Feb. 23rd, 2012

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So, I read Cloud Atlas.

I quite enjoyed the reading: it's a very well put together book with excellent structure, pace, genre-writing, scene-setting, and so on.

I got the impression, though, that the author fancied it as maybe a Bildungsroman or maybe a novel of ideas, and it's really quite slight as either.

For example, for me the various settings immediately conjured up well-worn tropes without either contributing a distinctive, individual flavour, or acting as pastiche: the Science Fiction section was a cut-and-shut job between Soylent Green and Logan's Run; there's a composer's amanuensis part directly borrowing from Delius and Fenby; there's an eighteenth century tale of gentleman on a naval voyage where someone who is quite fond of Haydn chasing beetles in Micronesia; etc, etc, etc. This last section is embarrassed by an undergraduate riff on Jared Diamond-inspired anthropology, inexpertly interspersed with the action. I went to the dogs in Nottingham once and bet on a dog which seemed injured and the poor dog was limping round out of a sense of duty, and I wished someone would step into the ring and pick him up and say "don't worry about it, let's go home and you can lie in front of the fire". Every time one of his legs went down it made me flinch, until you winced before he put down his foot, and I wished they would intervene. In places the ideas in this book reminded me of this.

It never drags and is beautifully put together, but somehow vacuous, -- having the form of grace but lacking it, -- like gymnastics routines at the Olympics.

I'm a sucker for early twentieth century Bildungsroman, and their parodies (The Magic Mountain, The Glass Bead Game, Narcissus and Goldmund, etc) and I had a crisis near the end where it occurred to me that I had been reading the book entirely misguidedly, but in the last few pages the authorial voice leaped off the page when, like at the end of the Jerry Springer Show, Doogie Howser, and Desperate Housewives, the host turns to camera and tells you what it's all been about, an act of authorial incontinence which always makes me rather embarrassed on behalf of the writer and pitying that they succumbed to the urge.

The Doogie Howser moment at the end of Cloud Atlas is particularly cringe-worthy. In it the author suggests, -- and I hope that I'm not doing him an injustice, -- that there are two kinds of people, good people and bad people. Bad people seek to enslave and in this way are like the animals who live red in tooth and claw. Good people are folk who transcend this bestial nature, and are at constant threat of being quashed by bad people through the extinguishing of hope and that they should avoid such happening because otherwise they would be quenched and the bad people would rule the world. The good can overcome the bad because there is sufficient quantity of them.

If you think I'm being horrible, read the last couple of pages (it's sufficiently tacked on that it won't spoil the novel for you), and tell me if I'm being disingenuous!

Now, admittedly I'm biased because almost everything in that summary goes against my personal beliefs and it makes me angry because I think it contains within it the circuits of oppression and is the cause of so much suffering. But whatever cause it advocated, it really has no place at the end of the book and really confirms my worst fears that this was intended to be a novel which said important things about the world which it completely failed to do, for me, for those ideas being so derivative.

So as a novel of ideas, I can say I think it doesn't work. It's no Canticle for Leibowitz, it's no The Sea, The Sea, it's no Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman, no The Year of The Flood. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be, -- in which case you'll need to look for another review, -- though I've a suspicion it was.

As a sequence of slight, nested novels; as airport reading; and as a stylistic exercise I thought it highly accomplished, but I worry for the future of books which contain no liberation.


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