My reading direction in the first few months of this year was set by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. This book inspired a desire to read more “literary” fiction, something I’ve mostly neglected in recent years. I don’t know how long that interest will be maintained. It will probably wane when I come to a book I find tedious and unrewarding.
Having that in the back of my mind I find myself avoiding some books I think I’d like to read, especially some of the “classics”.
My experience with those old favourites hasn’t always been fruitful and I remember having a hard time motivating myself to keep going with Wuthering Heights. It was one of the dullest reading experiences I’ve had.
The first “classic” I remember tackling was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It was on the reading list at High School, but true to form I managed to avoid it during the school year. However a few years later I picked it up and started reading. At the time it was like running a painful marathon, hard going with a wonderful sense of achievement (relief?) at the end. But I enjoyed it enough to read another Thomas Hardy book, Far From the Madding Crowd almost immediately afterwards.
So what about Cloud Atlas inspired me to seek out more “literary” reading?
I enjoyed its structure. It is made up of several different narrative lines from past present and future. Each narrative is interrupted halfway and the reader has to wait for the conclusion of each later in the book. This approach isn’t anything new. It is quite a common practice to alternate different narratives within a story to build suspense, with the conclusion tying all of the separate threads together (hopefully) coherently.
Mitchell’s path differs because there is no concluding convergence of the separate narratives. Cloud Atlas could be seen as a group of short stories linked by interwoven threads and cross references For example, story one is written in the form of journal entries and its first part ends mid-sentence. Story two is written in the form of letters and the letter writer finds the first part of the journal we have been reading in part one and gives us an insight into the reason for the abrupt interruption to the story of the journal. These references can be found, sometimes more subtly, throughout the book
At the halfway point is Cloud Atlas‘s only uninterrupted narrative which is followed by the conclusions of the earlier stories presented in reverse order, until the last section of the book gives us the second part of the bisected journal from the novel’s beginning.
Another interesting feature is the use of language. This is most noticeable in the sections set in the future which are written in “evolved” versions of English. The further into the future the story is set, the more work is needed to understand what is being said. While this initially seems a bit too daunting, it’s probably no harder than reading the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare.
Maybe all of this makes the book seem complicated, but it isn’t. Yes there is complexity, but that was part of the appeal to me – its many layered and unusual textures of language and structure made it more interesting, its complexity being restrained enough to avoid making the book obscure and impenetrable.
Oh yes– I should add that the stories are very entertaining too: comic, tragic, intriguing and thought provoking.
I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all translates to the cinema in the recently released film. I can imagine it would have been a huge challenge for the filmmakers to combine so many different story threads into a film without losing too much of the book’s character.