Tuesday, 3 May 2005

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

Edition: Sceptre, 2005
Review number: 1292

Mitchell's third novel was the clear favourite for the Booker Prize in 2004, and when it didn't win, this seemed to catch many commentators by surprise. I like Mitchell's writing, and I have attempted to read several of the other novels which made up the rather lacklustre short list, and I echo this astonishment.

Like Ghostwritten and number9dream, Cloud Atlas shows Mitchell's delight in complex interlinked narratives, exactly the sort of literary puzzles which marked out Iain Banks' early novels. Here, there are six stories, arranged in layers - each one is available to the characters in the next in some literary form (journal, collection of letters, thriller in manuscript, film, recorded interview) moving from the late nineteenth century far into the future. There are other links between the tales, apart from this arrangement, which is rather reminiscent of The Arabian Nights (where tales are often interrupted while a character tells another story). There are hints that at least some of the central characters are reincarnations of others, though the chronology of the stories means that others of them have lives that overlap. A thematic link is much more important: the stories are all about resistence to unjust exploitation of the peaceful and weak by the strong, powerful and aggressive.

The best of the stories is the Michael Moore meets George Orwell dystopia, An Orison of Sonmi~415. Sonmi~451 is a clone, genetically engineered to be the perfect fast food restaurant server, who is "awakened" from her drug- and conditioning-induced acceptance of her life to an understanding of the horrows of the enslavement of a vast army of cheap workers in the service of rampant capitalism. But each of the stories could have been expanded into a full length novel in its own right, one which could have easily held the interest of readers (if not to the extent that Cloud Atlas does, where there is the additional attraction of the enigmas produced by the construction of the novel).

So the question is: why didn't Cloud Atlas win, if it is so good? Of course, not having been on the jury, I can't say for certain. There are several possible reasons that seem plausible to me, that together may have combined to spoil its chances. There is often something of a bias against the general favourite at these events, as people don't want to look as though they've just made the easy, obvious choice. There may have been a suspicion that the interlocking arrangement of the narrative is a bit facile (though certainly no more so than churning out another dull story of a dysfunctional family). There have been two quirkily different winners in the past two years (Life of Pi and Vernon God Little), and perhaps the jury felt that Cloud Atlas was a little too similar to these. Then there is a continuing snobbish attiude to novels (or, in this case, parts of novels) which seem to be genre fiction, no matter how well written: why is it, for example, that Iain Banks has never even been nominated? This applies particularly strongly to science fiction, but affects thrillers and crime fiction to an extent too. To write in a genre may bring popularity, but unless you are already part of the literary establishment will not bring critical success there, unless you are considered to write for children (like J.K. Rowling). If these are the reasons that caused Mitchell to miss out, it's a pity, for the imaginative range and dazzling technique shown in Cloud Atlas would have made it a deserving and memorable winner.

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