Monday, August 2, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 1: Suffering

My book club's pick for our August meeting is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Published in 2004, Mitchell's third novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which apparently means people are supposed to revere it. Right now, I do not.

So far, I am on page 326 of its 509 pages. And I am just sitting here, struggling through absurd language, screaming, "WHY WON'T YOU END???"

This book has an interesting format. I'll give it that. The "story" (if you can call it that) is told through six separate novellas of sort. The first is the diary of a man crossing the Pacific on a ship in the 1850s; the second is a series of letters from a young composer in the 1930s who headed to Austria to escape debt; the third is a thriller about a journalist in the '70s trying to expose a corrupt energy company; the fourth is about a publisher who escapes from some rough extortionists and ends up in a retirement home from which he can't escape; the dystopian fifth story interviews a Korean clone bred for work in a fast food joint who has gained consciousness; the sixth takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii where...well I'm not really sure what happened there.

So that all sounds like a mess of things that are unrelated. Except for brief mention of the previous story in each story...and I mean very brief. As in, the Composer in story B finds the journals of the man in story A. He finds them, and Mitchell mentions that fact, and nothing else. Nothing else gives you a hint as to how these stories all connect, except that this comet-shaped birthmark keeps appearing, and I'm not sure at all where that fits in.

And because we're spanning centuries of time here, Mitchell uses different language for every story. But I don't get why people (ie: on Goodreads) are so impressed by that. It doesn't take much to make up a language for dystopian robots and post-apocalyptic savages. Because it's made up. If anything, it just makes the story really confusing and hard to read. Robotic sentences like,
"The amnesiads in my Soapsac were reduced, accordingly, and ascension catalysts instreamed," (p. 197)
or incoherent sentences like,
"Windy mornin' it was, yay, I mem'ry well, sand'n'dune grass whippin' an' bloodflower threshin' an' surf flyin' off scuddin' breakers" (p. 258).
I'm not impressed.

Oy. I was doing alright with stories B, C, and D, perhaps actually enjoying them, and then we get to crap in the future, and I hit a wall. It's just not my style.

The book is structured A B C D E F E D C B A, with the sixth, post-apocalyptic story being the only one told in full in one sitting. Having just finished this one, I still don't see the point. I mean, maybe I can gather that it's about souls drifting through time, but if that's the over-arching theme that ends up tying them all together...well, COME ON [insert Gob Bluth voice here]! I'm just not understanding why all this is necessary to make that point. Because so far, it's not made very well.

I'll write an update once I finish the second half (once I revisit the previous five stories and once I am happily far away from the much hated sci-fi sections) to see if my opinions change. And once more after book club, when hopefully, a group discussion will add a lot to it. But for now...

this book is far too smart for me.

Has anyone else read this?

[Read the rest of my Cloud Atlas experience: Part 2 and Part 3.]


Joanna said...

I have been seriously coinsidering reading this book. Thanks for saving me from it!

Jenny said...

I just finished reading a review for this author's newest book (literally just before this review)... um, yeah, I would definitely have to agree with you! The author sounds like a very smart, creative man but I'm certain I wouldn't enjoy this. I didn't understand a word of those sentences you quoted. Seeing as how lately I can't even seem to make it through "easy" books, lol, this one is a no for sure. Thanks for reading and reviewing it! ;) BTW, you must have a really intellectual book club...

Nicole said...

This sounds so tedious. I want to know what you think by the end. Sometimes and author can turn a book around and make it make it make sense by then end, but I think I might be cranky and resentful waiting so long for it to come together.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

Cloud Atlas is one of my all-time favourite books, but I loved it from fairl early on. I'd say that if you aren't enjoying it so far then you probably wont like the ending either.

I'm sure you'll have a great book club discussion though - I hope it makes the book a bit more interesting fot you.

Kari said...

Ha, it's a "world lit" book club at Idlewild Books (the bookstore I rave and rave about). Usually we read NYRB Classics, and we haven't read very much contemporary fiction. This one is a bit of a departure.

I'm struggling with reading right now, too. I can't believe I've been reading this for almost 2 weeks! Poorly done on my part.

Kari said...

I remember you loving this book. I'm not really expecting an ENDING, per se, but I just finished the second Sonmi story and felt a little glimmer of hope since it gave at least some sort of CONCLUSION.

I think discussion will definitely add A LOT to it. I'm looking forward to seeing what the other readers have to say, because it's a diverse group with diverse opinions.

Salvatore said...

I just found all of the David Mitchell books I received when working as an intern at Random. They do look mammoth. Curious about them especially with your comments.

Steph said...

I just read this one finally a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. BUT (and it's a big but), I first tried to read it for MY book club a few years ago and had no luck with it. As in a made it to page 32, not 326...

I wound up enjoying the playfulness of the writing this time through, but I didn't love all sections equally and found it difficult to switch gears each time a new fragment started. And I hated the middle section that was written in pidgin. SO PAINFUL.

I don't know that the book is a life-changer in the end, but this time I was able to have fun with it and would be interested in reading more Mitchell. I do understand your pain, though! Maybe you'd like to take a look at my thoughts and see how well they match yours? ( )

Jess A Glover said...


ZeY said...

Exactly. You would think people would be embarrassed to declare to the world their inability to understand a book. If a bit of intellectual challenge (in the form of an imaginary dialect of the future) was too difficult for you, maybe you should stick to chick lit.

The film "Cloud Atlas" is due at the end of 2012. Maybe you will be able to understand the story then.

Kari said...

I discuss my experiences with books honestly and why in the world would I be embarrassed that I had trouble with the language in a section of a book?

Clearly YOU did not follow up on my process of reading this—and shouldn't an intellectual person such as yourself infer that because this post was titled "Part 1" there were other parts to follow? Try reading my full experience with this book and learning a little bit more about my reading tastes before insulting my intelligence. Thanks.

DATo said...

"Robotic" or "incoherent" sentences ... ??? .... beg to differ, I understood them perfectly, perhaps because I was into the book and you were not ?

Translation: "The drugs which induce forgetfulness (amnesiads) in my food (the fabricant's food was repeatedly referred to as "Soap") were reduced, and drugs which made me more consciously aware (ascension) replaced them."

Now what's so hard about that? The second sample you gave was even easier to memry'peep.

Garrett said...

Awesome Gob Bluth reference; conveys your frustration exceedingly well! Took me a bit to adjust to each writing too although I am Sci Fi fan and enjoyed the various socio-political themes (corpacracy, etc.).