Cloud Atlas: How Impressed Should I Be, Really?

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For a while last year, it was impossible not to hear about “Cloud Atlas.” I was living in Prague when the movie came out, so to me it will always be “Atlas Miraku,” a blockbuster that made waves good and bad around the world.

The copy of the novel I have is covered in praise, so much so that there is not back blurb: just more and more folks singing hymns to Mitchell. The first page is full of rave reviews, and reviewers across the web go on and on about the novel’s uniqueness and brilliance.

The quote that really sold me on the book is on the cover of the latest edition: “one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics,” a quote by the fantastic Dave Eggers. That sounded pretty cool to me, as did the format of an unwinding narrative. I was looking forward to how the plots intertwined with each other, to teasing out clues and plot points that migrated and grew among the stories.

I”m not getting that. I admit, I’m only halfway through the novel, but all I seem to be getting is that each of the characters learns about the preceding character’s story. That’s it: they just learn about it. And based on reviews, that’s it. Also, they’ve all got the same birthmark.

Yeah, how impressed should I really be with that? Self-reference is not impressive in and of itself. When I want some self-referential fiction, I watch Doctor Who. Novels can do something way beyond self-reference: they can link the plots of separate stories into one unholy narrative.

Take Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece “The Blind Assassin.” That novel has three apparently completely unrelated narratives. Each is slowly revealed to have nested in another, spring from one of the other tales. Key plot points to one story are revealed in another. Essential themes begin in one story and unwind in another. It’s a glorious book, one way more impressive than what I’ve read so far.

But who knows: maybe I’m rushing to judgement. Maybe it will turn out that each character’s actions shaped the fates of another character. Maybe the resolution to one story will reverberate through the others. I certainly hope so. There’s nothing I like better than being proved wrong about negativity.

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