Seeing the hoohah surrounding the release of the Matrix Bros’ film adaptation of Cloud Atlas got me thinking back to that book, which I kind of enjoyed, while finding the Russian doll structure – with each story stopping halfway through, until you get to the middle one, the sixth, which runs in full, after which you get the endings, in reverse order – frankly annoying.
Not that I’m against narrative games, but that seemed very much for the sake of it an elegant refinement of an approach to structure that was beginning to look like a piece of schtick on Mitchell’s part. No question but that he can write, but the permanent hopping around in his first three books, the refusal to commit to or ground any of his well-appointed lit fic stories, to allow them to make a claim for their own psychological truths (or wherever it is you find your value), but instead disseminate his meanings throughout the various texts in rather nebulous forms of symbolism and connectivity (to quote myself from the review of another book, best forgotten, he “scatters his thematic overtones across the centuries and leaves it to the reader to pull them together into a single chord of meaning”)… all had me irked.
In fact, I’ve only read the first three of Mitchell’s books, the Narrative Gimmick Trilogy, you might call them, and of them I most enjoyed Number9Dream. I was big into Haruki Murakami at the time, and I loved it for its breathless (its Breathless) propulsion. Cloud Atlas just seemed like an attempt to get all grown-up over something that had worked fine as a young adult fireworks display. (And I mean ‘young adult’ entirely sincerely. I was 30-odd when I read Number9Dream and I wish I’d been able to read it earlier. That book is precisely what young adults should be reading.)
Thinking about Cloud Atlas produced two thoughts: one that Steve Aylett had used something like that very structure in his novel The Inflatable Volunteer. From memory, each chapter ended at a particularly cliff-hanging moment with a character beginning a further tall tale, which is then told in the next chapter, and so on. Then, halfway through, as in Cloud Atlas, the stories start winding up, sending you back up towards the surface, the original mise-en-scene. A simpler Chinese box format than Mitchell’s, but its headlong reverse chronology (like Heart of Darkness on the wrong drugs) was hugely compelling.
To extend this thought before I get to the second one, what I didn’t like about Cloud Atlas was that it didn’t have the guts to make me care about the characters, in that particularly hokey lit fic way, which was annoying, because I like doing that, and Mitchell so clearly has the talent to write a properly moving realist novel about proper, living breathing characters, that muscle in on your life (which happened with my favourite story of the novel, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’), but he backs away from doing so, instead offering up a glossy postmodern spin on some rather mushy Eastern philosophy that, to my mind, is absolutely not a step forward from dull old honest-to-goodness realist lit fic.
The second thought about Cloud Atlas is that the reason I resented that tricksy gimmick, of layering the stories like opened novellas laid one atop the other – and that makes all of this just a preamble to my real February Reading – is because that’s how I read anyway.
Update: I still haven’t finished The Magic Mountain, begun at the end of last year. It still sits on my bedside cabinet, along with Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup. Imagine those two books splayed open, the Mann at pg 460 (of 854), and the Hughes at about 60, then lay on top of them Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love, which I fell on just about as soon as I could. That’s at pg 215 (of 523), and then Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, which, though I was loving the Knausgaard, I just couldn’t help starting, having teased myself with the collection of his stories I hadn’t fully read, When I Was Mortal, sitting in the laundrette. I’m at pg 60 (of 340) of The Infatuations.
I did in fact finished two full books during February: The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, read in a single sitting on evening as you should with Peirene Press books, and Niven Govinden’s Black Bread White Beer, for a review for Fiction Uncovered. I’ll hold back on my comments on that for the moment, but the Vanderbeke I found very interesting indeed.
I studied German and studied there for a while as a young adult, and can easily imagine it sitting on a University or school reading list. It really is the perfect one-sitting read: the long paragraphs, the single setting, the small number of characters – a mother and two children wait around the kitchen table for the dreaded paterfamilias to return from a business trip, the celebratory pot of mussels going cold, the supposedly happy family members gradually letting slip their facade to show the fear and distress beneath.
By one-sitting read I mean it speeds you along, but it rather spits you out at the end. There was no indication in the telling that I would gain much at all from a second reading, nothing in the language to slow me down and make me look at the words, at what they were doing, what they were revealing.
Compare this to the Knausgaard, which in general shunts along at the same easy pace. I reserve my judgment on the whole, for when I get back to it, but this, too, is an uncomplicated read, an accumulation of mundanities (banalities, even) from a mostly uneventful life, that seems miraculously to accrue weight as it goes along.
Reading it is like watching someone pack a suitcase and giving a running commentary on everything they’re putting in, the old t-shirts and worn jeans, the seen-better-days underwear, the odd smart shirt, and then closing it and thrusting it peremptorily into your arms: and lo-and-behold you find the suitcase is rather heavier than you might have imagined. And you’ve got to carry it now, not him.
Part of that is because of the sense it gives (or the sense we get; it’s impossible to unlearn the autobiographical knowledge we have of the project) of a claustrophobic closeness to ‘real life’. Reading the extended (and so impossible) descriptions of dull children’s birthday parties and child tantrums, you suddenly realise that Knausgaard isn’t mumbling to himself (as he packs those intimate garments); his gaze is locked on yours. He makes you think of all the dull parties you’ve been to, the experience of which you have never found replicated in literature, because it is always turned into a scene in a narrative… and so subservient to some greater narrative schtick… and so unbelievable, un-care-able-about…
And yet there is something more to Knausgaard than the transcription of diaries. He is marshalling his material. He is ordering, and structuring. But the true power lies in the material, in the fact that this is contemporary Western metropolitan liberal life thrust onto the page, like that suitcase is thrust into your arms.
That’s why those silly photos of book-people (myself included) holding up the proof copy of this book is not silly at all. Quite simply, I’ve never before seen my fundamental, instinctive, unthought-through attitudes to the world around me laid out so comprehensively for my cogitation, delectation and shame. It’s like a less aggressive, less bitter version of Houllebecq.
This is how it is, he seems to be saying. #justsaying, he seems to be saying.
Halfway through, and now writing this I want to close the Marías and go back to the Knausgaard. Marías I bow before as before no other writer: he knows the secret link between language and thought like no other writer, but it will wait for me.
If there is a Heaven, the complete works of Javier Marías will be waiting there for me to read, and so finally come to understand human nature, the appalling coincidence in one and the same biological organism at one moment in history and evolution of thought and desire.
Knausgaard will be there, too, but by then it will be too late. That can only save me if I read it now.
All of which brings me back to David Mitchell. This is why I didn’t like that book, because I don’t need it. It is a beautifully written but perfunctory scale model of the Cloud Atlas that I am permanently, constantly reading. And if a character in one of my books shares a name, or a birth mark, or a star sign with a character in another, then that is fated, and beautiful, and strange, and dangerous and meaningless, and anything else you want, but not when it happens in yours.