Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was a wonderful combination of a rip-roaring read with a really intelligent narrative. Literary high-jinx often mean little things like pleasure are sacrificed to form, but not here. David Mitchell has written a truly absorbing, witty, vibrant book.
The narrative is a bit like a giant club sandwich: time slip narrative helter skelter style. It begins as a historical novel giving us three sections of narrative in the nineteenth century, the inter-war period and somewhere in the 1960s or 70s. There is one contemporary narrative, then there are two science fiction narratives set in two dystopian futures, before we go backwards through the twentieth century narratives again and end where we started with the diary of American attorney Adam Ewing in the nineteenth. Each narrative ends abruptly in a suitably cliff-hanging manner before we leap forward through the decades to the next narrative.
There's a pacy immediacy to each section though they differ greatly in many respects. The description of the reaction of an author to a bad review is enough to make the timorous book blogger quake:
My author grabbed Finch's lapels, rolled backwards, sank his feet into Finch's girth, and judo-propelled the shorter-than-generally-realized media personality high into the night-air! High above the pansies lining the balcony railing.
Finch's shriek - his life - ended in crumpled metal, twelve floors down.
Someone's drink poured onto the carpet.
Dermot 'Duster' Higgins brushed his lapels, leant over the balcony, and yelled: 'SO WHO'S EXPIRED IN AN ENDING FLAT AND INANE QUITE BEYOND BELIEF NOW?'
The apparently disparate elements from each section are linked by the main protagonist in each narrative becoming aware of the previous narrative by finding an old book, a film, a collection of letters, a piece of music, a manuscipt, and of course in the futuristic narratives the recording is suitably space age. The overall effect is definitely that of a well structured novel, not the collection of tales it might have been in the hands of a less able writer.
Ecological and ethical themes pervade the book. The first narrative deals with slavery, freedom and the relationship between people and the land, the second with sexual and relationship politics and the concept of trust at many levels, the third with eco-politics, global capitalism, arms and nuclear power, and the fourth with corruption, crime and how we treat the elderly. The first of the futures is the fifth narrative and, well, it is a dystopia so genetic ethics, pollution, the elite and the masses, are all par for the course, and a bit of religious parody helps the mix along. The final futuristic narrative I won't describe for fear of spoilers but it does bring together many of the themes.
If you aren't interested in eco-matters the tales are still wonderful. The enigmatic Dr Henry Goose, the lascivious Robert Frobisher, the determined Luisa Rey, the cynical pitiability of Timothy Cavendish, the plight of Sonmi-451 make for a fascinating cast of characters who hold your attention easily. As the narrative breaks at each section there is a slight sense of loss as we change narrator and it is wonderful to meet them again on the return journey after the half way point. It makes it to hard to leave it alone.
If you are interested in eco-matters you might be interested in eco-criticism. If sales are anything to go by, eco-criticism will be one of the next big movements in critical theory. If you are interested then apart from reading this novel then I recommend:
Ecocriticism (the wonderful New Critical Idiom series) by Greg Garrard
Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature edited by Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammels (Zed Books) - Rather heavy secondhand prices on Amazon; a French website called Alapage has a cheaper copy but the site is obviously in French. I know nothing about Alapage's reliability - you see here - perhaps French readers could let us know about that website?
The Green Studies Reader, edited by Laurence Coupe (Routledge)
There is also a literary association: Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and the Richard Kerridge homepage is worth a look too.
But whether you are a professional critic or a reader just wanting a jolly way to spend an evening I can't recommend Cloud Altas highly enough (and I don't often say that!). It felt very like a Margaret Atwood (especially Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale) which is also no mean recommendation. It is one of the few novels that have made me miss being an undergraduate with a long essay to write: with this book there would be so much to say, I want to stay up all night to write about it. Lovely stuff!