Where are you right now?
In my hut in my back garden in West Cork.
Where do you write?
Here, at my desk; in my notebook, in an armchair; on planes.
How do you write?
By recording in words the scenes that are workshopped and staged in my imagination.
What keeps you writing?
My addiction to it.
Who do you write for?
Me, and the rest of the world. Nobody else.
—- David Mitchell, in Untitledbooks
What is my favorite book? What is the best book I’ve read? —These are unanswerable questions. There are so many and my opinions at the very top shift over time like sands in the wind or shadows in my memory.
Still there is an upper stratum. This is occupied by fossilized memories of hours, days, sometime years spent poring over pages of labyrinthine structure, subtle metaphor, and deep, thick, and complex prose. This is the land of Pynchon, the landscape of Mason & Dixon, V, and, most of all Gravity’s Rainbow. That book took me twenty five years to read… and it was worth every second.
It is the land of Moby Dick, of Infinite Jest, of House of Leaves.
It is the land of Cloud Atlas.
If you catch me at the right time, I’ll tell you that Cloud Atlas is the best book I’ve read. Other times I’ll tell you it’s my favorite book. Rarely does a single entity spend time in both positions – as far as I’m concerned, that’s great praise.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a complex book and one with a unique structure – but it’s not hard to read. The structure is very carefully planned out, logical, and executed with panache – not like the shambling monstrous recursive story of Gravity’s Rainbow.
The book is a collection of six different story threads. The first half of the book the stories are half-told, in chronological order. It starts in the South Pacific, in 1850, in a sort of Melvilish, three-stooges version of a whaleless Moby Dick. The story then jumps to 1931 where a bankrupt musician tries to scam himself back into a state where he can feed himself and love again. Then it leaps to California in the 70’s with a thriller set at a nuclear plant.
At this point the stories move into the future, starting with a publisher trapped in a nursing home. We then switch to a dystopian future where the clones begin to rebel. Finally, we arrive in the unknown distant future where mankind has thrown off or lost its technological skin and is back to telling tales around the campfire.
Here, the book turns and goes back, working its way through the same stories again for their second half denouement, in reverse order, until we are left back in the 19th century South Pacific.
What is the connection between these diverse threads? You will have to read the book to find out.
Does this scare you? Will you avoid this tome in favor of the newest vampire mystery? Shame on you. Or not. Whatever. It is definitely the kind of thing you will like, though, if you like that kind of thing.
Why am I bringing up this odd and complicated book now? No matter how interesting?
I used to read a lot of movie reviews. I always tried to keep up on what was happening in the world of cinema. This was ruining my viewing enjoyment, however. I wanted to get back to that world of simple pleasure when I sat in front of the silver screen (or cathode ray tube [or light emitting diode (or liquid crystal semiconductor [ or tiny cloud of plasma-induced noble gas])]) unknowing about what was going to happen next. So I stopped reading movie reviews until after I had seen a film. I stopped following the pages outlining what was coming out next from what director.
Still, I stumble across bits of information now and then. That Interweb-thing is good for that, isn’t it?
This week I discovered that they are making a big-time, big-budget movie of Cloud Atlas.
It is one of the books that, when I was reading it, I thought, “This thing would be unfilmable.” Apparantly, someone disagrees with my assessment.
Big time actors too, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent… It appears the actors will be playing more than one character spread across time (have to get your money’s worth out of Tom Hanks).
Well, I’m not sure how this will all play out – the book is unfilmable, really – but it will be interesting. I do hope it gets made. If it is good, it might be great. If it fails, it will be a glorious failure.
(whet your appetite) Short works online by David Mitchell