Yeah, but I didn’t finish it.
Normally I don’t do this. Normally if I don’t finish a book I just … let it slip away. Let it drift to the bottom of the pile and don’t tell you guys about it. But Cloud Atlas… I have to wrestle with this a little bit. Because the book is an achievement, no doubt. And I feel as if my inability/disinclination to keep reading has revealed inadequacy.
I knew from the get-go that Cloud Atlas wasn’t my usual cup of tea. I like old-fashioned linear narrative. Cloud Atlas is presented in six different voices, each in a different location and time frame. I was seduced by the first, a journal written by one Adam Ewing writing from the Chatham Islands (south of New Zealand: I had to look them up) in 1850. That tale breaks off and we’re whisked to the home of a decayed English composer in rural Belgium, in the 1930s. Then an imitation of a poorly written potboiler about a nuclear power plant in California intervenes. Next up, a dystopian view of future life in what I eventually deduced to be North Korea. Then a contemporary Martin Amis-ish comedy of a drunken inept book publisher. Then — screech! — I slammed on the brakes a few pages into the section entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” Which I now see, examining the Table of Contents, is the center point of the book, followed by five more sections working backward through the ones I just reeled off: Amis, dystopia, Cal noir, etc. etc. Oh, and the narratives are structured as letters, diaries, even a written interview.
So it’s not the kind of book I normally enjoy but we all need to stretch sometimes and I loved David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Like Cloud Atlas, it focuses on questions of language and identity and cultural exchange, benign or otherwise. I guess the real question here is when it’s OK to turn your back on an experience. It’s good to be open-minded, right? (This is where I sheepishly reveal that as a college senior I actually refused to read Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that I hate dialect. Go ahead, you’re supposed to laugh, my husband always does when he remembers the episode.)
At the same time, none of us is going to read all the books. And finishing Cloud Atlas was starting to feel like an unpleasant chore. Worse, I was beginning to resent David Mitchell and his characters. Better to quit than to let that happen.