Archives for posts with tag: David Mitchell

Gods+Without+MenI can see why my cover of Gods Without Men sports a blurb from David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell, both men have crafted novels made up of interlocking stories spanning generations, although Hari Kunzru has joined his stories more conventionally than Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas. All Kunzru’s action is linked by his focal Mojave desert setting, characters from earlier time frames appear decades later and plot points from decades past set up those of the future.

When Gods Without Men opened with a twisted fable from a time when animals were men, about Coyote cooking crystal in an RV in the desert, I knew I was in for a ride. A book so damn cool it hurts.

The story of Jaz and Lisa and their autistic young son, Raj, is what anchors Kunzru’s novel. Their plight is so incredibly, viscerally painful to read. Raj doesn’t speak at all, doesn’t express love and throws violent temper tantrums. It’s left Jaz and Lisa’s marriage in ruins. Their lives are hard enough, between taking care of Raj, and conflict between Jaz’s Indian immigrant family and white, Jewish Lisa, when Raj disappears near the desert rock formation known as the Pinnacles. Somewhat curiously in tandem to Raj’s disappearance is Jaz’s work on Wall Street, right before the global financial crisis in 2008, helping to develop a mysterious predictive trading model.

At the same time British rock star Nicky escapes to the desert to take drugs and have a bit of a mental breakdown, his life briefly intersecting with Jaz’s.

And Iraqi teenager Laila is recruited to take part in a training exercise for the military, preparing American troops for the war in Iraq. In one of the very rare moments of humour, a soldier dressed as an Iraqi insurgent who has lost his dishdasha wears a Little Mermaid beach towel wrapped around his waist instead.

There are appearances by Spanish Conquistadors. Deighton and his wife Eliza turn up in the 1920s Mojave collecting Native American tales, language and history.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks is home to an alien-worshipping cult, whose members are dedicated to assisting the Ashtar Galactic Command. This was a favourite of mine; I always get a kick out of reading about the unusual. Kunzru gives us an alien spin on the counterculture, hippy vibe of the 1960s and seventies.

Gods Without Men is the kind of book where questions are left unanswered, leaving this reader unsettled, and several of the characters unhinged. I guess I was left unsatisfied at the end. Kunzru builds to a crescendo, then nothingness. I’m not naive enough to that a novel like Gods Without Men will finish neatly or happily. It deals with the mystical, the alien and the inexplicable. Many scenes feature a strange glowing boy but this is no science fiction. Kunzru has no obligation to provide answers, no need for logic.

I wouldn’t read Gods Without Men looking for anything as prosaic as beginning, middle or end, it’s snippets or sketches of moments in characters’ lives. Kunzru’s writing and storytelling style starts off pretty conventionally. It felt to me that, as Gods Without Men progresses, his writing becomes more fluid, experimental and freewheeling, almost as if the pressure and insanity of the story were crumbling its very structure. Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas, a book I loved. David Mitchell – fairly conventional storytelling made majestic with an experimental twist. Hari Kunzru – experimental storytelling done a tad too conventionally, making me yearn for a real ending. If only it’d been a little nuttier. Something like Thomas Pynchon. I’ll admit I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49, a great book that I appreciated for its brevity. A bizarre, pseudo-mystery, with more questions than answers, suits that length.

Gods Without Men is incredibly impressive, with bravura storytelling. Kunzru weaves the characters’ stories deftly and eloquently but I couldn’t see any of them getting a reprieve from their demons. His fourth novel is a strangely readable, epic and detailed tale of religion, worship and madness. You just need to be in the right mood.

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Cloud Atlas spans time periods, covers genres as varied as science fiction, thriller and farce, and showcases a range of storytelling techniques including epistolary, diary and interview. There’s Adam Ewing’s nineteenth century diary of his sea voyage from the Pacific to the United States, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in the 1930s, 1970s journalist Luisa Rey uncovering a conspiracy, publisher Timothy Cavendish’s strange ordeal, the testimony of fabricant Sonmi ~ 451 set in a future Korea, and the post-apocalyptic tale of Zachry, a farmer living in a primitive society in Hawaii. Before reading it I found the novel’s unusual structure of tenuously linked sections a bit off-putting. I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories, which is what Cloud Atlas sounded like to me, but I ended up loving it despite my misgivings.

David Mitchell has a real talent for capturing characters’ voices and personalities. In each section the tone and style change completely. Sections shift from comical to dramatic and thrilling. Many parts are suffused with humour and wit. I found, given the staggering differences in style and content, my favourite parts of the novel were more pronounced. I wished some stories would last for longer. The futuristic settings were my personal favourites, but then, I’m a bit of nerd. It’s technically dazzling, accomplished and stylish writing. And through it all Mitchell gives a knowing nod to genre conventions he borrows from. In the thriller segment, ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, Rufus and Luisa are talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Charade:

Charade’s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?’

‘A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.’

The plotting is magnificent. Each story is complex, full of enough detail to fill six novels, and all are wildly different. Yet they each form a tapestry. A comet birthmark is a recurring detail, letters or diaries written in previous stories are read by later characters, characters reappear. And thematically the stories are connected. Mitchell deftly exposes humanity’s lust for power and greed throughout the ages, culminating in the central post-apocalyptic tale. Cloud Atlas’s various parts are further brought together by questions about reincarnation, religion and spirituality. I enjoyed pulling together the threads from each story, and noticing the little similarities.

For all the complexity of plot and experimentation with style and language Mitchell’s writing isn’t strained. I was worried it would be self-indulgent, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but thankfully it largely appears effortless. In the post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ Mitchell reinvents the English language for a new age, indulging in linguistic gymnastics, playing with words, spellings and punctuation.

I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ’bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah…an’ I dived.

The story is the richer for it, so inventive I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Mitchell does have a detached writing style. All but one story is a first person account but emotional resonance is often relegated to the background. But it’s so entertaining I’m willing to forgive him. The strength of Cloud Atlas lies in the exhilarating storytelling. In ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ Robert Frobisher writes of his daring new musical composition, ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ and I think Mitchell knows that is exactly the type of question that could be asked of Cloud Atlas’s format. Revolutionary is probably taking it a bit far, but it unquestionably surpasses gimmick. Cloud Atlas is ambitious and unique but not at the expense of its sense of adventure.

The film version of Cloud Atlas is out in Australia in February next year so I’ve only seen the trailer, but so far I’m not sure I like the look of it. Visually it looks stunning, but it seems like the directors are trying to beat us over the head with the idea of reincarnation, of souls meeting over and over across time, by using the same actors to play a variety of characters (with different genders, races and ages). I never pictured Mitchell’s concept taken so literally, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Especially since special effects makeup generally manages to make the wearer look strange and grotesque. Films have had amazing special effects makeup for decades for horror movies (look at movies like The Fly and The Thing) for this very reason, while old-age makeup that doesn’t completely distract remains an elusive proposition. And don’t even get me started on makeup changing gender and race. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait and see.