On Reading, Part Five

August has been a slow month. Time seems to have elongated itself, gone backwards almost. Chronic time distortion syndrome, it’s called, at least I think so. Each day seems like a week, weeks turn into moths and they fly into lightbulbs. I read to escape, pretty much always have done so, and the only bad thing about it is when the experience is not worth it, is not worth the days and pages you’ve invested in it, when the author is condescending to the point of patronising, when they treat the reader like an idiot. When the reverse happens, when the book is as much a gem as it can be, when reading it feels like flying, when the characters seem to be your best friends, then it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. This month has seen both these cases, and if anything else, it confirms what I already suspected – that writing stories (anything, really) is one of the hardest and most rewarding things is to share it with people and see the smile on their faces when they’ve finished.

So. First up, I want to talk about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. If you’re eagerly awaiting the Wachowski siblings’ new film (co-directed with Tom Tykwer) adapted from the same book, now would be a good time to stop reading and join us again after the break. And perhaps not; I don’t know what the film is like.
The main problem is the book’s structure, both its physical construction and in its nature. It is, in its most simple form, a set of six interconnected albeit truncated stories which, upon reaching the middle of the sixth story, reverse their order and conclude their respective narrative fragments. I don’t know if that’s such a good thing.
Mitchell’s idea is intriguing, enchanting even, in that it demonstrates a kind of reincarnation of souls, one soul reincarnated five times throughout history (hence the six stories). Initially, this idea is deceptively hypnotic – you find yourself drawn into these short vignettes, but by the time we meet Timothy Cavendish, I found I was beyond caring about the specifics of each character as an individual, and instead saw them as just another version of the same initial character, a bland standard-issue featureless canvas upon which a trite concept has been stretched. I don’t know if this was Mitchell’s goal, or even if he consciously designed it thus, but that’s how it felt – feels. Each soul is marked – incredibly, unbelievably – by a comet-shaped birthmark. One of the characters – I think it’s Cavendish – remarks at the incredulity of such a shape, perhaps echoing the readers’ own thoughts: out of every possible shape birthmark anyone could be born with, why a comet shape? As far as linking devices go, it is clumsy, almost shoe-horned in to each story to kind of hit you over the head with it, to make sure you get what Mitchell is doing here. Also, too, is Mitchell’s choice to reinstate each story in its consecutive partner: Adam Ewing keeps a diary in the first story; Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing’s diary in the second and so on. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but it really does seem that Mitchell is constantly turning to us, the reader, and saying ‘do you get what I’m doing here? Do you get what I’m trying to say?’ and we just wish for a moment he’d let up a bit and leave us to our own intelligence. The motif of an atlas – map-making, map-keeping; or, simply, maps – is another of Mitchell’s heavy-handed plot devices to make sure we’re paying attention. It’s as though he’s trying to map out a kind of symbol or symbolic form against a map of our own world – by locating his stories in another part of the world at a different point in time, it’s as though Mitchell is trying to show us how little we’ve changed despite our outward effect on the planet and our surrounding environment. But we get that – we see it every day in the newspapers and on television, in books and films and on the radio; we don’t need another semi-philosophical book to tell us that. Perhaps most heavy-handedly of all, Mitchell has Robert Frobisher, an amanuensis to a frail composer, compose the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet,’ a series of six nested solo concerti arranged in the same manner as the narratives in Cloud Atlas itself, as if to say ‘here it is again if you missed it the other half-dozen times.’ It’s a book that dreams big, throws big questions out into the cosmos and can’t reel them back in again. In trying to prove the interconnectedness of all things, Mitchell fails where Douglas Adams’ chaotically-minded and chronically-challenged detective Dirk Gently succeeds, and in doing so, proves that an endless and repetitive parable of humankind’s struggle against itself and its nature is more often that not just that – endless and repetitive. By the time I passed the mirror-point, I was beyond the point of really caring about the book, so much so that I couldn’t help but leave it unfinished at the conclusion of Sonmi~456’s tale. And, upon reflection – in writing this – I’m not so sorry that I did.
If the trailer to the Wachowski siblings’ film is anything to go by, it will look extraordinary, and perhaps they have managed to make the book better, managed to make sense of the book’s many stylistic and narrative quirks which perhaps can only work visually, such as the idea of one actor playing multiple roles. I live in hope.


A new Nick Earls book is always going to be good, if simply for the gentle humour with which he infuses everything situation with, the innate knack he seems to have of turning everything – even the most poignant and heartfelt scenes – into acutely observed portraits, witty and tender, the humour never too far away. He’s a bit like Nick Hornby, if you were to draw comparisons; where Hornby articulates the white-upper-middle class plight of despondency so well, Earls always runs with the lighter side of the situation, is always sure to create the balance that seems to exist in situations, separated by the thinnest of knife edges. It may be a generalisation here, but Earls’ work is, ultimately, like the literary equivalent of a Richard Curtis film, and the world would certainly be a lesser place for their not existing. Some of Earls’ best work can be found in his novels 48 Shades of Brown, Bachelor Kisses and The True Story of Butterfish, not to mention his most recent works, The Fix, and the wonderful and simply written collection of short stories, Welcome to Normal. The Fix revolves around a nominee for a bravery award, and the man – the fixer – who has been sent in to get him ready for the inevitable media spotlight.  Except, the more the fixer seems to dig, the more he uncovers the gaping hole in the truth, the incongruity of stories and the irrevocable truth of the situation. Set against the tensions and power-play at work, is a strand of a love story, as only Earls can write them, and he’s pretty good. Welcome To Normal hits all the right notes too, in just about the right order; the ludicrous is never too far aware from the heartwarming, and you always finish a Nick Earls book with a smile upon your face and a laugh in your soul. And there really isn’t much higher praise than that.
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer winner – has been on my ‘To Read’ list for a few years. I’d often see it in the bookshop near uni when I went searching for something to read on my hours between classes, and I often thought it sounded strange, stupid even. About a year ago I decided otherwise, and I’ve finally got around to reading it. Let me just start by saying it’s brilliant. It’s a big sprawling rambling narrative of a book, but one which seems inherently lonely, a deep melancholic sadness never too far from the surface. It centres around three generations of the Stephanides family, from Lefty and Desdemona’s escape from Smyrna in 1922 and their arrival in Detroit, to the birth of their children, their struggles to make a living, to maintain their identity, to hide their secret from everyone, including their family. Enter, then Cal (or Calliope, as s/he was born), Lefty and Desdemona’s grandchild, a girl born in 1960 who grows up amidst the race riots and freedom movements. I cannot spoil the book by going into any more details, because it really is a fantastic read, (it’s all in the title, really): at once as epic as the Greek myths, evoking the Minotaur, Antigone, Tiresias, and as tender as the most eloquent of love stories. Told by Eugenides in a curious choice of first-person past, Middlesex is a bildungsroman story like no other, “a novel about roots and rootlessness,” as Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote in Entertainment Weekly in 2002. “[T]he writing itself is … about mixing things up, grafting flights of descriptive fancy with hunks of conversational dialogue, pausing briefly to sketch passing characters or explain a bit of a bygone world. … Middlesex – a strange Scheherazade of a book – is all in pieces, as all big family stories are, bursting the boundaries of logic.” It’s also a lonely book, seductively humorous and witty and haunting in its characterization of Cal(liope), a kind of seer able to see into the minutiae of the past well before their birth let alone conception, as well as viewing their current world with such aching insight that you cannot help but want to reach out to them and get to know them better. The scenes detailing her teenage crush on the Obscure Object are beautifully wrought, almost like scenes from a film, the kind of beautiful lazy long summer light that seems to infuse our early memories. Cal’s – Eugenides’ – characterization of the adults, too, is terrific, non-judgmental and yet it so precisely shows where they stand in their views of the world around them. Eugenides’ narrator, essentially the voice of a temporally-displaced Cal – grandchild, grandniece, and grandnephew and, at times, speaking for her own parents and grandparents – speaks candidly and with the experience of someone who has known the boundaries of perception to be as mellifluous and as fluid as the ripples on a pond’s surface. In Middlesex, “gender is a muddle, nationality a hyphenate; action and consequence are never limited to a direct line.” Nothing is simple in this big-hearted, restless story, nor is it straightforward. It is, perhaps, as wonderfully reflexive and as confusingly hypnotically mindboggling as it needs to be, as it should be, and Cal is one of the most enigmatic and mysterious protagonists of any book I’ve read, this year or previously.

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s new book The Long Earth is an absolute ball. It takes a while to get into it, but once it gets onto the ‘Long Earth’ and grows into its setting, it truly is an enjoyable read, and the twist late in the book’s second act is worth the wait for. Do yourself a favour, and travel the ‘Long Earth.’ Only, make sure you have a potato with you.

What I’ve read this year, part five
The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
The Absolutist, John Boyne
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Welcome to Normal, Nick Earls
The Fix, Nick Earls
Beyond the Break, Sandra Hall
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Simultaneously posted by me at http://thespellofwakinghours.tumblr.com/post/30236880683

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