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Cloud Atlas: on genre

A.V. Club Staff

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This concludes our discussion of this month’s selection, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Join us later today for a live online chat about the book at 3:30 p.m. CST, and come back next week for an interview with Mitchell, which is being conducted today.

Ellen Wernecke: It would be wrong of me to congratulate all you readers who voted for Cloud Atlas on your good taste, but if this book hadn’t finished near the top of the poll, I might have inflicted it on you anyway. I read Cloud Atlas the year after it came out, and it overshadowed everything I read for weeks afterward; other books just seemed a little… colorless.


When you’ve experienced six different genre levels, as we see in Cloud Atlas, it can be hard to collapse back into one. Re-reading the book this time, I am again impressed with Mitchell’s bravado, his technical wizardry in tackling this many disparate genres in one work. (He turned around and did something completely different for his 2006 follow-up, the Thatcherite-Britain bildungsroman Black Swan Green… but I digress.) It didn’t form a coherent whole so easily for Andy Battaglia when he wrote The A.V. Club’s review when Cloud Atlas was published; he wrote that the book “strains as it attempts to gather itself under an umbrella full of holes” and “a few wobbly chapters show the seams of an awkward welding job.”

I understand on some level the criticism of Mitchell’s book as being all flash and no substance, but I think that critique glosses over the way each story’s genre pushes and pulls against itself even in creating that world.  The section following Luisa Rey’s tab reporter on the make launches itself like a paperback thriller but each of the heroine’s new misses seems more and more implausible, undermining the danger she’s supposedly in, while “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” hands over an explorer who, much of the time, seems like he would rather be at home letting others save the Moriori for him. “Letters from Zedelghem” gives us a false front of a young man trying to find his way in the world, only to find out that he hasn’t really come to learn at the foot of his master so much as to steal his ottoman and everything else.

That we come to meet Robert Frobisher’s co-conspirator Sixsmith much later in a completely different context is a thread that begs to be tugged, and thus, if I have to pick, my favorite reversion of expectations among the six stories. I’ll let Emily handle the question of the meta-novel – how those disparate sections are connected one to another – in tomorrow’s installment, but for now: Apart from the way they shaped the plot, as we discussed yesterday, did one of Mitchell’s iterations stand out for you as being the best advancement or commentary of the genre it represents?

Extra credit: For Cloud Atlas like so many of its postmodern siblings, I find a shelving under “literary fiction” to be frustratingly indescript. But if we can’t put it there, where would we put it? Is it possible, even, to assign a genre to the entirety of Cloud Atlas without breaking it down into its component parts? I realize this is the sort of brain-teaser popular among comparative literature graduate students, but I’m anxious to find out your answers anyway.


Leonard Pierce:  Last things first.  Genre is a tool, but it's also a trap; when you believe, as I do, that the distinction between high and low art is an arbitrary and often harmful thing, even using the word 'genre' (despite its very respectable literary history; it's only in the last three-quarters of a century that it's acquired its negative implications) to describe a book can damn it to the ghettos of books that will never be taken seriously by Real Literary Critics.  I use the phrase "literary fiction" all the time, even though I despise it (all fiction is literature), just because I want to make clear to uncertain audiences that I'm talking about a work with genuine merit instead of some piece of crap fantasy novel.  I hate it that this is necessary, just as much as I hate how people like Margaret Atwood use weasel-words to pretend they're not writing science fiction, but I know why they are driven to do it.

That said, the easiest way around this problem is to focus on a book's structural qualities, rather than its thematic elements.  Above all, Cloud Atlas is a formalist work:  it borrows the materials of 'genre fiction' to build a structure that resembles a work of 'literary fiction'.  Its various genre elements — the sea story, the epistolary novel, the airport novel, the literary novel, the dystopia, the post-apocalyptic novel — are all just the materials used in building a story about temptation, exploitation and human moral failings.


In that regard, it's hard for me to say whether one or another worked better in reaching its goal.  Since I don't believe Mitchell was especially interested in those novelistic genres or forms on their own merits, I don't think one was any better than the next in terms of contributing to the overall work.  I can say that some of them worked better for me personally, just in terms of how much I enjoyed them ("The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" was probably the most enjoyable to me, while "Half-Lives", although a fine evocation of airport fiction, just didn't snap for me), but overall, I think he ended up picking just the right formal elements to tell the stories he wanted to tell.  The two archaic forms, the two modern forms, and the two sci-fi forms were all distinct enough that they didn't seem wasted, and most importantly, they came together well.

Donna Bowman: I like that Mitchell decided not just to use various literary genres to tell his stories and to present his themes in different guises, but also to comment (although not from an aloof position, thank goodness) on the ways those genres work and don't work.  For the record, the genres in this book that my personal history has predisposed me to like best are the mystery and science fiction sections.  And for the record, I think Mitchell seems most fully invested in "An Orison of Sonmi-451," making the genre most transparent to his underlying interests there.


But forgive me if I get hung up not on Ellen's original questions, but on Leonard's phrase "some piece of crap fantasy novel."  Now, I know this was tossed off quickly and is not intended as a damnation of the seedier, less meritorious side of genre fiction.  And I know it's just an illustration of his reluctant acquiescence to the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction.  But it rankles, because I spent my formative literary years reading piece of crap fantasy novels, and because my personal quest (analogous to Leonard's quest to erase high/low distinctions) is to encourage people to embrace what they assume (often wrongly) to be disreputable.  When you're a critic, your friends tend to say things like,  "I know it's just a silly comedy, but Groundhog Day really makes me laugh."  What they're saying is that they believe — completely without basis, and in contradistinction to reality — that Groundhog Day is dismissed or hated by Serious Film People.

I get a little of that, Leonard, in your mention of "the ghetto of books that will never be taken seriously by Real Literary Critics." I can't tell if this RLCs are actual people you are referencing, or an imaginary construct (like my SFP above) — the mythical snooty professoriate who turn up their noses at genre fiction.  My beef is that I don't think those RLCs exist, and haven't for several decades.  Most of the (uncapitalized) real literary critics I read, hear, and work with in academia are eager to embrace genre fiction — especially if they're of my generation or younger.  They believe there is potential merit in the piece of crap fantasy novel, all the more important to uncover because it's in the realm of the lowbrow.  The highest profile publications by folks in the English department of my university this past year have been on the current vampire and zombie crazes in — yes — genre writing.


Forgive the digression — I sensed a straw man, and I couldn't let it wobble on.  I think we're on the same side, Leonard, but I'm not sure the sides are that clearly delineated (literature uber alles).  I'll leave it to the next poster to get us back on track with Cloud Atlas; suffice it to say that I don't sense Mitchell condescending to any of his genres or making a pastiche that he believes overcomes their supposedly pedestrian qualities, and that's one reason that I both love and admire his accomplishment.

Zack Handlen: Yeah, I don't really care about distinctions, but if I had to make one, Cloud Atlas would be "literary" because it's genre trappings are in service of the author's narrative, and not structural requirements. But even that's debatable. I just don't find it really interesting debate. If you need it to decide whether or not this is a good novel, you're probably headed in the wrong direction.


I guess I should be more impressed by Mitchell's genre jumping craziness, but… Well, okay, I am impressed. Good show, especially in the two science fiction sections, in creating a series of believable worlds. I especially loved how elegantly the exposition was delivered in "Somni"; I was more prepared for where "Sloosha" was going, which was the only other section that dealt heavily in the fantastical, but "Somni" took me off guard, especially after the comparative directness of the preceding chapters. It's probably why I was as disappointed as I was that so many of those moments when Mitchell decided to explain how the book's structure worked were so heavy-handed. (Thinking about it now, I wonder if I would've preferred it if none of the characters had ever had a sense they were connected. Most don't, but Luisa's investigations, while in keeping with who she was, broke the spell for a little while.) "Somni" dropped us in a world of clones and weird terminology and sci-fi, and while most of its core concepts weren't unique, there were enough of them that it took a few pages for me to get in my head what was happening. But I never felt lost or abandoned by the narrative. World-building is always a crucial part of good science fiction and fantasy, and Mitchell manages to create something striking and memorable in a seamless, graceful way.

Yet, as always, I have reservations. A lot of this felt a little toothless to me. I agree with some of the criticism that this book is too intellectual. I got more engaged with it as I went along, but honestly, sometimes the efforts at pastiche were almost too good. "Half-Lives" was a pretty good thriller. (And certainly better written than most popular fiction of that kind, although not quite as gripping as some of the great pulps.) "Somni" was pretty good sci-fi, very well told. And so on. I do love puzzles, I really do, but either the puzzle wasn't striking enough here, or the individual threads failed to tie me as tightly to the conceit as I would've liked, because having finished it, I don't feel all that interested to go back to it, or to seek out Mitchell's other work. I have the same problem I have with so much modern fiction, which either mines I'm losing touch with the form, or I'm reading a lot of the wrong books. It's clever, and it's moving sometimes, and it's undeniably well-crafted, but it wasn't enough. I wanted to see blood-flow, but I got a chalk-outline instead, and that is almost certainly more my problem than the novel's.


Todd VanDerWerff: Honestly, I don't know that I'd read any section of Cloud Atlas as its own story. I realize this is not the point, that removing any of these parts from the whole would make it that much more wobbly, and I also realize that part of the thrill of reading the book is getting caught up in six different kinds of stories, all at once. I, honestly, was enraptured by every single one of these segments at one time or another, and they're all in vastly different genres, of the sorts I don't often read. (And, furthermore, at least two are written in older literary forms that I've never much liked, like the novel told in letters.) Mitchell keeps one eye on telling the story he's telling via a variety of genres, but he's also keeping an eye on making sure all of it feels fresh and modern. I'm not sure how he does it, but I'm heartily impressed.

At the same time, all of these stories fall rather resoundingly into the specific cliches and tropes of their specific genres. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing - I don't always read fiction to find something new expressed, and the very structure of the novel is daunting enough without having each section also subverting the genre it's mucking around in - but I can certainly see where it would disappoint to, say, have Luisa realize that EVERYBODY WAS IN ON IT or to go crashing into a facility where clones are being made into food. These are old, old ideas, and the promise of this novel is that it will be telling us new things dressed up in older clothing.


But you know what? I didn't mind at all. I think Mitchell is poking at the most common tropes and ideas of all of these genres, seeing if he can figure out what makes them tick and seeing if he can find ways to make those ideas resonate for readers all over again and in a context that places the stories and genres in unfamiliar settings. In a way, he's taking a leopard out of the wild and putting it in the middle of a department store and seeing if either element is changed by the new proximity. Does a dystopian science fiction tale change at all by being placed up against a modern day dark comedy? Or do they remain fundamentally and stubbornly the same? I don't think that Luisa changes her spots, necessarily, but I do think that seeing her butting up against Frobisher tosses each character into a new relief. These are both kinds of fiction. Is one necessarily better than the other, especially if they're both driving at similar truths? I think Mitchell would say no, and I would be inclined to agree.

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