Archive for January, 2008


the blind assassin is clever, but not in the way those familiar with margaret atwood’s poetic timbre might at first think. with immaculate, painstaking precision, atwood amortizes the story of iris chase griffen. iris is an ex-society wife crumbling away in near-urban canada, whose story is revealed through the canny use of interstitial literature.

because of their thorough nature, the weight of their wend, the ostensibly amateur scribblings of iris griffen are well in need of the respite offered by the interspersed portions of newspaper chatter and a ‘novel’. this fictional novel, authored by iris’ heterodox sister laura chase, is the ‘real’ the blind assassin. the difference between the author’s dessicated present and the parenthetical past suspends in its solution an apposite bathos, the figuring of the space between and within the self. atwood marks well the severe consequences of such disaccord. the prettiness of atwood’s elderly narrator’s language, and her self-imposed task of remembering the histories of others is conveyed at length, and can sag. in contrast, the immediacy and creativity of the pages attributed to laura are robust; they rise as if still breathing when exhumed from a mausoleum wrought grey with time.

the waves, the characteristic constant cursive ‘w’ of the novel’s narrative force is effective, but wearying. an effect of this, likely intended, is the incomplete sketching of the various characters. from the numinous laura to the chases’ strangled father, norval, iris’ flawed gaze construes the players in bemused monochrome, much like the bizarre photograph tints favoured by the young laura. the passive subjects of these portraits are realised most intensely in their effects on iris, the repository of their collective folly, pride, betrayal and love.

(an aside: i’ve always admired how validating it is to win a booker prize. it gets plastered on everything you ever do. perhaps you’ll write a little paragraph for your old school paper. or you’ll write a bad book. forever you will be ‘booker prize winner’ X. even if you kill or rape someone, although perhaps not for certain after that.)

disregard the wretched cover (which, by the way, is just one example of the ‘metallic foil means we don’t have to design anything good’ artwork that is on every david mitchell book i saw at readings) which is actually the reason cloud atlas languished unread for so long in the middle of a pile of other endlessly more attractive, or at least not so inane-looking books. (i just typed ‘loud atlast’. what a pleasant typo.) there is no conceivable way david mitchell looked at this and said ‘yes, that is exactly what i want for my book. basically i want people to think my book is about a bucolic robot settlement.’ i really hope he had nothing to do with it. i honestly don’t think he possibly could. because cloud atlas is what plenty of people have described as virtuosic, with which i quite agree. it takes a good sort of brain to write a book. and possibly a very complex, sly and ambitious one to write a book which is essentially six books. if you imagine that what mitchell has done is write six novellas and laid them out flat, one under another, and folded it into a book so that you read half each of the first five before you read the whole of the middle one; and then you read the other half of each one in reverse order; you get cloud atlas. (loud atlast!)

even if you don’t like the idea of it, and it sounds gimmicky, it is not actually that difficult to navigate. and it adds a very specific charm. cloud atlas operates like a thesaurus. moments in one part will breathtake you back to another – flicking backwards can lead you further along. again seeming overly tricksy, each section wears a different genre. it is skilfully done but not without a hand detected behind. and this self-consciousness is perhaps intentional, because the sections’ interdependence is a well-established and necessary feature. notwithstanding the interrelationship’s utility, the grace of the message suffers from mitchell’s inability to trust his readers enough to draw their own map from the terrain he provides. there are more than a couple of authorly over-exertions, the title metaphor being one of them. nevertheless, cloud atlas is a elegant thing which still manages to pack a punch – the cyclical self-destruction of the human species writ large in its pages.