Archive for February 2013

Review: Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell   Leave a comment

cloud_atlas_book_cover_01Most readers already know the basic structure of Cloud Atlas, which consists of six overlapping stories: a mid-nineteenth-century journal written by Adam Ewing, an American lawyer on his way home from business in Australia; a series of letters from an ambitious young composer, Robert Frobisher, to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, about how he has apprenticed himself to an ailing composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, shortly before the rise of the Nazis; a pastiche of a 1970s reporter/detective novel in which feisty journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant; a contemporary piece about a small-time publisher, Timothy Cavendish, whose brother tricks him into entering a nursing home; a post-apocalyptic interview with an android, Sonmi-451, who has transcended her programming to become fully human; and campfire account told by Zachry, who lives in a tribal world set even further in the future, and focuses on his encounters with a woman named Meronym, whose people still possess advanced technology. Only the last narrative is told in full: each of the other stories is told in part, with Mitchell returning to each narrative in reverse sequence until the book ends, once again, with Ewing’s account.

I have mixed feelings about this book that have mostly to do with its technical execution. The success of the different accounts, for instance, varies greatly: some of them are quite dull in the first half, but pick up measurably in the second, and it is for this reason that the first-time reader should be somewhat patient with this book. It does drag at first, but as more connections start to appear, it definitely gets more interesting. Two sections in particular stand out for me: the Luisa Rey section is hilarious if you are familiar with 1970s culture, especially because of the hyperbolic way in which Mitchell frames the narrative as a knee-jerk reaction to the times, from the Three-Mile Island accident to Watergate. But the best parts of the book belong to Sonmi, both because she is the most sympathetic character and because Mitchell’s technique seems at its smoothest here.

Mitchell is a very good writer, but he still has some polishing to do before he becomes truly great. Like many other readers, I did not appreciate the silly flourishes he gives to the English language of the future, and my reading speed noticeably slowed in that sixth story because of it. However, the greater technical flaws lay for me in two other areas. First, Mitchell’s characters are not always as interesting or developed as they might be, so that they sometimes seem to be ciphers for ideas rather than complex beings. Second, Mitchell’s use of literary allusions can sometimes be really clumsy. When Cavendish is waking up from his apparent stroke, for instance, he thinks the words “speak, memory” in a very unsubtle allusion to Nabokov’s autobiography. Similarly, there is Mitchell’s decision to call the faceshaper Madam Ovid after the Roman author of The Metamorphoses because, you know, she metamorphoses people. Such references are too unrealistically close to the surface of the text, and as such they are jarring. I really wish authors would trust the intelligence of their readers rather than using such clumsy devices.

Where Mitchell’s novel really hits home, though, lies not so much in the writing, but in the probing questions it asks about human existence. The shifting time periods of the narratives is a calculated tool designed to push readers outside the received political and philosophical assumptions of our time. When we strip these away, Mitchell shows, what remains are the ineradicable differences between weak and strong, which express themselves in different ways throughout human history. Through a logic that is explicitly informed by Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Mitchell argues for a qualified version of eternal recurrence: not that history repeats itself literally, but rather that it follows a cycle of birth, strength, decline, and fall in a way that applies equally to individuals, civilizations, and ideas. Mitchell aligns these ideas in the Timothy Cavendish story, which pointedly overlays Cavendish’s decrepitude, both in terms of his physical weakness and his out-dated ideas and slang, with quotes from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In terms of its ideas, Cloud Atlas delivers a brilliant, incisive blow to the modern reader’s assumptions, a potential for greatness that, unfortunately, is not quite matched by Mitchell’s technical skills as a writer.

Rating: 4/5

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 23, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

978-0-385-53682-0.JPGIn 1972, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called “The Other,” in which his elderly self, seated on a bench in Cambridge (the alma mater of Serena Frome, the protagonist of Sweet Tooth), bumps into his younger self. The two versions of Borges engage in a dialogue from which each comes away disconcerted by the differences between them, a device that is used by Borges to reflect on the disparate selves that we inhabit in the course of our lives. McEwan replicates a similar but fleeting moment in the course of his narrative. Toward the end of the book, as Serena is making her way through the crowd at Victoria station, she has a sudden vision: “I happened to glance to my right, just as the crowd parted, and I saw something quite absurd. I had a momentary glimpse of my own face, then the gap closed and the vision was gone.” Sweet Tooth follows the same logic as Borges, for McEwan, now sixty-four and the author of more than a dozen books, uses this novel to reflect back on his early career.

On the surface, the plot seems to belie this strategy. Set in the 1970s, its first-person narrator is a young woman who, after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, is recruited by MI5. Although women are usually given MI5’s lowliest tasks, Serena is given a break: she is assigned to an operation called Sweet Tooth, which provides covert funds to authors who have an established anti-communist bias. As such, Serena recruits Tom Haley, a budding young writer with whom she soon begins an affair. In this layer of the story McEwan provides a searching and sometimes hilarious examination of artistic integrity in relation to the state, a subject that resounds in a number of directions: the rise of a neoconservative ideology that has seen cuts to arts funding over the last four decades, the grounding of Sweet Tooth in the real-life precedent of the CIA’s funding of the magazine Encounter, and even Haley’s choice of Spencer’s Faerie Queene as the topic of his doctoral thesis, since Spencer’s work is an allegorical epic poem that bears a similarly complicated relationship to the politics of the Elizabethan age. Indeed, one might argue that the Faerie Queene, rather than any spy thriller, is McEwan’s biggest clue as to how to read this particular dimension of the novel (although I suspect that Spencer will somehow not see a dramatic spike in sales as a result).

Concealed within this story is a recurrent set of in-jokes about McEwan and his early career, expressed through the character of Tom Haley. As part of her background research, for instance, Serena reads Haley’s published stories, which bear strong similarities to the style and themes of McEwan’s early fiction. Like Borges, McEwan treats his younger self with a mixture of appreciation and amusement, establishing a deliberately ambiguous relationship with those earlier works. On the surface, he asks us to admire them, but underneath he seems to be smirking at their now-apparent youthful enthusiasm. McEwan also gives Haley many of his own biographical features, from his lanky frame to his home university of Sussex. Again, this quasi-portrait is undercut with an Austen-like irony that is easy to miss the first time through, most notably McEwan’s repeated insistence on Haley’s being a “swordsman” whose mastery in bed is commented on at every turn by Serena. It is difficult – and therefore deeply humorous – to work out whether McEwan is engaging in sexual boasting by proxy, or whether these moments arise from self-deprecating humor, or whether, like in Austen, the line between the two has become so blurry that it is no longer possible to judge the difference. Either way, careful readers of the novel, especially those who are reading it for a second time, should have wonderful time picking out these shades of ambiguity.

Sweet Tooth has wrongly been billed as a spy novel in the vein of, say, John le Carré, or even a thriller in the mold of McEwan’s earlier novel The Innocent, but that is not what this book is about at all. Instead, it asks searching questions about the value of literature to both the educational and political vitality of a society. Serena is a voracious but poor reader: she reads purely for the surface entertainment of a book, for instance, while missing the subtle underlying meanings of the text. As such, she avoids poetry and experimental prose, refusing to grapple with difficult works in what McEwan intimates is a symptom of a larger failure to engage in true critical thinking. Books are in danger, he warns us, of becoming as useless as the defunct telephones in Haley’s dystopian novella: “Without a telephone system, telephones are worthless junk.” Without a critical reading audience, McEwan implies, works of literature, including Sweet Tooth, are “worthless junk,” toys that are reduced to lowly entertainment when they could be used for so much more.

To conclude, if you have never read a book by Ian McEwan, then do not start with this one. The reason is simple: Sweet Tooth is in many ways a literary retrospective, an oblique reflection by the author back on the origins of his career. As such, if you haven’t read any early works by McEwan – especially In Between The Sheets – and don’t know anything about his life, you will miss a great deal of the logic and rich humor embedded in this novel.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 9, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Review

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