David Mitchell’s philosophy

I liked Cloud Atlas (the book – the movie I’ve yet to see). It’s hard not too. It’s a good yarn, with characters that draw you in, story lines that keep moving. It has everything a good story should – it’s just, I suppose, that given all the hype, I was expecting something a little grander.

There’s a lot to like in here. He creates a whole range of very articulate, distinct voices – there’s no sense of his authorship spilling between them. Each feels vivid, real. The structure itself is beautifully constructed – the pieces fit together well.

But perhaps what jarred a little for me was his central point. It felt over stated at points (yes, we get it, there’s a birth mark that keeps re-appearing), and at the same time, slightly … strange. Or, wrong. That we’re all being reborn in perpetual cycles? Nope, there I just fundamentally disagree.

There’s a monologue in the final section of the book I also found strange. Granted, it’s always worth being cautious about assuming that a character’s monologue represents the author’s views – but if it’s a monologue on the nature of reality, placed carefully at the end of the novel, it carries some weight. Essentially, his character argues, ideas move the world, and therefore, we should believe that we’re going to make the world a better place. I’m quite happy with the first half of that argument – ideas are essential. As Keynes put it:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.

But Adam Ewing (the finale in the structure of Cloud Atlas) goes on to say:

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & and the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

The idea just bothers me … that there’s this intricate, beautiful structure, and this great writing, but the idea at the centre of it all is simply There can be miracles?

There are other ideas in there too – some of the characters have different turning points as they learn to trust, as they discover the deception around them, but … these are small enough fragments that they’re not an overarching theme. There, we come back to the ‘re-birth’ idea, which just strikes me as an unexciting idea to base your novel around.

I suppose I was looking for a deeper vein of human experience to run through it, or for something more fascinating to happen. Instead it felt like I was reading a very good collection of very well structured short stories – but nothing that blew me away.

So read Cloud Atlas, because it’s a good book and it’s worth the read, but just don’t expect it to be life changing.


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