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A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.

&

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?

Ladies and gents, after a hundred and eight reviews I think I may have stumbled upon my favourite book for this year. Ambitious, yet without pretension, with a vast storyline stretching across centuries, though revolving around a single theme, Cloud Atlas is something special.

Usually at this point I discuss the plot of the books I review. The problem here is that this book concerns several plots. In fact it concerns several texts, scattered throughout history and each story is discovered by the protagonist of the following tale. It begins with the diary of an American notary sailing across the Pacific during the colonisation of the Antipodes, then skips forward in time to an English composer fleeing to a villa near Bruges, appointing himself as a musical amanuensis to avoid his debts shortly before the Second World War. A tale of industrial espionage in the disenchanted seventies  is followed by a Keseyian yarn involving skulduggery in the publishing industry.  Finally a future utopia founded upon a horrific secret gives way to an even more distant future where language itself has become dissipated by time.

Essentially this is everything Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain wanted to be, but just could not quite capture. In fact I heard a rumour the Wachowski brothers plan to film this next. I can see how it might work and if they pull it off, we could be looking at a cinematic treat to rival this marvellous book.

Above all this is a story that hints at greater narratives and meanings, but does not trouble itself with having to explain all of them. The central protagonists in each section may be reincarnations of one another, as suggested by the repeated motif of a tell-tale birth-mark (as well as the repetition of the phrase ‘cloud atlas’). However, they may also be fictional characters in books, films and anti-government propaganda, which capture the interest of their future selves, only for us to discover that they too are not ‘real’.

The tone of these stories within stories switches from the macabre, to rich comedy. The heroine of the section within the seventies, Luisa Rey, is a journalist who would not be out of place in a novel by Stieg Larsson. The following chapter titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, feels like a rewrite of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Will Self. An Orison of Sonmi-451, concerning a clone-slave, referred to by the dominant human caste as a fabricant, and her journey of self-discovery, name-checks Huxley and Orwell, just so we know for sure that we are in the realm of allegorical dystopia. Even the Yankee notary remarks in his diary how his voyage compares to Melville’s writing.

While this is a book rich in intertextual references, it is in no way obscure, or pretentious. The far-future sections described in broken English are tough, but if you can weather Beat-poetry you should be fine. As this is a book principally concerned with storytelling, Mitchell is considerate to his audience and has fashioned above all an enriching and entertaining collection of tales, telescoping through history and then returning to its starting point. Each of the sections during the first half of the novel end abruptly and we share the succeeding character’s frustrating in not knowing what happens next. The composer Robert Frobisher’s reaction to only having half of the notary Adam Ewing’s diary is especially amusing.

On the rebound, returning back from the future, each of the stories is brought to a fitting conclusion. This assurance that everything will be explained makes the book more similar to serialised fiction and its reliance on cliff-hangers. Thankfully, David Mitchell does not punish us with any loose story threads signifying a sequel.

I have gushed enough. Rarely have I had this much fun with a contemporary author’s writing. I can think of no higher praise really.

Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.

Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.

What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.

Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.

Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.

This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.

Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.

This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.

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