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‘You don’t see anything,’ he snapped. ‘You’re as blind to the wonders of the world as the rest of us. We know nothing, Mr Raimi. We have theories, guesses and opinions. We hold beliefs, each as valid and ridiculous as the others. We trust scientists to delve into the pits of time and space, tinkering with great questions like children playing with sand.

In all my years I’ve met just one man who seemed to really know. He was crazy, a drunk working on the docks. He had trouble tying laces and buttoning his coat. He spoke in fits and riddles, but every word struck me to the core. I listened a very short time, then had him executed. I was afraid of him. If I had listened much longer, I’d have gone mad too. Truth is too much for minds as small as ours.’

You’ve heard the story before. A young man comes to the city to find his fortune with nothing but big dreams and the change in his pocket to fall back on. Everyone from Dick Whittington to Norville Barnes began their fictional adventures in this same way.

Capac Raimi is no different. Arriving in ‘the City’, to work with his uncle Theo and learn the business, he is a young man still on the right side of thirty with big plans.  The Cardinal, a crime boss who runs every scam and business in the City, is at the top of the food-chain, an alpha predator whose control cannot be challenged. Of course Capac intends to do just that. After all, he’s a young gangster on the make.

Instead through a sudden reversal of fortune he finds himself working for The Cardinal, who seems to be grooming him for some position in his organisation. Capac slowly becomes more curious about the history of The Cardinal, seeing past his own greed to the peculiarities about his new mentor, who claims to have a near preternatural understanding of fate and is obsessed with Incan culture.

There other strange things going on that Capac has failed to notice before. Such as the blind monks who appear whenever the City is shrouded in fog. Or the way in which various henchmen of The Cardinal have a nasty habit of disappearing, leaving not a single trace – even in people’s memories. For some reason Capac can remember, which makes him think either everyone is lying to him, or these people literally are being wiped from existence.

Of course, Capac has blanks in his own memory. In fact he cannot recall anything of his past from before getting off the train to the City.

That sense of the familiar persisted throughout this book. Where D.B. Shan decides to do something different, is to have Capac become a sympathetic figure, before plunging the narrative down a very dark path.

Unfortunately, I found myself reminded of Frank Miller‘s comic book series Sin City, steeped in noir clichés with every female character a prostitute (or dead); as well as Will Self‘s novel My Idea of Fun, which features a seemingly innocent protagonist doing very nasty things. This book apes the worst aspects of both of these works. There is a depressing nihilism at its heart, made worse by the whopping deus ex at the plot’s climax.

In Shan’s defence for the majority of the story events proceed in a slightly unreal manner, which creates an intriguing ambience. It feels like an uncanny crime drama, but then the identity of The Cardinal is revealed and suspension of belief collapses.

Initially quite interesting, but ultimately a disappointment.

I am D-503. I am the Builder of the Integral. I am only one of the mathematicians of the One State. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating the music of unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think – or, more exactly, what we think.

I have a curious relationship with the work of George Orwell. I love his essays, his war-time journalism. I have even reviewed some of his fiction here on the blog. When I was in my teens however, Orwell’s writing, particularly 1984 but also in this respect Animal Farm, seemed to me to be something of a sacred cow. He had achieved the apex of dystopian fiction, the very pinacle of any allegorical take on communism and much like with  the sweeping claims of Fukuyama’s The End of History – this was a subject that was no longer relevant. Socialist theory was anachronistic and its era already long-gone before I had read a word of Marx.

So naturally I signed up to be a fan of Aldous Huxley instead, whose Brave New World I announced to (bored) friends was the far better book, more prophetic, more cleverly insidious in its soft dystopia. Of course I was wasting my time. Before Huxley, before Orwell, there was Yevgeny Zamyatin.

D-503 is a cipher, a member of One State, the perfect human civilization. As a mathematician he sees perfection everywhere, the angles of buildings and the shapes formed by a human mouth more real to him than any person, or archaic emotional response. D has begun a log of his day-to-day activities, as a demonstration of how One State has accomplished its utopia. He is a function of that mathematically precise machinery of society (at one point he recalls how as a child he was driven to despair by the idea of the negative square root of one – irrational numbers are something he finds terrifying.).

Daily life is strictly regimented, in order to ensure that each cipher contributes as much as possible. Work time, sex time, even ‘Personal Time’, is alotted to each member of One State according to a schedule. D has been allocated a romantic partner named O-90, whom he shares with his friend the poet R-13. This state sanctioned love triangle lumbers along pleasantly, with the only privacy afforded to either couple them by sex time, which allows the right to pull a curtain – all homes and structures in One State are transparent.

D’s life changes when he meets I-330. Temptatious, where O is demure, with no interest in sex for procreative purposes, or indeed any other responsibility ordered by One State, she slowly introduces D to concepts from ancient times long made taboo. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, his mathematical certainty crumbles and he begins to think about what he wants, what is good for him, instead of the state.

One thing that struck me while I was reading was that each of D-503’s log entires opens with a selection of ‘keywords’. So not only can we credit Zamyatin for inspiring the likes of Orwell – did he invent Livejournal as well?! There is much that feels surprisingly anticipatory here. The prose is spare, elliptical, oddly similar to the disjunctive abbreviated manner of online discussions today. This edition’s translator Natasha Randall quotes the author as having said ‘Old, Slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past; today the rule is brevity – but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage.’

I also like how ahistorical the setting for the novel is. It occurs in some unknowable future, with the spirit of humanity long since crushed. There is a haunting passage where D wanders deserted, glass streets, with all the other ciphers having congregated by the command of the state. Zamyatin theorises the eventual elimination of the organ of imagination itself, with the human ideal of becoming like unto a machine the most desirable outcome.

Bitter, acerbic and oddly witty, a classic dystopian work.

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.

You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

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