The New Novel
So we established pretty early on this semester that genes are what “makes us all alike” as well as “what makes us all different.” Aside from the numerous other extensions upon relational dialectics that this notion draws upon, I think it is exceptionally worthwhile to adopt this dialectic viewpoint when looking at a novel so interestingly constructed as Cloud Atlas. While this idea of stories within stories, and interconnected narratives told in a non-linear fashion is not fundamentally brand new, it is undeniable that Cloud Atlas does this exceptionally well and begs a very important question especially in light of the changing scape of literature today; that being, this question of what is a novel? For doesn’t Mitchell’s masterpiece (so far) blur the classification between novel and collection? It is, after all, a sort of series of novellas—and yet they form a grand and impactful narrative.
So what does this mean about the way we read (or at least, ought to be reading)? Still today, many books are written and released that follow the same linear conventions, and this is not an inherently bad thing, but for a novel as innovative and well done as Cloud Atlas, I think we should ask ourselves as readers why must we appeal to this old style of story telling that makes so many books easy to read and enjoyable? Why can’t every novel be as new and exciting as Cloud Atlas? Granted, that is mostly my opinion, but I do think there is something incredibly admirable about trying to create new structures—because with new structures we can have access to totally new arrangements and material and in the end, totally original works that can thereby evoke some new feeling.
Don’t forget, all of this relates to my initial remark about how genes make us all similar and different—for just as Cloud Atlas is wonderfully inventive and original, it does so by taking from old traditions (albeit taking those traditions stomping them into dust and then making entirely new art). Yet still, in this manner, Mitchell’s book is quite like every other book, or really every artistic endeavor, and yet entirely unique too. What is so important about this, I believe, is the way it challenges us as readers to face a new source of tension—not just the content, but the frame, the structure, the concrete and building blocks and entire system of scaffolding that holds up prose fiction.
I guess this blog post, more than anything, is vote in favor of the post-modern approach to art—creating something completely new from the shards of broken traditions. Much of what is today called post-modern (in terms of literature) is also viewed as elliptical, esoteric, perhaps even showoffish. Yet I think there is endless merit in challenge preconceived notions and systems, and I wholeheartedly commend Cloud Atlas for this, and would undoubtedly recommend it to anyone, as well.