Cloud Atlas David Mitchell Sceptre £16.99 March 4, 2004
British fiction’s a vigorous beast at the moment. It feels exciting; a new generation’s coming through, and they’re good, in ways that no-one’s quite pulled off before, pop-funny and heavy-clever all at once. Granta’s list of the 20 best young novelists from last summer is a half-decent guide to the names, but has the kind of blind spots that one would expect from the noble – but not quite hep – folk at our leading literary magazine: taking an author, like the terrific Dan Peace, who’s coming from the one respectable genre, Crime, but ignoring the knockout China Mieville, who’s made a deep impact in ever-disreputable Fantasy. There are other puzzling omissions: Daren King, for instance, who plays hard with language, and manages to twine strange fun and mental illness together in unsettling, brilliant ways. The list does a lot of fine names: Peace; Mail-snubbing folk hero Hari Kunzru; and, best of all, Dan Rhodes, whose odd, plain charm belies the weight and depth of his completely realised pen-portraits of alien minds. All these authors are digging towards something more interesting than Parsons-by-Hornby dicklessness, or coke-heist gangland grime.
Luke Sutherland’s Venus as a Boy is a fine example of what’s best and most exciting in British fiction right now. It’s a fine achievement, a seeming-simple story of a man who’s turning to gold. This premise could be fairy-tale cutesy, or a rejected-organ Magic Realism transplant. He manages to skip round this potential trouble, since he’s got a firm and lovely grip on the plain and the sad, the small cruelties of life, and its deeper joys.
The narrator, before his transformation, moves from Orkney, through Glasgow, to London. The Orcadian scenes are lovely and dark: full of the stupid cruelty of country kids, and the power of nature. The London portion has its own power: Sutherland runs high off a riverside nightscape, the names of City Churches, and the intoxicating thickness of life in the capital. He’s got a winning tone when dealing with other lives, a way of taking tangles of race and sexuality and making them seem common-sense normal. It’s a great virtue in this generation that it doesn’t occur to the interesting writers to be overly impressed by the exotic: there’s an unspoken ‘but of course’ that’s an effective riposte to post-colonial simpering over Otherness. As long as love for the world is crippled by love of the exotic, the imagination gets hurt.
Sutherland (also unrecognised by Granta) showed a lot of potential in his previous books, and now he’s almost there. The style is cleaner than before, less wrapped up in itself. In his last novel, Sweetmeat, sentences got wrapped up in their own sound, and leaned a little too much on long-vowel assonance – a trick that sounds alluring when sitting in front of Word, but grates on the reader. The style’s been toned down, and now everything is clearer and more honest. Sutherland’s move to Bloomsbury has also served him well – Sweetmeat was an ugly book, with bad type and lazy design grinding against writing that aimed for beauty, while Venus As A Boy is a desirable, well-made artifact.
There are odd echoes of the earlier novel here: an adored blonde prostitute who disappoints the hero; a failed attempt to run away; gender blurring handled with matter-of-fact clarity. But there’s much more control and conviction in this book. It’s a novel that gets works hard to wrap the reader up in the passionate belief which drives Sutherland’s writing: that love matters, even when deluded or disappointed; that love can change things. It’s a hard thing to say without a crazy kind of faith, and this is a religious book – in ways it’s a story straight from Gnosticism, the hippest religion of this millenium, a parable about Cupid-cum-Jesus and his Venus-Magdalenes. However, it never veers into alchemic-magickal lunacy and jargon: rather he sees and feels all the cynicism of the age, and still wants to say something urgent and unsentimental about love. He’s a brave writer, and one with a good heart.
The good heart’s an important quality, and one he shares with David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas looks likes a landmark. It’s early yet, but he may have established himself as the most compendious young talent in the country. He really is terrifyingly good.
Mitchell can do near enough anything. Cloud Atlas has six interlinked stories, and in them, Mitchell demonstrates that he’s able to write, perfectly, historical narrative, 30s Waughery, Watergate paranoia eco-thriller, the English comedy of mishaps, and Science Fiction, in both political dystopian and post-apocalyptic low-tech flavours. Nothing fails. An English writer, for the first time in what seems like an age, has strolled ahead of the Americans. It’s better than Eugenides, and better than Franzen. Did someone mention Eggers and McSweeney’s? Please excuse us. We’ll stop laughing in a moment or two.
There’s really not much to say about the book that won’t be made redundant after you obey our orders, and read it. The novel wins the reader, again and again, through the irresistable force of narrative. Mitchell loves stories and voices, and this complicated novel has a simple engine: you want to know what happens next. This simplicity commands attention when the book says something. The reader’s never left snoozing in a lecture theatre. This is remarkable, because it’s tricky to keep a crowd awake when you’re playing with a Borgesian recurrence, an argument about the value and cost of civilisation, and those addictions that lure us into slavery and polite barbarism. In ways, it’s a political book, and a powerful one, more persuasive than something written to make you cry a bit about the terrible life of Asylum Seekers. It’s trying to understand the world, and find ways to change it, despite the pessimism that has to take take hold when any sane person thinks for a while about power, those who have it, and what they do with it. Sympathy, humanity and honesty are potent political weapons in an era of callous lies and dead ethics.
So, it’s again this point about the good heart. It’s the great virtue of this new generation of writers. Compare them to the Godfather of British Fiction, Martin Amis, He’s never managed to create a character that one can truly give a shit about: brilliant bits of business, and many fun sentences, but uncomfortably cold at the end of the day. In both Mitchell and Sutherland, there’s a generosity of spirit that isn’t crushed beneath literary ambition. We don’t get telegraph summaries of a life to display the virtuosity of an author; instead there’s immersion, empathy and imagination, winning virtues all.
We should be thankful that our generation is getting a stream of fiction better than it deserves: from what we’ve managed so far, we ought to be gawping at ranks of vicarious hooligan thrills, rave memoir, I-don’t-get-on-with-daddy Man books, and Manolo paperbacks for busy girls about town. Authors like Sutherland, Mitchell, Rhodes and King are helping us to break a dull consensus, and offer books that are real, complicated, and, above all, a source of pleasure. We’re stuck in a selfish society, and the best parts of these writers are a corrective to this indulgent egotism. They’re investigating voices, trying on different identities, and these acts of sympathy and imagination offer medicine to a generation of readers otherwise only attentive when hearing about themselves. It’s a heartening literary scene right now: there’s hope for us as long as we can make and read books that are clever, funny and kind.