Structure

~first posted 25 Nov 12

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas a couple of months ago. I’ve recently published my own first novel, and–no surprise–I think it’s great. Actually, for a little while there, I suspected that I may have written the best novel, ever. (I have subsequently learned that every single new writer feels exactly the same way. This was disappointing. We can’t all beIMG_0063 right.) I decided to read Cloud Atlas because I heard it was a truly great novel. It was certified great by winning the Man Booker Prize. I’m impressed by this, but only because I think that the name of the prize is so much more impressive than the relatively mundane sounding National Book Award. (Note to anyone thinking of nominating my book for the NBA–I would not be adverse just because I think they can come up with a sexier name for the award.) Also, I began to see trailers for the film adaptation starring Tom Hanks. This also fits my definition of greatness for a book–the honor of being adapted (at great personal profit to the author, no doubt) into a film starring Tom Hanks. So, I was impressed that Cloud Atlas was a truly great novel. I wanted to see if my book was in the same league.

I think Cloud Atlas is a great book. I enjoyed it. It is not the best book ever, in my opinion. In case you haven’t read it (it is my impression that a lot of people haven’t read it), the book has a unique structure. Every review, and there have been quite a few, focuses on the structure of the book. Basically, the book is divided into six separate journals spanning a period from the nineteenth century to the post apocalyptic future. The journals are split in half, however. Each journal ends abruptly in mid-story. The next journal takes up with new characters in a subsequent time period, with a few fairly thin hooks implying that the subsequent journal is meaningfully connected to the one you just left. (I’m sorry, but having two characters in different time periods sporting similar birth marks doesn’t impress me as a deeply meaningful insight into the timeless nature of the universe.) After the middle journal, the book takes up the second half of each journal in sequence. You can’t argue that this isn’t a unique structure for a novel. Very unique.

Unfortunately, I found that this very unique structure actually detracted from what otherwise was an exceptional book. Mitchell masterfully employs various dialects in each of the stories, going so far as to invent a future pidgen English that is fascinating in its own right. But the fragmented nature of the narrative compromises every other aspect of the novel. It negatively impacts character development, narrative arc, and especially the tension that creates interest for the reader. Worst of all, the structure is so artificial that it becomes a distraction, a too-obvious and opaque window through which the reader is forced to observe the story. The reader is required to recall details from earlier journals, easily confusing aspects of each journal. It bothered me.

I have had similar experiences with the occasional book that can’t settle on a point of view. The book starts in first person, but suddenly shifts to the third person. Then we’re back in the head of the protagonist. I get it, first person is tough to write in. I’ve tried it, and failed. The author is severely limited. So if that structure is not going to serve your narrative needs, don’t go there. Personally, I find the switching point of view wrenching and distracting.

As a reader, I want the structure of the book to serve my needs, to disappear as I get involved in the story. I don’t want to see the author’s devices, even if they are unique and masterful. Let me get lost in the story, which I can’t do if I’m constantly being reminded of how hard the writer is working. Structure needs to serve story, not the other way around. Unless you’re trying to win a really cool award.

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