Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What the Hell Happened, 2004 edition

Take a look at the Booker Prize short list from 2004:

Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit
Sarah Hall, The Electric Michelangelo
Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Colm Tóibín, The Master
Gerard Woodward, I'll go to Bed at Noon

I’ve only read two of these: the winner, The Line of Beauty, and Cloud Atlas. And I have to say that, hands down, no contest, Cloud Atlas was the better of the two.

Why? Hollinghurst’s book is good, as I wrote in my review. But it’s a book about one era, and its limited set of problems: Thatcher’s England, and class and sexuality therein. It’s an interesting topic, and Hollinghurst’s take on it is worthy.

But Cloud Atlas is simply revolutionary, in both the literal and figurative senses. Figuratively first, its structure and plot are completely original: five stories are cut off halfway through, then found by the next character. That is, the first half of Adam’s journal in Part 1 is found by composer Robert in part 2. Luisa finds half of Robert’s letters in part 3, and so on, until the crux of the novel, part 6. Then part 5 concludes, part 4, part 3, all the way back down to one. It’s a risky but thoroughly virtuoso performance.

Second, its message is literally revolutionary. Each section is the story of an underdog, and the group he or she represents, rising up to claim his or her due from the ruling class. We have a slave sailor who frees himself, a reporter trying to blow the whistle on corrupt power plant owners, a clone ascending above her virtual servitude, and so on.

It’s a masterful, compelling, creative book, and Cloud Atlas should have won the prize.