I’m having the hardest time reviewing this book and I know why. I want to categorize it. I’ve all kinds of terms rattling around in my head as I try to write about it but ultimately what I end up with is just thinking out loud on paper.
Everything centres on the narrator of Cloud and this is as it should be as it is essentially his autobiography. Thematically, the novel concerns the nature of memory, to some degree narrative, and also narcissism. The narrator, Harry Steen, is a less than reliable fellow. He’s secretive and self-deceptive though he seems, or at least tells us, he’s quite sincere. He readily admits to his secretiveness – he even explains it as if it is a virtue.
But the question is always there: Can we believe anything about Harry other than his untrustworthiness as a witness?
Harry finds a book in an out-of-the-way bookstore in La Verdad, Mexico. It is a very old, mildewed book with the title, “The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in County of Ayrshire.” The story it tells is bizarre to say the least but what catches Harry’s eye is the reference to Duncairn, Scotland, a place he lived for a brief time in his life, a time that defined him because of a love found and lost and never understood. (Actually, a love misunderstood.)
There is a Dickensian, or at least Victorian quality to Cloud in that it is episodic. Harry’s life takes him around the world. As a young man he begins as a school teacher, becomes a sailor for a time (one that suffers from seasickness), and eventually the head of a Canadian mining company, a position that sends him on trips all over the globe.
Now here’s the thing about Harry: he’s a frustrating ass, so much so you want to kick him in the ass. This is largely due to his secretiveness, his constant caution about how people might react to truth and, because of this caution, his inevitable reluctance to tell it. He is constantly explaining that he isn’t revealing the truth because it’s best for someone else, when in fact it is really because he’s afraid to do so. In most, if not all cases, he eventually finds out that people already knew the truth anyway.
It is also because of his constant focus on himself and how events affect him, his interpreting of the world only to the extent that it relates to him, to see everything in terms of how he feels. And (usually) how he feels is wronged. For much of the book he sees himself as a victim.
This is purposeful on McCormack’s part and in many cases allows for a good deal of humour and makes the story an intriguing, entertaining yarn. But it also leaves the reader feeling a degree of frustration with the narrator because he is such a self-involved ass.
The novel is a mock-heroic one, with a post-modernist sensibility with a few metafictional elements thrown in. It is about the dubious nature of perception and memory and, as a consequence, narration.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, narrator Harry sees people and situations in ways that suit him and his idea of how the world should be. Yet it is seldom, if ever, an accurate world he imagines. Cloud is a comic novel, though it may not strike readers that way. It’s not comic in the sense of a “fall out of your chair laughing” way. It’s comic in form, in the sense that it is a series of misreadings, misunderstandings, misconstructions of people, situations, and events.
In his novel, McCormack gives us a peculiar variation on the picaresque novel. However, unlike the traditional novel of this type, McCormack’s hero is anything but roguish. (It sometimes seems as if every character is except Harry.)
Harry is more coward than rogue.
It’s a peculiar book. But that is par for the course with Eric McCormack. I do know two things, however. First, I want to re-read this book. I liked it and want to get a better grasp of the story I’ve read (and enjoy it again).
The second is simply to rewrite this review some day because I feel it is a cobbled together series of impressions.
For now, this is the best I could come up with.