by Matt Richtel
…The openings of his novels are always grabbers. In The Cloud, protagonist Nat Idle is waiting to catch a late-night train when an enormous drunken man staggers into him. They both crash to the ground, with Nat very nearly thrown to the tracks in front of an oncoming train. A near-death experience instead becomes a nasty crack on the head, and a kind passerby rushes to assist. The drunk takes off, with a paper falling from his pocket as he exits. Nat’s ready to write the incident off, grateful to have gotten off relatively lightly—until he picks up the paper the man dropped. His name is on it. This was no accident.
That is merely the beginning of another of Idle’s investigative adventures. For a medical journalist and blogger, he does seem to become embroiled in some dark stuff. This story involves a technology designed to help kids learn to multi-task that may be causing a far more serious side effect. And yet, as intense of the plots of these novels are, at their heart they are character-driven, and none more so than this latest installment. Character absolutely drives plot, but in this case, prior knowledge of the character from his debut in Hooked or Devil’s Plaything would be helpful. Nat sustains a head injury in that opening scene. It affects him. He’s not himself, and I think that will be appreciated more by readers acquainted with the character. Nat’s funny, friendly, flawed, and fallible. He’ll go after a story like no one’s business. But in The Cloud, he’s altered. And he’s something of an unreliable narrator, which makes an already convoluted mystery that much more mysterious.
Mr. Richtel, incidentally, is also a journalist. By day, he writes about technology for the New York Times. He, in fact, won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so a few years ago. My point is, the man can write. His prose has an effortless readability, a sense of fun, and frequently rises above what one expects to find in a thriller. The novel moves swiftly, as events take place over the course of just a few virtually sleepless days. Furthermore, by the time all is revealed, the elegance and intricacy of the novel’s plot will become apparent. Oh, I had suspicions along the way. Some were right, many were wrong. But once I knew the truth, it was all so clear. The clues were salted everywhere.
Richtel didn’t learn about character development, pacing, and plot on the day job. I’m not sure where he learned the tools of his trade, because in this novel especially, he eschews literary convention while at the same time embracing certain genre tropes, for instance a beautiful and mysterious woman straight out of a detective noir. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and Richtel has his fun. But it’s where he diverges from convention, notably with this novel’s conclusion, that things get really interesting. I can’t discuss the choices made without spoilers, so I’ll simply say that Mr. Richtel wrapped up his mystery in a way that was unexpected, unconventional, sophisticated, and satisfying.
And aside from solving the mystery, Mr. Richtel has taken his protagonist into uncharted territory. The tale comes to a complete conclusion with no annoying cliff-hangers, but Nat evolves so much (and so believably) in this novel that I’m now consumed with knowing what the next chapter in his life will bring.
NOTE: For local San Francisco readers, Matt will be appearing along with novelist Sophie Littlefield at the SF in SF literary series on Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 7:00pm. Please join me there!