Fantasy. Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:By the New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Clocks ē Now a major motion picture ē Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize Includes a new Afterword by David Mitchell A postmodern visionary and one of the leading voices in twenty-first-century fiction, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending, philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction as profound as it is playful. In this groundbreaking novel, an influential favorite among a new generation of writers, Mitchell explores with daring artistry fundamental questions of reality and identity. Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . . Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history. But the story doesnít end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky. As wild as a videogame, as mysterious as a Zen koan, Cloud Atlas is an unforgettable tour de force that, like its incomparable author, has transcended its cult classic status to become a worldwide phenomenon. Praise for Cloud Atlas ď[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novelís every page.ĒóThe New York Times Book Review ďOne of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt isóand should beóread by any student of contemporary literature.ĒóDave Eggers ďWildly entertaining . . . a head rush, both action-packed and chillingly ruminative.ĒóPeople ďThe novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book, and yetónot just dazzling, amusing, or clever but heartbreaking and passionate, too. Iíve never read anything quite like it, and Iím grateful to have lived, for a while, in all its many worlds.ĒóMichael Chabon ďCloud Atlas ought to make [Mitchell] famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer whose fearlessness is matched by his talent.ĒóThe Washington Post Book World.
The book begins with the story of Adam Ewing, who in 1849 is traveling in the South Pacific and recording a journal of his voyage. His journal ends abruptly (in the middle of a sentence!) and the next story begins which takes place in Belgium in 1931. At one point in this story, the author mentions Adam Ewing‚Äôs journal, a part of which has been located on the book shelves of the estate in Belgium where the story is set. This story continues until it, also, ends abruptly. And so it goes. Each of six stories, all set in different times and places, with entirely unique characters, is connected somehow to the story that precedes it. One of the stories is told from beginning to end, uninterrupted. But each remaining story is concluded in a later chapter in the book. This provides for an absolutely fascinating read.
The amazing thing for me was Mitchell‚Äôs uncanny ability to provide a unique voice for each story. With dialects to match the period in history and the location on earth, and although the plots, theme, voice and setting vary greatly, he is able to weave them together and move the reader along through a mesmerizing narrative. Mitchell‚Äôs signature humor shines in ‚ÄúThe Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish‚ÄĚ:
‚ÄúI asked for a loan of eighty thousand pounds. He began with a thoughtful, ‚ÄôRight‚Ä¶..‚Äô I lowered my ceiling to sixty. Elliot pointed out that my performance linked credit stream still had a twelve month flow horizon before resizing could be feasibly optioned. Oh, I miss the days when they‚Äôd laugh like a hyena, tell you to go to hell and hang up.‚ÄĚ (Page 156)
With Mitchell‚Äôs heavier themes, though, he doesn‚Äôt mince words. Dr. Henry Goose reveals his Two Laws of Survival in 1849:
‚ÄúIt runs thus, ‚ÄėThe weak are meat the strong do eat.‚Äô It upsets me that a dedicated healer & gentle Christian can succumb to such cynicism. I asked to hear Goose‚Äôs Second law of Survival. Henry grinned in the dark and cleared his throat. ‚ÄėThe Second Law of Survival states that there is no second law. Eat or be eaten. That‚Äôs it.‚ÄĚ (Page 489-490)
I can‚Äôt begin to say how much I enjoyed this novel. Mitchell was brilliant and ‚ÄúCloud Atlas‚ÄĚ is not to be missed. It will make you think‚Ä¶.a lot. That thinking will continue after the book is completed and probably for some time to come. Very highly recommended.
Beginning in the days of
It's also an exploration of human greed and its quest for power, money, and things. It's about the way civilisations rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall; and how each rise and each fall is brought about by that same greed. It's about how little an honest individual can achieve in the midst of all that corruption, and yet shows the worthwhileness of so doing. On a large scale, this book is about the repetitiveness of history, and the near-hopeless need civilisations have for their inhabitants to overcome the baseness of being human. But don't get me wrong - this is not a grim, bleak or depressing book, despite those themes. The styles and characters are abundantly alive and fascinating.
I've seen another reviewer describe Mitchell's style as 'virtuosic', which is a perfect description. Each new story could have been written by a totally different author, and each style is flawless. My personal favourite was the letters from Robert Frobisher, a young British composer in Belgium, to his friend and lover Sixsmith. Frobisher is a cad: a thief, an easy liar, a sensualist and an adulterer - but he's the most charming and loveable character I've met in a long time. He's charming in that between-wars British young man sort of way - I can almost see his long, thin face, the veins in his translucent hands and his nervous air of languid restlessness - though none of these things are actually mentioned. We as readers of his letters can absolutely see what Sixsmith sees in him, and we fall for him ourselves. (Or at least I did.)
There are two sections set in the distant future: one at the height of technological and 'corpocratic' civilisation, and the next is post-apocolyptic. The pre-apocolypse section is terrifyingly possible in its surface glamour, its wondrous science, and the incredible filth and greed and corruption behind it. I only wish all the big-name companies could read this book... except then they might go getting nasty ideas.
This is a big book, and in some ways perhaps an important one. Highly recommended.
The structure of Mitchell's book is unusual. In the first half of the book you climb a mesa a step at a time as you read the first half of each story. The middle chapter is the only one to not be divided. The second half of the book you descend back to ground level, reading the second half of each story in reverse order. Thus the analogy of matroyshka's or nesting dolls.
The book also seems to be divided in terms of the author‚Äôs focus. In the first half, the question is one of "ascension", the name given to the process of becoming civilized through the acquisition of increasingly complex language. The first story is a diary excerpt, a written form intended for oneself. The second is a series of letters: correspondence being the written communication between two people. Each story increases its scope to include an increasingly wider audience until we reach the recording of history itself. In addition, each chapter uses successively more difficult language, until we read a projection of what language might look like in the future. This section was of the most interest for me because of the questions it raised, questions about the linkages between both language and intelligence, and language and civilization. The second half of the book is about the effect of power on microcosms and on civilization as a whole. I found the passages about truth in history to be interesting, but found the message about absolute power corrupting societies absolutely to be a bit heavy handed, especially at the very end of the book.
The interlocking plots of the six stories are by turns interesting, humorous, and depressing. Although I enjoyed the stories, it is the ideas and the language that will remain with me. Some of the images invoked in the first half are perfect, and I found myself reading them again just to enjoy the language.
The stationmaster's whistle blew on time, the locomotive strained like a gouty proctor on the pot before heaving itself into motion.
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
Overall, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for the clever structure, interesting plot line(s), and above all for the questions it raised about language, power, and civilization.
There has been a lot of talk about the matryoshka doll structure of the book: six novellas nested inside each other, the first five split in half to contain the succeeding ones. This was interesting but, evidently, less so to me than to many other readers.
What I found much more thought-provoking was the structure's fractal nature. Each novella could stand in its own right as a story about greed and lust for power. Then, each novella referenced the chronologically preceding one as a side plot to tie them together into a larger novel that enriched those themes by adding a dimension of time and recurrence. Finally, there was a meta-story that Mitchell told, not in the plot lines themselves, but in the patterns drawn by those plots, that drove home Santayana's maxim about the fate of those who do not learn from history.
By speaking to us on so many levels simultaneously...by having each protagonist's tale echoed in the larger whole...Mitchell's message hums in the background of our minds even as we move between characters, stories and eras. It's very intelligently done.
If I have any quibbles about the book, it's that Mitchell got a little heavy-handed by the end. He seemed to lack confidence that the reader would catch what he was trying to say and resorted to having his first/last protagonist speechify to us. I felt a little let down and a little put off by this. I would rather he had just trusted his own, considerable powers of writing and a measure of intelligence on the part of his reader. What he wanted to say came through loud and clear long before that point.
But there‚Äôs still more to this book. Apart from the fact that each story makes cameo appearances in the next one (often, but not always, being significant to the main character of it ‚Äď in one instance it‚Äôs the last wish of a character to find out how it ends) there are also things that connects them. Someone recognizes a piece of music. Settings recur. Names recur. A birthmark shaped like a comet makes many appearances. And strong themes of freedom and slavery, human dignity and imprisonment create a red thread through time and space. I‚Äôm sure one could feel that stronger links between the stories could have been created, making the weave seem more intricate. For me, thses touchstones and hints are perfect the way they are.
This is a funny book, a thrilling one, a tear-jerker and a taste of places and histories new to me (must learn more about the Moriori!). It‚Äôs a page turner like you wouldn‚Äôt believe, and one of those rare books where I kept hoping there was more pages left than it seemed. A truly wonderful read.
"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragment into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clirinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale
This is equally a description of the book. It begins with "The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing", occurring approximately mid nineteenth century. It is interrupted by "Letters from Zedelghem", the Frobisher piece, set in 1931 and in the form of letters to his friend, Sixthsmith."Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" happens in the 1970's, and concerns a newspaper reporter (working for a celebrity rag, but daughter of an investigative reporter), who by chance meets the physicist, Sixthsmith, just as he is deciding to reveal the details about an unsafe nuclear power plant about to be built. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a tale of a vanity publisher set in the 1980's. "An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451" is set in the future in an earth that has evolved into an place of industrialized, mechanized society with all the pollution and haves and have nots of present gone to an extreme. Clones without rights are used for labor. The story at the middle, "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After", is after the breakdown of that society into a place of outlaws with enclaves of various forms/levels of something else.
As with the Luisa Rey mystery connecting with the Frobisher piece through the character of Sixthsmith, there are connections throughout between one story and another. Frobisher is selling old books that he finds in the library of the washed up musician that he has decided to work for. Likewise, the vanity publisher stumbles on the Luisa Rey mystery. Zachery of the last story belongs to a group which worships a deity called Somni.
Some formal experiments detract from the story, but that isn't the case here. The stories, aside from that of Zachary, are all interrupted, but then they are resumed, and nothing is hard to follow. It is just that all the other levels are there as well. I didn't find it hard to move from one to another, although the first interruption of each left me in some suspense. Actually, I was a little perturbed by the first one when I didn't realize that the story would be resumed later, but a quick thumb through cleared that up.
Taken separately, I don't have a feeling that any of the stories are great. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" was good in a straight narrative old style type of way. The style reminds me of something like [Robinson Cruso], or [Kidnapped], though more meditative than an adventure story. "Letters from Zeddelghem" could also be an example of a type of literature, in this case, more of the romantic, individualistic tale. "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" is not exactly a mystery story, but it could fit into the genre of something like [The Pelican Briefs]. It was hard to take the "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" very seriously. He is simply too superficial a character, although he is in a very serious situation. Still, the resolution, also was not seriously believable, but then neither was the whole situation really. My strongest response was to "An Orison of Sonmi~451." In some way it felt more pure than the other stories, and more emotional in that purity. The final story of "Sloosha's Crossing' An' Ev'rythin' After" fits solidly in a genre of stories of a more primitive society after the breakdown on a more advanced one, with lawnessness in the absence of strong authority, and with the presence of a small enclave of people with more advanced technology. It is on a par with the better of these, but not the best.
Overall, the stories are not charicatures, but to me they felt clearly representative of types. I don't know if that was part of the plan.I'm not sure of what the structure contributed to the impact of the book, but I do know that I feel like I could gladly start again with it, reading with more of a lookout for the interconnections and reverberations of one story into another. Definitely an enjoyable read.
In the nineteenth century, Adam Ewing fills his
The manuscript for the thriller falls into the hands of publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose unfortunate experience of incarceration is eventually made into a film, which is watched by the genetically altered 'fabricant' Somni after her escape from slavery in a dystopian future. And generations from then , Somni is worshipped as a deity and become a figure of hope to a post-apocalyptic society over whom the spectre of despair and slavery hangs.
The themes of truth and falsehood, freedom and slavery, hope and despair, and what precisely makes one person different from (and the same as) another, appear and disappear from the narrative - interweaving, foreshadowing, echoing through the stories.
Not one of these threads is dropped, not one of these narratives is weak, not one of these characters is anything but convincing. The use of six different narrative styles is effective - each works individually, none becomes a stereotype, and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. The interweaving of themes and motifs is subtle and highly effective, and the nesting of the stories one inside another supports this beautifully.
Very highly recommended.
This is not so much a novel as a series of six short novellas, each progressing forward in time, from the early 19th Century, to a far distant future. The stories are not connected
The individual stories are not told in completion, but are left 'hanging', to be returned to and completed later in the book (the exception being the futuristic Story 6 which forms the centre of the novel). The structure of the novel, giving each individual story a letter, is : A B C D E F E D C B A. The novel therefore progresses from the 19th Century to a far-off future, and then returns by stages, ending back in the 19th Century.
The central theme (if there is one) is 'imbalances of power' : Western expansion over indigenous tribes, and of one tribe over another; the clash of youth and old age, new ideas and new money versus the old (aristocracy and musical composition) and traditional; big business over anything seen to be standing in the way of profit and expansion; institutions over the individual; conscious intelligence over a cloned and drugged fantasy life; civilisation versus brute force and superstition.
Each story is told in the form of a pastiche of a different literary form, including "Victorian explorer's journal", "episodic cliff-hanger thriller", "satire", "science fiction". Some are eminently more readable and successful than others. In particular I found Story 4 - set in the modern era - an unsuccessful satire, as it painted a picture of Britain that didn't really convince (who on earth says "ruddy" as a swear word these days?), though it does contain some laugh-out-loud moments.
I would have liked to see three of these novellas turned into full length novels - Story 2 took us part-way on a tense psychological journey, but ultimately dumped us out of it at rather high speed; Story 3 was the quintessential exciting "long" short story and although seemingly complete, could equally have made a thrilling and successful full length novel; Story 5's nightmarish vision of a future dystopia was an original and thought-provoking triumph, but had probably the most potential for satisfactory expansion.
The structure of "Cloud Atlas" is uniquely original, and it seems likely that its ABCDEFEDCBA stories are intended to form the literary equivalent of a piece of music; a sextet, or fugue (statement and recapitulation). However, what works with music does not necessarily translate into a literary form, and my overwhelming feeling as the tale lurched back from the far future towards its 19th Century inception was "Yes, very clever ... but so what?" I would say that it's better read by jumping forward to finish each individual story, then returning to start the next one.
The stories, in order, are:
The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
The diary of an American notary circa 1850, returning home from a business trip to Australia, who makes a brief stop at the Chatham Isles and then sets off again bound for Hawaii; the diary cuts off in mid-sentence as we are sent to...
Letters From Zedeghelm
... a series of letters written by a Robert Frobisher, a young, bankrupt English composer in 1931, fleeing debt collectors by hopping a ferry to Belgium and offering his services as an amanuensis to a reclusive, eldery composer. Frobisher ends up stealing books from the library to pay off his debts and sleeping with the composer's wife, but before things are wrapped up we find ourselves in...
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Written in the style of an airport novel, featuring a determined young reporter taking on a corrupt nuclear power company in 1970s California. This was my least favourite of the stories, but that's okay, because it's not long before we're reading...
The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Set in early 21st century Britain, in which a man in his 60s, perfectly sound of mind and capable of living, is accidentally sent to a nursing home from which he finds himself unable to leave. Unjust imprisonment is a favourite theme of mine, so I was somewhat disappointed when I was yanked away and sent to...
An Orison of Sonmi~451
Dystopic, futuristic Korea, where an archivist is interviewing a "fabricant" on death row, tracing her life voyage from worker in a fast food outlet to champion of clone's rights and freedom for a secret rebellion group. One of the best science fiction stories I've read in a long time, fully realised in technological, social and political dimensions, but the creeping sensation of humanity's march towards destruction culminates with...
Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After
Set in a rural post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii, where young Zachary relates the story of his visitor Meronym, a woman from an advanced culture across the ocean (tones of John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids"). Written in the spoken style, as a campfire story told by someone with a rough accent, which means a lot of apostrophes and phoenetic words, annoying at first but I soon grew used to it. This is the middle of the story, the mirror, and following this we retrace our steps through Korea, through Timothy's nursing home, through 1970s California, through 1930s Belgium, all the way back to the lonely trade ship on the South Pacific in the 19th century.
These stories can easily be read on their own, but they share three common threads. The first is that each one is, ostensibly, read by a character in the next; Frobisher finds Ewing's journal in the library at Zedeghelm, one of the characters in Half-Lives is the man Frobisher was writing to, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who receives a manuscript for Half-Lives, etc. The second thread is that a character in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark; suggesting reincarnation, I suppose, although that doesn't quite work out, as Timothy Cavendish was most certainly alive at the same time as Luisa Rey.
The final common thread is the theme of the book itself - one of dominion, of slavery, of power and predation and the vicious heart of human nature. Each individual story contains dozens of miseries, of humans forcing their will upon others, from the invasion of the Chatham Isles by Maori, through to the more civilised but no less malevolent imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, right back to savage brutality in Hawaii centuries from now, as Zachary's home valley is pillaged and his friends and family slaughtered by the brutal tribes on the other side of the island. Almost every major interaction between human beings in this book reveals, upon closer examination, the will to exert one's influence over the other - whether with intimidating words over drinks at a formal luncheon, or with sword and spear on the battlefields of the barbaric future.
The writing itself is perfect; Mitchell paints pictures with words and constructs sentences with elaborate care, resulting in one of those few books you can pick up and read again at any point, any page or sentence, and enjoy. The simple aesthetic pleasure in seeing words strung together so well, even outside of any greater narrative scope - that's a real accomplishment, and I could count the number of books that achieve it on one hand. I absolutely love this novel, and now I really have to read "Vernon God Little" - because to have beaten Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, it must be staggeringly brilliant.
Brief Summary Begins
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. You're going to love this one. Let me give you a little summary so you'll know what to expect. (You'll thank me for it later.) This book is basically six stories in one novel laid out like little Russian nesting dolls. Confused? Let me explain:
The first story starts out in 1850 on a ship sailing from the Pacific islands. The main character writes his story in a journal. (This was the slowest and hardest to read because Mitchell used word and spelling choices prevalent to that era, but it's also the story that ties the rest together, thematically, so I ended up going back and reading it closer after my initial run through. Just giving you a heads-up there.) Half-way through this story, it abruptly ends and launches into the second story, which is about a composer in 1930's Belgium who tells his tale in the form of letters he writes to a friend in London. During the course of his own story, he mentions finding a book which is the published journals of the main character from the first part. The book has been torn in half. He reads the first half but cannot find the second. In his letters he asks his friend if he can find him a copy so he can read the second half. (You see what Mitchell is doing here. The main character in the second part has "read" exactly how much we read ourselves of the first story.) Then, just as abruptly, in the middle of his story, it ends and we move on to the third part, wherein the main character reads the letters from the second part, but only half of them, and so on.
Each part takes place later (sometimes significantly later) in time. Part 3 is written like a detective/suspense novel and takes place in 1970's California. Part 4 is written almost like a British dark comedy and takes place in modern day (early 2000's) England. Part 5 takes place quite some time in the future (and thus reads like a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel). Part 6 takes place in a dystopian far future after civilization has all but destroyed itself.
The main character from each part "finds" the story (in various forms) from the previous part but only the first half of the story, before their own story is interrupted and we move on. Then at part 6 (the middle part of the book, in the dystopian future) we get a complete story, beginning to end, no breaks, where of course the main character "finds" the first half of the story of the main character in part 5, but this time, at the end of part 6, we are left with the protagonist finding out what happens in the second half of part 5. Thus, in the next chapter, we step back into the sci-fi story of part 5 and we read the rest of that tale. At the end of part 5, we find out what happens in part 4, etc., until you get down to part 2 where the composer in Belgium finally finds the second half of the published journal (of the sailor in 1850) and at the end of his (the composer's) own story in part 2 he reads the rest of the journal, which leads us to the final chapter which is the remainder of the sailor's story in 1850.
Clear as mud, right? Good. Now go have fun.
Brief Summary Ends
I'm not sure if all of that was completely necessary, but had I gone in with that minimal knowledge, I wouldn't have been scratching my head at the end of the first chapter, which literally ends mid-sentence, and jumps right into a completely different story in chapter two.
And now that I've used up all this space, let me give you my thoughts on Cloud Atlas. It's quite possibly the best novel I've read in ages. Dare I say, the perfect novel? That might be a stretch. But considering my own criteria of (1) good voice, (2) good characters and (3) good story, this is nearly a trifecta.
(1) Mitchell shows off his virtuoso command of voice by crafting each of the 6 parts in a different voice and style, down to spelling choices and flow. For instance, the 70's detective novel clips along at a fast pace (reminds me of James Ellroy). The 1930's composer writes in a Dickens/Austin style (if either Dickens or Austin were charlatan grifters). My comparison of the sci-fi futuristic story to Philip K. Dick still resonates. Mitchell bounces around between voices with remarkable ease.
(2) The characters are perhaps the weakest of the three, which is not to say they are poor. Just consider that each (main) character only had 1/6th of the novel to be fully formed and fleshed out. Given the other 5/6ths, it's possible he could have done even more impressive things with them. As is, each character is crisply defined and stands out amongst all of the rest, distinctive and unique.
(3) Good story? Heck yes. Six good stories. Some stronger than others. They tended to gravitate between being more plot driven and being driven more by the theme. I found the first and the sixth to be the latter. The middle four stories flowed quicker and were more fun to read. Again, all very unique and distinctive.
And if I were to add a fourth element to my criteria for a perfect novel (which I admit I've thought about a lot but I rarely formally include because this is so hard to qualify against most novels) is form. Take Roberto Bola√Īo's sublime 2666 for instance. I wrote a lot about how the form of the novel played an important part in its effectiveness, but really Bola√Īo just wrote five novels that got published together. Take Murakami's 1Q84. His alternating POV chapters, revolving between the two (and sometimes three) main characters helped drive a riveting narrative forward and give us, the reader, an excellent vantage point. Form is important. But I've never seen it used so cleverly as the nesting doll technique here. Was it original? I don't know. I've never read anything quite like it, but wider read critics than I will surely point out Mitchell's references. Was it gimmicky? I don't think so, but again I bet someone inclined to criticize would call that out. Was it overdone? Absolutely not. 7 parts might have stretched a reader's patience (and memory) a bit. 5 wouldn't have been enough. 6 was perfect.
There, I've used that word again. "Perfect." I should qualify my previous statement. It's quite possibly the perfect novel for me. It's certainly one of the few I will find myself recommending to friends for years on end, buying for Christmas presents, talking about and re-reading. It's been a long while since I read a novel that was amazing and accessible, all at the same time. (Unlike 2666, which was amazing, but good Lord I won't be sending that out for Christmas presents any time soon, if ever.)
P.S. As of this writing (late September 2012) the movie version of this book has not been released. Of course I finally broke down and read it because I heard there was a movie in the works by the Wachowski siblings. I actually bought it several years ago, and it's been sitting on my shelves ever since. Shame on me for not getting to it sooner, true, but it's always a treat to find an undiscovered gem in your midst. Having said that, I'm very glad I read the book first. I have no idea how anyone could make a movie of this. I'm curious but not 100% certain I even want to see it. Of course, I can always re-read the novel afterward if I need a palate cleanser.
It takes the experimentation with different forms of narrative and different forms of language from the one, and the overarching idea of travelling souls as a way of holding together a (set of) narrative(s) spanning a long period of history from the other. The combination, of course, makes something new and very different from both (do you look like your crazy aunts?), and it is a strange thing to read. In a nice way.
I don't feel that I am giving away anything important in pointing out the travelling souls concept. In part because it is so blatantly obvious from early on, in part because it is mentioned whenever and wherever the book is reviewed elsewhere (everyone else does it!), but mainly because it is something the book sets up only to puncture enthusiastically in its sequence of narratives. Not only does at last one character comment on it as a preposterously clich√©d device, it is complicated by the types of narratives that link the time periods: as one of them is fiction, that breaks the chain and undermines any illusion that this is a portrayal of historical sequence.
It is an odd book, but I keep thinking it wasn't quite odd enough. It seemed to restrain itself from going off into crazy land. And its main problem are the first and last narratives. Allow me to explain.
The structure of the novel is as follows: There are six narratives. The first five break off half-way through. The sixth is told in its entirety, and is then followed by the first five, starting with the one closest to the sixth in time and going backwards. The first and last narratives are therefore the same. A visual aid, you say?
Pacific Journal | Frobisher | Luisa | Cavendish | Sonmi | Sloosha's Crossing | Sonmi | Cavendish | Luisa | Frobisher | Pacific Journal
Most of the other narratives were wonderfully enjoyable. The language of Frobisher was delightful (1930s dandy, musician and conman), the story of Luisa (a thriller about an intrepid journalist fighting an evil company) light but exciting, Timothy Cavendish (old man landed in bad circumstances) was grumpy and funny (even if it took its funny a little far at times), the dystopian Sonmi-section had be thinking it was just an annoying satire using old tropes until it convinced me it was not and it became a fully fledged story of its own (I loved how Orwell and Huxley were described as ``the optimists''), and then the middle part...
I said the language changed, and while that is true of the first four, it is more a matter of a variety of styles that are recognisable to us. In the Sonmi-section language became different (simplified spelling and brand names as general nouns, mainly), and in ``Sloosha's Crossing'' it was taken even further. This is the main reason why I am reluctant to recommend the book to people who are not fluent in English. I had trouble getting into this part of the book in the beginning, as it seemed to be based on Hawaiian dialect and then taken to extremes in isolation over hundreds of years. It would be very interesting to get a linguist to comment on that particular bit -- is it realistic in its development of language?
At any rate. The first and last bits were the weakest of the book, I thought. It did not catch my interest terribly in the beginning, and it didn't blow me away with its moralising at the end. I am torn on this, however. On the one hand, the moralising is weak. On the other, it is again put into play by the fact that we ``know'' how the world was to develop. If this is taken as a worst case scenario that we should learn by, then the book becomes weaker because of its harping on message. If it is taken as an ironic twist to the hope of betterment, the book somehow feels better.
That said, the first narrative had to be there, as it lays the ground for the development of the Nietzschean idea of eternal return, which ties the narrative together on a thematic level (an in a much more convincing way than the travelling souls device).
One would be right to call it a tour de force, and it is a very enjoyable read. But while I really liked it, I have this nagging feeling that something is out of place. Perhaps that is the point.
I won‚Äôt spoil it for you. But by the time I got to the end of chapter 6 (of 11), I had the same feeling I got as a child when watching circus performers do their crazy, risky acts: The man is going to kill himself. This should be the book‚Äôs ending. It‚Äôs been great so far, but it can only go down now, and when it falls it will be really painful. But it was almost as if Mitchell heard and replied ‚Äúoh yeah? Well watch this‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ and proceeded to get himself out of the traps he built, one after another, with perfect execution, while telling a story with a fascinating message that actually had to be told in the contrived Russian-dolls structure of his novel. And all along the higher-level game continued, with my jaw dropping further and further, my mind thinking the man is bluffing himself out of proportion, and Mitchell smiling, looking back at me and raising the bet anyway. When we finally reached the end I had to surrender, both to the virtuoso performance and to the powerful thematic conclusions. Very rewarding stuff for those with the patience to listen.
This is an all time favorite of mine now. Many writing styles, characters, and genres are meticulously structured to produce an opus of extravagant scope. Jam packed philosophical ponderings on human nature, power, knowledge and slavery are woven throughout this masterpiece. The related stories sweep the reader through centuries of the rebirth of souls in their many forms and the eternal struggle of good and evil.
What are your beliefs? Mitchell‚Äôs last pitch is found on the last two pages.
‚Äú‚Ä¶history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind‚Äôs mirror, the world‚Ä¶"
"A life spent shaping a world I want‚Ä¶ [my son] to inherit, not one I fear [he] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúAir in the chateau clammy like laundry that won‚Äôt dry. Door-banging drafts down the passageways. Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don‚Äôt remember summer even saying good-bye.‚ÄĚ
This is my first book by Mitchell and what an impressive introduction. He has just landed another happy disciple.
The first section, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" stops mid-sentence and I went huh??? Especially when we then shifted from mid-19th century South Pacific to the seemingly unrelated 1931 Belgium "Letters from Zedelchem." But flipping through the section titles and reading on I saw things would connect up eventually, that the second half of every part would be continued after the central story. And that second section was such a joy to read. The first sure had its pleasures--the period style of the journal entries and playful parody of an exotic adventure tale with echoes of Defoe and Melville was fun. But the Robert Frobisher of the letters is just delicious. A horrible person, but a wonderful character. (And not incidentally, said to be the composer of the "Cloud Atlas Sextet.") I didn't like the next installment, the first part of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" a hard-boiled thriller set in 1975 California. Had I been reading that part as an independent story, I would have ditched it mid-read, because I thought the plot cliched and stupid. I knew I was in the midst of something akin to a parody, and as usual Mitchell was displaying a virtuoso sense of period and genre style, but at one point I was finding it so eye-rolling I skipped to the next section--then sheepishly turned back and forgave it when when I saw a mention of it as a manuscript novel that made me grin. And that next section? "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," set in present day England, was laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and it's even rarer for a book to make me laugh out loud then it is to make me cry. I thought then I'd wind up loving the book and decided to have a little faith. The next section was just as strong, a story that reminded me very much of Brave New World and set in the future in Korea, but with elements that made it its own story. I would have loved to read "An Orison of Sonmi~451" as an independent novel. It was the next section, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," the central portion before we connect back up to the unfinished stories, that caused me to abandon the book mid-read. Here's a sentence from that part:
Now, a herd o' visitors bleated to our dwellin' that night an' some nights after, from up'n'bros'n'lastlife family'n'half-strangers what we only met at bart'rin's, yay, ev'ryun from Mauka to Mormon came knockin' to see if Old Ma libber spoke it true, that a real'n'livin' Prescient was stayin' at Bailey's.
I hate this way of indicating semi-literacy, which strikes me as particularly phoney in a first person narrative rather than just someone depicting how someone spoke aloud. I mean, honestly, if someone were that uneducated or the language had changed that much in the far future, how would they even know where to put in the apostrophes to indicate elided letters? They would just think "o" and "dwellin" is the way it's spelled. (And if your response is that this narration is just "as spoken" then why are there such touches as inconsistent spellings?) And this was just beyond painful to read and try to comprehend--and it was the longest section of the book yet--about 70 pages. You could say Mitchell knew what he was doing putting it in the middle, so that many might forgive him because after being hooked on the earlier stories and knowing the worst was over they'd stay with the novel to find out how it all ended. But the fact is about that time I lost trust in Mitchell, lost my suspension of disbelief and interest in how this all connected up. It probably didn't help that I was simultaneously reading Joyce's Ulysses and presently have little patience with authors who think they're being oh so clever in giving us the near unreadable.
I suggest it would also be fair to describe "Cloud Atlas" as an extended and complex parable which opens in the colonial era when corporatism was born and proceeds via a society in which corporation and state have become as one (essentially McDonalds under North Korean management) to a distant future in which the ultimate outcome of corporate greed and the intellectual laziness and complacency of consumers has destroyed the planet and led to the complete collapse of civilisation, and then meanders all the way back again. In short, it is a warning to us, now, today, about the actions and attitudes which afflict us and the future we are creating. It is, perhaps, best to leave on a prescient comment by Adam Ewing on the second to last page:
"Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword."
I don't imagine it's coincidence that the name given to the Devil, the Tempter, the Adversary, in Mitchell's post-Apocalyptic remnants of human society is "Old Georgie".
Six different stories told in differing styles and use of language sounds weird but when read as a whole works surprisingly well. The connections often seem tenuous but what I've listed above isn't the only way in which they are linked as there are constant themes that are touched upon in each tale. While there is nothing amazing about any of the actual stories (though none are badly written either) I think the accomplishment of bringing them all together is a triumph. Some wonderful characters narrate each of the stories and even when it's not so easy to read within the language of the time that is being used I still wanted to turn the page and find out what happens next. I am quite intrigued as to how they managed to make a coherent movie out of this book though and will be taking a look sometime soon. I'll also be seeking out more of David Mitchell's books to add to the tbr pile as well.
Some modest spoilers ahead (the worst is hidden), so stop here if you don‚Äôt
I just couldn‚Äôt shake the feeling that Mitchell had written a series of short stories then later decided to weave them together. This could certainly be factually inaccurate, but as a reader impression, it really doesn‚Äôt matter his intention. While reading it, I couldn‚Äôt shake the feeling that they were short stories with gimmicky tricks used to tie them together.
Mitchell uses several techniques to relate the stories. The first is to have them set sequentially in history. Each of the stories is set in a different period travelling all the way into the far future (two of the stories would qualify as science fiction). Initially the stories jump forward in time‚ÄĒand then they cycle backwards. He breaks up the stories in Cloud Atlas like layers of an onion so that they read as follows:Story 1a, Story 2a, Story 3a, Story 4a, Story 5a, Story 6a, Story 7, Story 6b, Story 5b, Story 4b, Story 3b, Story 2b, Story 1b. This has the effect of going forward in time to Story 7 and then back again to complete each story arc.Mitchell is perhaps attempting to create a vast narrative of history circling back on itself. If he was, he fails partly because several of the stories are so ‚Ä¶ parochial; they fail to capture anything significant about humanity‚Äôs trajectory. As an example, I would single out the story of the British publisher who finds himself trapped in an old folk‚Äôs home. Or the story of the young composer. Yes, they give a relative snapshot of some portion of society, but they are so focused on a niche experience that they do not communicate very much about society overall. In contrast, several of the other stories, such as the Luisa Rey story and the two set in the future (and even the one set during the time of colonialism/abolition) do capture a broad sweeping look at the history of the world. This disjunction in subject matter was one of the elements, along with the shifts in style, that was jarring.
A second technique Mitchell uses to connect the stories is to have each story interact with the previous by proposing they occur in different sorts of media. For example, a book found by a character in story 2 tells story number 1. A movie watched by a character in story 3 is actually what happens in story 2, etc. I found this to be a rather thin gimmick. Particularly because several of the overlapping connections were truly farfetched. For example,
Lastly, Mitchell gave each of the main characters an ambiguous birthmark that looked like ‚Ä¶ a comet, I believe. As if to imply ‚Ä¶ they were reincarnations of each other in some fashion. Or perhaps the spirit of rebellion reborn. Thematically each of the main characters seems ‚Ä¶ to some degree ... connected to fighting the ‚Äúsystem,‚ÄĚ if in unequal measures or fashions. This device felt easily tacked on to connect the stories.
As I mentioned earlier, the stories varied in quality. Just one example: The ‚ÄúLuisa Rey Mystery‚ÄĚ was the biggest failure for me. It reads like a supermarket mass-paperback suspense thriller. And Mitchell apparently knew it wasn‚Äôt up to the level of the other stories because (this is complicated, brace yourself) ‚Ä¶ the character who was the old man, the publisher, has a manuscript copy of the Luisa Rey Mystery from ‚Äúthe author‚ÄĚ who is pitching it to him. He makes some offhand critical comments about it, but notes that, ‚ÄúHilary V. Hush might ‚Ä¶ have written a publishable thriller after all ‚Ä¶ selling at Tesco checkouts; then a Second Mystery, then the Third ‚Ä¶ overall I concluded the young-hack-versus-corporate-corruption thriller had potential.‚ÄĚ So, in essence, the reader is supposed to buy this story because it‚Äôs intentionally written poorly? Like a pulp thriller? There is a similar comment about another story in the sequence, ‚ÄúSome of the accents didn‚Äôt seem right, but ‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ Okay, so Mitchell knew his writing wasn‚Äôt perfect so he excused it in a subsequent story by having characters comment on how it wasn‚Äôt perfect? Seemed like lazy writing to me. Maybe he wrote the Luisa Rey mystery when he was young and figured out how to plug it in here.
Now here I am, about to sound like a hypocrite: I found the politics in Cloud Atlas, uggh, so obvious and so blatant that at times it felt more like Mitchell was lecturing than storytelling. Yes, I agreed with his politics, I agreed with them, but damnit ‚Ä¶ not good enough! Okay, really, I should be the last person to complain about this because I am so deeply political and all my writings are too. My first novel, Death by Zamboni was truly didactic in its politics. Obvious and in your face. However, it was intended to be so because one of the things I set out to do when I wrote Death by Zamboni was to break every single rule of fiction writing that exists. All those ‚Äúrules‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúguidelines‚ÄĚ you learn in seminars, classes, or magazines about writing. It was rather a big fuck you to expectations and the status quo. I had fun breaking the rules. But a book like this ‚Ä¶ it‚Äôs supposed to be both believable and to have a narrative that communicates with the reader emotionally. As most mainstream literature attempts to do. Admittedly, it is very difficult to create awareness about political matters without seeming contrived. But that is what separates a great work from a so-so one. It manages to be political in the way it embodies humanity without feeling as if it‚Äôs lecturing you. In that regard, Mitchell utterly fails.
On the plus side, I did enjoy much of the writing. As standalone stories, the ones without the most blatant politics were quite enjoyable. Will I read another Mitchell? Absolutely. I‚Äôd like to see what he does with a single novel thread rather than something so segmented. He obviously has great talent as a writer, but this particular book was a mixed bag for me.
So how to actual summarise the story? well.. (warning contains minior spoilers).
The book opens as diary, written in 17th century in a Caribbean back water, by an American traveller stranded and waiting for ship repairs. We read of his prudish horror at the godlessness of sailors, his is musing on natives, his awfully polite Victorian dinner conversation and follow his adventurous misguided wanderings. All slightly tongue in cheek and much fun and I was thoroughly enjoying his naive adventures until the tale stop abruptly. In mid sentence no less and we realise this is just a referenced text in a series of 19th century letters from a poverty stricken composer to his old lover, which is enjoyable decadent romp until it stops and we realise these letters are being read by an investigative journalist involved in a deadly conspiracy in the 60s which in turn stops and we realise .... and on and on marching into further and further into the future.
It is a giddy, dizzying novel and one that makes you actually feel time stretching out all around you, which for me was the highlight of the book. In addition because of the nature of the structure a mirror effect is created as the stories are reflected and reframed in each other and later on themselves, enhancing and renewing the story. If you also consider the beautiful unreality gained by each tale being solely a story found in the next and the book becomes something special. A surreal house of cards that could almost be true but isn't.. a musing on possibilities and legacies. Of course post-modern techniques and philosophical ponderings aside this book works from a pure piece of great storytelling and because of that I highly recommend this book to well absolutely everyone.
I came away from Cloud Atlas impressed by Mitchell's writing and his ability to reel one into a story and wowed by his handle on structure. But in the end I was never sure what all of that structural whizzbang was for (beyond being an incredible feat in and of itself). I'm not entirely sure what the novel means to say about the interconnectedness of people and events or about our ability (or inability?) to recognize those connections. Without that understanding I was left a bit befuddled. Which is not to say that I think this isn't a book worth reading. I think it is. There's enough here that is satisfying to outweigh that discontent in the end. And the novel avoids feeling like an experiment which succeeds technically but fails to tap into the emotional life of the reader. The novel is an amazing achievement, if not a wholly satisfying one. But absolutely worth the read, even if only to marvel at how Mitchell works that ABCDEFEDCBA structure. Seriously.