Friday, July 16, 2010

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Random House, 2004
Trade Paperback, 509 pages
ISBN-13: 9780375507250
Very Highly Recommended

From the Publisher:
From David Mitchell, the Booker Prize nominee, award-winning writer and one of the featured authors in Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists 2003” issue, comes his highly anticipated third novel, a work of mind-bending imagination and scope.
A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation -- the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.
In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

My Thoughts:

In Cloud Atlas Mitchell presents six different narratives, each a different genre, written in a different style, and from a different time period, but all are interconnected and related in some way. Five of these stories are interrupted part way through them, presented with part of the story before and part after the middle sixth story. The first story is "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" in which a 19th century clerk is on a Pacific voyage. The second story is "Letters from Zedelghem" an episilatory tale which consists of letters from an aspiring composer describing his life as an amanuensis to a famous composer in the early 1930s. The third is "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery." In this story a California journalist is in danger when she starts investigating the safety of a nuclear plant in the 1970s. The fourth story is "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" which follows the trials and misadventures of a present day publisher in Great Britain. The fifth is "An Orison of Sonmi-451" is set in Korea sometime in the future and features a cloned servant being questioned about her activities. The final sixth story is "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After" which is set in a future post-apocalyptic world on Hawaii.

I've never read anything like Cloud Atlas, which says a lot. It's a complex novel. The leaps across genres and writing styles (for goodness sakes!) is amazing. Themes include issues and questions about: genocide, slavery, and exploitation; the role technology and consumerism plays in society; following a soul (or reincarnation); what is civilization; the rewriting of the past; corporate greed. That's enough right there, although it certainly isn't a complete list. And even though this all makes Cloud Atlas sound quite weighty and serious, some of Mitchell's characters are really quite humorous at times.

I will have to admit that "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" (the first story) didn't capture my attention right away but I did enjoy the rest of them. It is also quite clear that Cloud Atlas may not be a good choice for everyone. I can see where it could frustrate some readers. If you don't care for science or post-apocalyptic fiction, the 5th and 6th stories might leave you cold. The 6th story also has a bastardized English dialect that some readers might struggle with. Although I would recommend reading Cloud Atlas as written, I may go back someday and reread it one complete story at a time. If it's worth a reread then you know it's Very Highly Recommended.


Thursday, 7th November—
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. opening

Mrs. Evans said grace & I enjoyed my most pleasant repast (untainted by salt, maggots & oaths) since my farewell dinner with Consul Bax & the Partridges at the Beaumont. pg. 10

Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience. pg. 16

The very words, "California Bound" are dusted in gold & beckon all men thitherwards like moths to a lantern. pg. 22

Learn from this, Sixsmith. When insolvent, pack minimally, with a valise tough enough to be thrown onto London pavement from a first- or second-floor window. Insist on hotel rooms no higher. pg. 44

As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980's with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. pg. 150

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be `morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas o' clouds. pg 308

Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw. pg. 357


Unknown said...

This is one of my all time favourite books! I think the number of quotes you can pull from it just proves its brilliance :-)

Lori L said...

It really is brilliant, Jackie! I can't believe I've just had it sitting around waiting to be read for several years.