Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

>> Friday, September 12, 2014

TITLE: Cloud Atlas
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Random House

TYPE: Fiction

A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles of genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian lore of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky..

Cloud Atlas is structured like 6 open books stacked on top of each other and then closed. We start with the first half of story 1, which is a journal written by a 19th century man travelling in the South Pacific. This is followed by the first half of story 2, an epistolary piece detailing the escapades of a young English composer in late 1930s Belgium. And then, as you might guess, the first halves of stories 3 (a noirish thriller set in the 1970s, starring Luisa Rey, a plucky reporter investigating a nuclear power station), 4 (the picaresque memoirs of Timothy Cavendish, an old editor and all-around cad, set at about the present time) and 5 (the testimony of Sonmi~451, a kind of clone living in Korea in the relatively near future, and who was born into the service of a corporation that owns her). And as we come closer to the middle of the book, we get the whole of story 6: the story of Zachry, a young man living in a post-civilisation world.

I must admit I wasn't too engaged by the start of the first story, but by the time I got to the second one, I was off. I liked each more than the previous one, but -funny thing-, my enjoyment didn't diminish all that much after I finished the sixth and started to go back to the earlier ones.

The middle, post-apocalyptic story was absolutely my favourite, though. The language was amazing. It's a sort of dialect (it's called "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", which gives you a bit of an idea), and it's done in a way that completely makes sense. I must say, though, I listened to the audiobook, which made it much less challenging than it would have been to read it. Not only that, it really brought out the amazing poetic rhythm of it, which I loved. It was a fantastic story, as well, and I particularly enjoyed the friendship between Zachry and Meronym, the older woman from a part of the world which seems to have retained much more advanced technology. It's a violent, sad story, but brilliant.

The Sonmi~451 story was almost as fascinating. I had some issues with the setting, though. It felt a bit heavy-handed, so much so that although I completely agree with the danger of what Mitchell's trying to highlight, the increased influence of corporations, I felt it was a bit too much.

Those two were the most original. The others felt more like Mitchell was playing with the conventions of different genres, although as they continued, they came into their own and became enjoyable stories in their own right, rather than simply experiments. With The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, at one point it became pretty kafkaesque (think The Trial), and I thought I really, really didn't want to read this. But then the focus moved from the horribly frustrating situation to being a sort of picaresque escape caper, and I adored it.

There are connections between the different stories (e.g. in story 2, the protagonist finds pages from the journals that make up story 1, although this is a very minor part of the story). These increased as the book went along and I started to see the point of them and why this wasn't just a collection of independent stories. It is about just that, stories. It's about how who we are and what we do can survive as a story, and how this can have an impact in the future.

Finally, I should probably mention, I expected this to be much more difficult to read than it actually was. It seems to have that reputation. There's certainly complexity in the echoing and thematic links between the different stories, and I'm sure it must have been incredibly complicated to write, but as a reader, I found it a cracking good story.



Marianne McA,  12 September 2014 at 23:24  

Maybe you're just a really competent reader...

It's ages since I read it, but it never coalesced into anything cohesive for me - I remember liking a couple of the stories, but being pretty mystified by the book as a whole.

Black Swan Green I really, really liked, but it's a more straightforward book.
(And this all serves to remind me, I have yet to finish 'The Thousand Autumns...' which I was properly enjoying, but put aside so long ago that I'll need to start again from the beginning.)

Rosario 13 September 2014 at 08:11  

I wonder if the audiobook helped, as well. Still, it didn't really begin to all make sense as a whole until I was on the way back, so to speak.

I haven't read any of his older ones yet, but I'm reading the Bone Clocks right now. It's a bit like Cloud Atlas in terms of the playing with different genres, but there is an overall plot and the connection between stories is obvious.

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