Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Random House, 2004
ISBN 0-375-50725-6

I’m not one to damn a film because it came from a great book, or to exult a book because it spawned a major motion picture, but I will admit that I rushed to read David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, after having seen trailers for the movie that opened recently.  Enticed by the early images of the film, I had to wonder just why this book had flown under my radar – after all, it had won the British Book Awards and had been short-listed for the Nebulas.  I should have at least have heard of it!  Regardless of the why, however, I knew nothing of it other than the movie had some pretty spectacular images associated with it, and I wanted to read the story in the author’s own words before seeing it through others’ eyes.

Thankfully, I found Cloud Atlas to be a very absorbing, very entertaining book on many levels.  At the upper layers it has intrigue, drama, romance, folk tale, provincialism, fast paced action and more.  If you want to dig deeper (and you don’t have to, but it does hold the stories together) you have commentary on human nature.  And for those who love to obsess in the details, there’s plenty for you, as well (just try to keep count of how many times the number six is utilized throughout the book…. go ahead, I dare you!).  But the most compelling thing about the book is that you can read it at any of these levels; it works no matter how you wish to relate to it, although it is more satisfying to read it at with at least an eye to the deeper level.

Cloud Atlas is made up of six different story lines, ranging from a personal journal from the mid-1800s to a transcript of testimony given by a condemned “fabricant” (clone) from sometime in the far-reaching future, culminating in a story-telling session from an even further time after civilization has “fallen”.  Each story line is written in a very different style with divergent voices and sensibilities, but each rings intrinsically true to its time and feels utterly genuine.  They include:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (circa 1850)
  • Letters from Zedelghem (1931)
  • Half-Lives – A Louisa Rey Mystery (mid 1970s)
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (early 2000s)
  • An Orison of Sonmi-451 (the identifiable future)
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic future)

The stories are nested together, like matryoshka dolls.  Each one, up to the center story of Sloosha’s Crossing, is interrupted by the next (sometimes quite abruptly, even in mid-sentence), and then concludes in inverted order.  And although for the most part each story is populated with unique characters, each references in some way the story that immediately preceded it:  the author of the letters from Zedelghem finds the journal of Adam Ewing in his patron’s library; the aforementioned letters are found in the effects of a character from the Half-Lives story; vanity publisher Cavendish is sent a manuscript of a mystery that is the Louisa Rey story; Sonmi-451 watches part of a movie on her “sony” which dramatizes the ordeal of a man named Cavendish; and the narrator of the final story views the image of a mysterious woman on an ancient artifact, which turns out to be the orison which has retained a fragment of Somni-451’s testimony, although no one can understand how the artifact works or the words the woman speaks.

In each of the stories, one of the characters carries a distinctive birthmark, strongly inferring that this character is the reincarnation of the one in the prior story, but to me it feels that concentrating on the concreteness of this distracts from the fluidity of the narratives.  Rather, I would allow that this motif strengthens the sense of connection between the stories, a slender thread of awareness on the part of these individuals that their actions will be ones that in some way will impact their world, for better or for worse.  Some embrace this awareness on a creative or political or personal level, others run from it.  None, however, can escape it.

Mitchell does an incredible job of mastering the dialects and nuances of voice that define the environment and mood of each story.  This also means that he doesn’t always write “easy” narrative – it can be difficult, at times, to embrace the full measure of what he is relating because the language and thought processes are very archaic or foreign to our “modern” sensibilities.  But rather than detracting from the work, it actually enhances the sense that we are moving through time with the progression of the situations, and for those stories written in the “here and now”, it feels as though they are especially energized by our being on familiar footing with them; we can ease into them directly rather than having to take a certain amount of time to understand the historical foundation to them.  (I found the Louisa Rey stories to be particularly gripping, in that they were the ones with the most action and political intrigue/subterfuge, without reverting to whodunit or crime fiction caricatures.)

I don’t know if I will go see the movie now that I have read the book.  Scenically, I’m sure it will be amazing, but I don’t really know if a visual medium could do justice to the beautiful expansion and contraction that Mitchell takes us through in the course of Cloud Atlas.  Because the final conclusion of the book is more philosophical than eventful, a mere voice-over could only make for a tidy wrap up rather than a graceful finis.  But perhaps I am being unfair.  Regardless of the fate of the movie, however, the book is a triumph on its own.  If the movie does nothing more than to have caused me to read the book – which I must be honest that it did – then I am the better for it, and I am grateful.

Sharon Browning

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