Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” – Adam Ewing
Proof of the good influence that a book club can have on you is that you will read books that are usually out of your radar. Entering a book club, you might be someone who reads every now and then and is mostly interested in modern classics and books that are the basis of films that you loved but, once you settle in a book club, there is a strong possibility that your reading will increase and that you will find yourself reading the works of authors that you did not know before. In my case, an example of an author who I discovered through my book club is David Mitchell.
Mitchell has been causing raves in my book club last year. Something about a novel called Cloud Atlas that was a revelation to almost all that read it. Of course, such things went to my head and, unconsciously, my mind retained the name David Mitchell. After quite some time, I saw The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by the same Mitchell in one of the bins of a used bookstore in UP and, because it was cheap, I bought it. After a few more days, some of my friends in the book club decided to buddy read it and I joined in. Needless to say, I liked Jacob de Zoet (review here) and I resolved to get my hands on a copy of Cloud Atlas and read it as soon as I can.
Upon finishing Cloud Atlas, I was stunned. I would have been stunned while reading it but I was too busy reading in frenzy the masterfully composed story that Mitchell has created. My friends in the book club were right, after all, because the book is a revelation.
The story of Cloud Atlas is not a conventional one since it is more of a short story collection than a novel but the six different stories contained within the book are intertwined and follow the same narrative themes. The stories have different characters and they separated by time and space, some even by centuries and continents, but their fates are connected and that, somehow, one character’s story will affect the next.
Somehow, Cloud Atlas is similar to Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad or Mitchell’s own Ghostwritten but what separate Cloud Atlas from other books with interconnected stories is its structure. Reader, I do not joke when I say that the structure of Cloud Atlas is unique and ingenious. In a nutshell, it is like a Russian doll (or a multi-layered sandwich, if you want to be prosaic about it). It begins with first story and then ends in the middle of the 1st story, begins with the 2nd then ends in the middle of the 2nd story, begins with the 3rd story and so on. Only the 6th story does not end in the middle because it is now the absolute center of the overall narrative. At the end of the 6th story, the middle of the 5th story will resume up until its end, then the middle of the 4th story will resume until it ends, then the middle of the 3rd will resume and so forth. To have a better idea, the novel (or is it a novel?) is structured like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1.
Another magnificent thing about the novel is that the stories have different genres and they have a language of their own as if the stories within Cloud Atlas were written by six different authors. Plus, because the stories are interconnected, each of the main characters in Cloud Atlas is somehow aware of the existence of the main character of the story that preceded his/her story. Although the narrative technique and the style differ in each story, the reader is still made aware of the overarching themes that pervades in the novel. Only a true master like Mitchell can juggle different storylines, technique, and language then not only execute it well but execute it perfectly.
The story themselves, even without the unique structure, can stand on their own. There are stories told in the form of a journal; one in the form of letters; another in the form of a thriller novel; one is comic in tone; the next is told in the form of a transcript of a conversation; and the last is told in an apocalyptic setting. To give you a certain picture, I would try to enumerate and provide a brief synopsis of each story:
- The Pacific Journey of Adam Ewing – The story is set in the Pacific and is told through the eyes of an American notary who discovers that both good and treachery can come from places that you did not expect. This part is written in Old English with the boring prose that only a notary can achieve but I did find this part to be interesting because, beneath the boring language, there is brilliance and the observations of Adam Ewing can certainly shed light on some aspects of the human condition.
- Letters from Zedelghem – Told in the style of letters that the main character, Robert Frobisher, sends to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher, to escape his demons in England, travels to Belgium to become the amanuensis of a famous composer. This is the story that I liked the most because the style of the story is intensely personal and I felt myself staring into Robert’s soul as he writes his letters to his love. This chapter is filled with heartbreak, especially at the end.
- Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Set in California during the 1970s in the style of a mystery/thriller, tells the story of Luisa Rey, an out-of-luck journalist that stumbles into a conspiracy involving a nuclear power plant and the powerful people hell-bent on keeping the conspiracy secret.
- The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Told in a comedic tone, this section is about a vanity publisher, Timothy Cavendish, who must suffer the consequences of publishing a critically panned book written by a London gangster.
- An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Told in a dystopian setting and in the style of a transcript of conversation between Sonmi-451 and an official who is trying to get her story before she is executed for rebellion. Sonmi-451 is a fabricant (clone) who gained consciousness and became part of the rebellion against an oppressive government,
- Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After – Set in the distant future where an apparent nuclear meltdown destroys most of civilization. It tells the story of Zachry, a primitive tribesman, and Meronym, a Prescient with access to futuristic technology, and their quest to save themselves and their people from annihilation.
The stories can stand on their own but, through Mitchell’s technique, it becomes something else entirely. The reader will be forced to see thematic threads that they wouldn’t have seen if they read the stories conventionally. Mitchell, in an interview, has said that the main theme of the novel is the evil that humans inflict upon one another. In this eternal infliction of pain and suffering emerge the stories of survival against such evil, stories such as those chronicled in Cloud Atlas.
I understand that certain people may brand Mitchell’s technique as gimmicky but I believe that there is no such thing in literature and, if there is such a thing, one should not call it as a “gimmick” with contempt. We should always remember that literature can only go forward, can only evolve, if innovative works like Cloud Atlas are allowed to thrive.