CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell

Book Quote:

“The Ghost of Sir Felix whines, ‘But it’s been done a hundred times before!’ – as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What and not the How!”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd (JUL 19, 2010)

While David Mitchell is undoubtedly a talented writer, and ideas abound in the centuries-spanning, globe-trotting narratives that make up Cloud Atlas, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed with this book. Of course, it’s entirely possible my disappointment was born from high expectations: Mitchell has been lauded as the best of a generation, and before the recent release of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas was widely trumpeted as his best book. And while Cloud Atlas is a highly-entertaining smorgasbord of styles – a little something for everyone – it is also a post-modern comment on the ontological status of narrative that doesn’t fully come off.

The novel consists of six stories, each told in a different literary style: 19th century travelogue; high-style epistolary; paperback thriller; contemporary picaresque; a sci-fi dystopia; post-apocalyptic yarn.

Adam Ewing is an American solicitor sent to Australia to handle a client’s estate in the mid-19th century. The journal Ewing kept of his travels aboard the Prophetess, published post-humously by Ewing’s son, forms the 19th century travelogue. Robert Frobisher is a louche Englishman who has installed himself as an amanuensis for an elderly and infirm composer, Vyvyan Ayrs. While at Zedelghem, Ayrs’ estate in rural Belgium (circa 1931), Frobisher reads a copy of Ewing’s journal. He also writes a series of letters to his friend and former lover, Rufus Sixsmith, that form the epistolary part of the book. Sixsmith is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, who writes a damning safety report about a potentially lucrative nuclear reactor. The resultant conspiracy and cover-up is uncovered by tabloid journalist, Luisa Rey, who finds and reads Frobisher’s (now 40-year-old) letters after Sixsmith is murdered. This fast-paced thriller becomes the third section of the book.

Timothy Cavendish, a racist misogynist, is entering the twilight of his life. He is also a vanity publisher in contemporary London. After one of his authors kills a critic who wrote a scathing review of his memoir, Knuckle Sandwich, the author is jailed, and Knuckle Sandwich starts flying off the shelves. With the author in jail, the chronically insolvent Cavendish is only too happy to keep the money for himself. Problem is: the author has three violent brothers out to give Cavendish a knuckle sandwich of his own and claim their fraternal rights to the fortune. Too hot for Cavendish’s comfort, he flees London, but not before picking up an manuscript submission for the road: a thriller about an unsafe nuclear reactor and a journalist named Luisa Rey. Somehow Cavendish gets himself imprisoned in a nursing home. The fourth story, the story of Cavendish’s imprisonment and escape, is eventually made into a movie which is watched in the fifth story, set in future Korea.

In Korea, now called Neo So Corps, corporations rule. People are genetically engineered to perform menial jobs and pure-bred citizens have an enforceable civic duty to consume. Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered worker, is awaiting execution. A state archivist has been sent to interview Sonmi about her life and crime. Sonmi’s last request is to finish watching an early 21st century film she’d started: The Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

The sixth and final story is set in post-apocalyptic America. Civilization has been destroyed and human existence has devolved to the tribal. The island-dwelling Prescients are the most technologically advanced tribe. They are intent on making anthropological studies of the more primitive land-dwelling tribes. Meronym is sent to live with a valley-dwelling tribe to write an ethnology on their culture and customs. Zachry, the oldest male of her host family, tells the story of Meronym’s time with his people. Zachry finds the video archive of Sonmi’s interview when he goes through her possessions, intent on finding evidence that she’s a spy.

Mitchell nests these stories, one inside the other, like Russian dolls: upon reaching the mid-point of the first story, the second story starts, and so on. The sixth story, Zachry’s yarn, is the only one read uninterrupted, after which the second half of the fifth story – Sonmi’s interview – is picked up. In short, the structure is: 1, 2. 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Although, it sometimes feels like a gimmick to ratchet up suspense, the nested narratives are actually a structural metaphor for the cosmology Mitchell builds Cloud Atlas around.

The nature of the time has stumped philosophers for millennia. For the ancient Greeks and Hindus, time was circular, the universe destined to swing between cycles of creation and destruction. For the ancient Hebrews, time was linear. For Mitchell, at least in his Cloud Atlas world, time is a series of “presents” layered like onion skins or nested like Russian dolls. And in his nested-time world, the actual past (what really happened ) is eventually lost to the virtual past (our explanations/stories about what happened). Conversely, our virtual future (our hopes/expectations for the future) is lost to the actual future (what actually happens). The actual future becomes the actual past, which becomes an ever-evolving virtual past. In this way, narratives, like people, pass in and out of existence, from virtual to actual to virtual again. Mitchell sets out to explore the relationship between this coming and going, between the actual and the virtual, between unreal elements of human life – our myths, beliefs, stories – and the physical world.

If Mitchell is to be held to the laws of logic, then the first three main characters – Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher and Luisa Rey – are fictional (within the fictional). If Luisa Rey and Rufus Sixsmith are just characters in a novel manuscript, then Robert Frobisher and Adam Ewing must be “fictional” as well. Mitchell doesn’t ground us in the actual until Cavendish reads the Luisa Rey manuscript, and by then we’re foaming at the mouth to see how it’ll all tease out.

The problem is: Mitchell pushes the consequences of his ontology too far, overburdening the already strained logic of his book. As fictional characters, Ewing, Frosbisher and Rey are part of the virtual past, ontologically on par with the actual future. That is, they’re just as real as Sonmi, Zachry and Meronym. This is a wonderfully interesting premise, and left like that –as a philosophical implication to ponder – it would have been enough. Instead, Mitchell forces his idea literal: not only are all these characters – the fictional and the actual – equally real, they all seem to be incarnations of the same soul.

Actually, it’s this pandering to the literal that is the fatal flaw of this book. All Mitchell’s grand ideas – his cosmology, his trite meditations on our will to power – are put in the mouths of his characters; spoke aloud the reader can’t help but catch them. This can get annoying if you’re like me, and prefer your themes to remain the unseen mechanism behind the story.

These problems notwithstanding, Mitchell is one hell of a writer, and this is one hell of an entertaining book. Mitchell moves between literary styles with astonishing ease, leaving this reader with little doubt that he is a shockingly talented writer.

Cloud Atlas is a book that will astonish and annoy you in turn, but for all its faults, it never fails to be entertaining. For that reason alone, Cloud Atlas is worth delving into.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 196 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks (August 17, 2004)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: David Mitchell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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July 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Literary, Man Booker Nominee, Speculative (Beyond Reality), Unique Narrative

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