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Book Review – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I could scarcely have been more enthusiastic about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas upon picking it up, nor can I remember being so enthusiastic about a newly discovered author. After reading Mitchell’s more recent Black Swan Green, I was eager to seek out his earlier books, and Cloud Atlas didn’t disappoint. To say I was impressed and enthralled by the first 200 pages of this book would be an understatement.

The first interesting thing about Cloud Atlas is its structure. What we have here is a series of eleven novella length sections, covering six different narratives. Each of the six narratives are set in different times and places, spanning from the 19th century to the distant future. But I wouldn’t call this science fiction. The six narratives are told, initially, in chronological order. They are: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing; Letters from Zedelghem; Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery; The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish; An Orison of Sonmi-451; and Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After. And then we get a second section of all but the Sloosha story, told in reverse order (i.e. from the future to the past).

If that seems confusing, don’t worry: Cloud Atlas is anything but. In the first half of the book, the narratives tend to end at particularly interesting cliffhangers, or even in one case in the middle of a sentence. This is fairly daring, as readers tend to love continuity, but it isn’t long before you’ve stopped pining for part two of a particular narrative and become engrossed in the next one. This is not to say that I enjoyed all the narratives equally, however. The way that the apparently unrelated narratives fit together is in the nature of one of those Russian Matyroshka dolls: each narrative encompasses the previous one, in the sense that someone discovers or is in possession of the manuscript of the previous section. Therefore, the young musician Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing, Rufus Sixsmith reads Robert Frobisher, and etc. This is surprisingly well done, much in the manner of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 1) is in diary form, detailing Ewing’s travels and travails through the Chatham Islands near New Zealand and onto a ship destined for Ewing’s native U S of A. Ewing has some appropriately racist views on the various native populations, but he’s a kinder man than those around him. We leave him mid sentence, shortly after having helped one of the last remaining Moriori tribesmen to avoid being thrown into the Pacific.

Letters from Zedelghem consists of a series of letters from young Robert Frobisher to his muse, known at this stage only as ‘Sixsmith.’ The setting is Belgium in 1931, with Nazi occupation still eight years away. Frobisher is a manipulative sort, managing to wheedle his way into a position of influence in the house of the composer Vyvyan Ayrs. In doing so, he helps to compose some new music with the old man, as well as sleeping with his wife and appropriating many of his clothes. There is a delicious scene where the old man bursts into Frobisher’s room in the wee hours, having been inspired to compose some new music. Luckily for Frobisher, the old man is too blind and enfeebled to notice his own wife hiding beneath the covers…

Half Lives – the First Luisa Rey Mystery is my favourite narrative in Cloud Atlas. It’s a seventies nuclear secret cover-up thingy, and it works really well. So well that it’s almost an ‘underpowered’ novel in its own right. This reminds me of a fairly recent novel that I doubt many people will have read – Carter Scholz’ Radiance. This story is full of deceit, murderous thugs and Rufus Sixsmith, previously Frobisher’s muse (i.e. 40 years before) and now a nuclear scientist. This is where Cloud Atlas shines brightest, for me at least.

I didn’t especially enjoy The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, but that’s probably because Mr Cavendish is a bit of a jerk. He’s a publisher suddenly propelled to fame by his best (and only) author’s murderous party antics. He reads the ‘Luisa Rey’ novel on his slushpile. Later on, Cavendish ends up in a kind of nursing home that reminds the reader of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Nor was I a fan of An Orison of Sonmi-45, which is an interview between an archivist and a fabricator. Turns out that Sonmi is a clone, forced to work in extremely degrading conditions in a restaurant in a future Korea. The fabricators gets fed a long line of bullshit, as well as something called Soap which seems to keep them in check. Of course, Sonmi ends up breaking out of this stifling world. Unfortunately, this was WAY too reminiscent of Brave New World. I would label this derivative. Instead of soma, we have Soap, but it’s essentially an updated vision of Huxley’s future. Additionally, there were a couple of things that really annoyed me here. One was the way the narrative dropped the letter ‘e’ at the beginning of words like xactly and xtraordinary, and the second was the fact that things are referred to by their brand names: cars become fords, coffee becomes starbucks. This is a bit too obvious, a bit too gimmicky, and not especially original.

The last narrative is Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After, and in terms of style it is reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, as the title would suggest. It concerns a man called Zach’ry, who is retelling stories from his youth. Turns out Zach’ry accidentally led a horde of murderous bandits to his father’s home as a child of nine. Then, six or so years later, he had some dealings with the Prescients, a group of people who appear to be the last civilised society on the planet. This story is set in Hawaii in some far flung future. This turns out to be a harrowing tale of young Zach’ry and a Prescient woman trying to survive a barbarian incursion – perhaps the last such violence in human history.

And then we get the earlier narratives in reverse order. I am not entirely won over by this technique, as it presents some peculiar problems. As I was not a fan of Somni’s story, I felt the book sagged in the middle. The strongest three narratives, in my opinion, are the first three, and thus the last three as well. Luisa Rey’s story is perhaps the best of all six, closely followed by Adam Ewing’s misadventures in the Pacific. And it is curious to read a novel in which causality is utterly irrelevant. The moral of the story appears to be as the poisoner Henry Goose has it: “The Weak are Meat; the Strong do Eat.” So it goes. There’s a weary cynicism about all of this, which is only slightly tempered by Mitchell’s more whimsical flourishes: the unique birthmark that many of the protagonists seem to share; the fact that the narratives seem to be mystically linked. In the second half, protagonists keep stumbling upon the ‘second halves’ of earlier narratives.

In summary, I think Mitchell has bitten off a little more than he can chew here. He doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll give him that, but in the end Cloud Atlas is hampered by some of the decisions that went into its composition. The narratives seem too dissonant and, in the context of one another, irrelevant. I couldn’t help but think that Mitchell was much more at home with the Pacific and Hawaiian narratives than with the futuristic dystopian Korea. Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery was so strong that it could have been the basis of a reasonably good novel by itself, and Letters from Zedelgelm had its own quaint charms. Mitchell may yet write a great novel (and I think his less ambitious Black Swan Green is more successful) but Cloud Atlas is not it.

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