Published by Random House
Review by W. R. Greer
Cloud Atlas is a brilliant novel. It is put together with almost clockwork precision in its exploration of several themes, many of which boil down to the duality of good and evil that exists within man and mankind. You will not read another book like it, and you will be absorbed by its genius that suddenly makes an idea leap off the page with a clarity of purpose that catches you by surprise. Yet, I had a hard time finishing this book.
Cloud Atlas consists of six different stories that march forward, and then backward, through time. Each of the stories is recorded in some form. It begins in 1850 in the South Pacific with an American notary named Adam Ewing traveling by ship from Chatham Isle back to San Francisco. He's been to Australia to find the beneficiary of a will, and his return trip is on a ship called the Prophetess. It's not a ship that inspires nostalgia for a return to sea, but is captained and crewed by harsh and cruel men who barely tolerate his presence. His only friend and companion is Dr. Goose, an English gentleman who shares his profound faith and compassionate approach to all life. Dr. Goose is also treating Ewing for a tropical brain parasite, a progressively worsening condition which makes the sea passage even more miserable. Ewing is recording all of this in his journal and it abruptly ends in mid-sentence.
The second story concerns a young bisexual English man, Robert Frobisher, on the run from gambling debts in 1931 after he's been disinherited by his father. He comes to Belgium with a plan to worm his way into a famous composer's household, offering his musical skills as a way to put a roof over his head and some money in his pocket. Vyvyan Ayrs is a syphilitic and arrogant old man struggling to still write music, and he hires Frobisher as an amanuensis. Frobisher details his experiences in letters to his best friend back in England, Rufus Sixsmith. Everything goes even better than expected for Frobisher. He becomes an indispensable asset for Ayrs' musical composition, he beds the old man's wife, and pilfers different documents from the estate that he can sell for needed cash. One of the items he finds is a copy of Adam Ewing's journal. It's also a time that Frobisher's own musical genius begins to emerge and he begins writing his own composition, the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
The novel then jumps forward to 1970s California where journalist Luisa Rey is investigating potential dangerous implications of the new nuclear plant being built. She meets Rufus Sixsmith, now an elderly physicist, whose report would uncover the truth behind the conspiracy to hide the failings of the plant and its real purpose. Those who want the report to disappear will stop at nothing, including murder, to destroy every copy of it. Luisa is determined to bring the truth to light and to stop the plan to have similar plants built all across the United States. Corporate greed appears to have the upper hand as the third section of Cloud Atlas ends with Luisa's life in imminent peril.
Then we meet Timothy Cavendish in present-day England. He has a small publishing business which suddenly achieves huge success when one of the novels he publishes becomes a bestseller. As his success grows, the more Cavendish's life unravels. His frustration grows as he encounters a society that no longer functions as it should, hampered by bureaucracy and incompetence. In a combination of wrong assumptions and miscommunications, he finds himself held prisoner against his will, and goes about trying to plot an escape. He does have with him, though, one of the last manuscripts he received. It's titled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.
Cloud Atlas then jumps forward to the 22nd century where a corpocracy rules Korea. Much of the earth has been poisoned and the remaining citizens are crammed into large cities run by corporations. The populace is supposed to do their civic duty and spend the appropriate amount of money in their businesses every year. Bioengineering has created fabricants, human creatures bred as workers, controlled by drugs, and enslaved to a business for a singular purpose. One of these fabricants is Somni, who works in a fast food restaurant. Somehow, Somni has achieved consciousness, and she can have thoughts and ideas that surpass what's necessary to do her job. As she ascends to this higher consciousness, she is helped by rebels who want to free her and educate her so she can achieve full human potential. She develops a liking for old picaresques from the 20th century. Her favorite is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
The final story is set in a distant future iron-age Hawaii. "The fall" has occurred and most of the remainder of mankind has reverted to a primitive state, trying to eke out what existence they can from the earth. Zachry is a goatherd in one of these settlements where they worship the goddess Somni. His clan lives among a peaceful group, but they live in fear of others on their island who bring violence as they rape, pillage, and enslave other communities. There are a few advanced human groups left from before the fall, and they travel in ships trying to find a way to understand their plight and rebuild civilizations if they can. A woman from one of these ship comes to stay with Zachry and his family. Zachry discovers amongst her possessions an orison of Somni, a video interview with her after she was captured by the corpocracy. Even this technologically advanced visitor may not be enough to help Zachry and his village when the warrior tribe finally attacks.
Zachry's story, an oral history passed to his children, is told in one section. When it completes, the second half of each of the earlier stories is then told, moving backwards in time until it reaches Adam Ewing on the ship in the South Pacific. By the time the novel ends, the threads that tie all these stories are understood - mostly.
The six stories in Cloud Atlas all explore similar themes, but each is presented in a different way through vastly different perspectives. Each of the six protagonists lives in a dystopian world where brutality, enslavement, and violence threaten their well-being. If survival or redemption is to be found, it can only be achieved by reaching out to someone else. By telling each of their stories in some sort of recorded format, David Mitchell explores the idea that the written or recorded word is an essential part of human survival. It is this sharing of stories and personal experiences that bind mankind together across generations and time that provides hope that similar challenges against the evils of the world can be overcome.
Part of the brilliance of Cloud Atlas is how each story, each period in time, has its own language and rhythm. David Mitchell aptly creates the atmosphere and sense of each era and its associated peril with the language he uses to tell each story. This helps keep each one unique from the others, so that the novel doesn't read like a set of repeated stories. The reader is easily immersed in the squalor of the Prophetess, understands the musical genius of Robert Frobisher without understanding the details of how he writes music, can sense the evil behind the corporate greed that seeks to destroy Luisa Rey, instantly identifies with Timothy Cavendish's frustration with a nonfunctioning modern society, and can empathize with Somni and Zachry as they try to find their place in future dehumanized worlds.
Nothing is wasted in this novel. It explores so many themes and ideas that several readings may be necessary to ferret them all out and understand them all. This is literary novel with literary in capital letters. So why did I have such a hard time finishing such a brilliant novel with well-formed characters and deep thematic structure? I think it comes down to the basic structure of the novel. Telling six different stories with six different protagonists means that instead of investing my time, compassion, and worry in one character, it had to be spread out across all six of them. It's not that the individual stories lacked suspense or that I didn't care about the characters' eventual survival. Instead, it just wasn't that important to me to find out.
Should you read Cloud Atlas? If you appreciate literary fiction, then this is a novel you should read at least once. Maybe more. It will challenge you, intimidate you, frustrate you, and dare you to think about the important questions it raises. It may not, however, grab you and pull you along with its storylines. That doesn't necessarily detract from its importance or its brilliance. David Mitchell may be more intelligent than the rest of us, and he has some interesting and important ideas he wants to explore with his readers. Read Cloud Atlas.
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