Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell--a review
I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas: A Novel partly because it was just so darned impressive. The New Yorker’s reviewer even called it “virtuosic” (which I didn’t realize was a form of the word virtuoso…but I looked it up and sure enough, it’s viable), which I think fits. The reason I was impressed with the book is that Mitchell successfully weaves together six different stories, in six different time periods, using different genres and voices, and somehow manages to keep me engaged, intellectually and emotionally. Litlove (who can be found at Tales from the Reading Room) said, “He strikes me as a risk-taking author who is nevertheless accessible,” and I have to agree completely—Mitchell has created a structurally and thematically complicated book that is still a page-turner.
Cloud Atlas takes the reader from the 19th century to an unquantified future time. The story begins with the diary of Adam Ewing, a naïve passenger on a sailing ship in the South Seas. It continues with a story set in the 1930s, told through letters from a young, talented cad of a composer to his gay lover, a scientist. Then comes a hard-boiled mystery set in the 1970s, about reporter Luisa Rey and her fight to bring the story of a crooked corporation’s nuclear wrongdoings to light. Next, in present-day England, is the tragicomic tale of aging publisher Timothy Cavendish, who is wrongly imprisoned in an old-age home and has to escape. Then comes the orison of Sonmi 451, a story set in a future, corporate-controlled Korea, in which a clone finds out that all clones are enslaved. And then, the centerpiece of the book, a story that takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, about a band of people fighting off other, more savage tribes, and visited by a few, technologically superior survivors of the apocalypse. Without putting in a spoiler, I’ll say that I enjoyed figuring out the connections between these seemingly discrete stories.
There are those who have criticized the book for being contrived, or too clever for its own good, but I disagree. I found Mitchell to be a clever stylist, yes, but one who is clearly in love with language and is a true craftsman. Though the book may be clever, it isn’t empty cleverness. I think Mithcell found a way to tell an entertaining story and still examine some serious issues, like the extent to which man’s self-destructiveness is inborn and unavoidable, and the related, age-old question of free will versus self-determinism.
I’m still mulling over Mitchell’s idea that after the end of the world--even though what’s left of humanity is reduced to living in what looks like a pre-industrial tribal culture--stories, or folklore, are still the important thing, the thing that defines a civilized versus a savage society. Each main character, from each time period, somehow sends their story forward to the future, by diary, musical composition, letters, journalism, or orison (a word I love because it can be defined as oration, prayer, or testament). So through the ages, the stories people tell survive them. For me, that’s a hopeful message that I take away from this memorable book.
I’m certain there’s much more in this book that I didn’t catch on the first read, so I'll just have to read this again some day. And I'd love to hear what other readers thought...