Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas gripped me from the table of contents. The book is comprised of 6 stories, separated by time, but with thematic and inter-personal intersections which cascade through time. The chapters are arranged palindromically (i.e. A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A, with each letter representing a unique story, split into two parts), and being a bit obsessed with palindromes, my interest was piqued.

The first half of the book is an ascent through time, from the 1850s, through the present, and into the future while the latter half of the book descends through the same periods. Such a structure could be indicative of an ingenious narratival device, or a cheap gimmick that doesn't bear any fruit. In a meta moment during the Letters from Zedelghem story, Robert Frobisher -- the protagonist of the second story and a musical apprentice to a famous, genius composer -- describes the magnum opus that he is composing (independent of his mentor) in a letter to his friend:
"[A] sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finishished and by then it'll be too late.
 This is clearly a metaphor for the structure of the book itself, whose individual sections are also in their own "key, scale, and color" (or voice, genre, and style). And while I wouldn't go as far as "revolutionary", it isn't gimmicky either, but rather is a device that is utilized to a stunning, effective end.

Each of the stories work well on their own as stories. The characters are well-rendered, the stories pulse ahead in lively fashion, and the prose is excellent in the varying styles. If this were a short story collection instead of a novel, it would be a tremendous collection. But the structure, the intersections through time, and the handling of the themes -- the rise and fall of civilizations (or ascent and descent generally), the nature of culture, the human condition, imprisonment and escape -- as they appear in each of the narratives, elevate it and keep it from seeming as if it is merely a series of unrelated stories with a tacked-on way of connecting them. Instead, the stories inform and enrich one another, fleshing out characters and illuminating ideas.

While all of the stories have much to recommend them, the two that occur in the future and at the apex of the book -- An Orison of Sonmi 451 and Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin After -- were especially impactful in the way that they bring the threads of the book to fruition. The way the stories give glimpses of both a dystopian future and a post-apocalyptic distant future that follows it is an imaginative feat which isn't quite replicated by the stories set in the present and the past.

Astonishingly -- given the scope of the novel -- a film adaptation directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) is slated for release later this year. One could easily envision an invigorating, satisfying film culled from the world of the Sonmi narrative alone, but faithfully translating this entire novel seems a tall task. It will be interesting to see how much is lost in translation.

Cloud Atlas explores how the unfolding of time provides a backdrop for the story of humanity. It accounts for the variables and the universals; the feats of heroism and villainy; the rises and falls. While this can be done -- to some degree -- in a single story, the structural novelty along with Mitchell's gift for storytelling open up space for a richness and depth that is otherwise very difficult to achieve.


  1. Well... you wet my reading appetite, guess I better get started.

  2. ...though... of course.... I don't believe in any grand-scale dystopian future or even a post-apocalyptic distant future, they are very entertaining to read about. Come to think of it, maybe just reading about them can help keep them from actually happening :)

    1. Well, Jews in Germany and Poland in the 30s probably didn't believe in a coming apocalypse either, but they got one.