The latest Goodreads giveaway that I had the privilege of reading was the paperback edition of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. While it has been out for a decade (and has even been selected for the list of the 1001-books that you should read before you die), this was my first exposure to it. I have not seen the movie that was based on the novel though, having now read it, I may (but I digress). Because it has been so widely read and reviewed, this extended review is less a review than some of the thoughts I had about it as I read.
By David Mitchell
Published by Random House, 2002
(Paperback Edition, 2012)
To begin, there are six different styles of writing that make up this novel. It is really six different novellas that are connected by references that occur from one section to the next. Often, the connection is one of the characters having a comet-shaped birthmark on his or her shoulder. Moreover, one section will end abruptly often leaving the reader hanging as to what happens to the various characters. Eventually, though, the story is picked up in a boomerang manner when the story reverses to that part of the book.
Roughly, the first section entitled ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing‘ is the diary of the man who is traveling by ship from the Chatham Islands to California in the 1850s. To me, it was reminiscent of the book Two Years Before the Mast by Henry Dana, Jr. that I read recently. This section of the novel follows Ewing’s exploits aboard ship and the islands as well the people he meets along the way. The fictional Adam Ewing and the real Henry Dana both recount what they see and experience during their travels. Both have a debilitating illness, too. In Ewing’s case, he is dying of a parasitic worm that destroys the brain.
It is followed by a section called ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ which are a series of letters to a friend, Sixsmith, from Robert Frobisher, a disinherited music composer. Frobisher is always broke so he escapes debtors by traveling to the European continent. He convinces an elderly, blind composer to allow him to help him with his music for room and board. He takes advantage of the composer by bedding the wife and romancing the daughter, or does he?
From there, the narrative moves to a mystery called ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’ which finds Sixsmith older and befriending Luisa Rey, a journalist. He has critical information about his work to impart, but will he get it to her before he is murdered? Or before she is? Here, there is a connection to the last section as the letters are re-introduced as the journalist tries to figure out what is going on.
After the long slog of the first two sections, I found the mystery story of Rufus Sixsmith and Luisa Rey to be a welcome departure. I really liked this portion of the book and felt frustrated when it ended abruptly with Luisa’s accident.
Which brings up the next section called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.’ This section tells the tale of Timothy Cavendish, a small publisher who considers publishing Half Lives. His tale is that of a man trying to escape financial woes (and bodily harm from those who want money now), and his brother helps him out by having him committed to an old age home. Without realizing what his brother has done, he signs himself in only to find he can’t leave and must deal with his enforced incarceration.
A notable quote in this section is the following: “As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.” (page 150) My opinion is that this describes this novel to a T. Is David Mitchell poking fun at his own novel? It certainly made me wonder as I continued reading.
The next section called ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451’ is in a different format still. Set in a repressive Korean society, it is in the form of an interview (more like a question-and-answer deposition). Sonmi tells her story. She is a slave known as a fabricant who gains intelligence and ascendance. Again, the comet birthmark reappears on her shoulder to continue the connection, but the movie called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ also is another connection seen from the previous section.
As I read this section, I noted the similarities with the novel Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. In that novel, language is transformed when letters are forbidden to be written or spoken. The same is true here. Words are spelled differently, letters have been left out, words are created, and name brands have become generic in usage. Because of this cleverness with words, this was another enjoyable part of the novel.
The last and only complete-in-one section novella followed. Called ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ it is the tale of a man in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Zachry tells his story of his escape as his family is captured and enslaved by the Kona. Long past the time of Sonmi~451, she is now their god as the connections between the sections continue. Yet, the civilization has obviously devolved and so has the language.
The novella’s title suggests what has happened to the language; the narrator continually leaves out the letters of words. It is less formal. Words have changed into slang, and frankly, it was difficult to read and understand.
At the end, it is the narrator’s son who refers back to the video recording of Somni by saying: “Look.”
With that, the boomerang curves back to finish all the other stories (in reverse order). First, Somni’s story is completed, followed by Timothy Cavendish’s story, then Luisa Rey’s mystery is solved, to Frobisher’s epistolary story, and finally on to the diary of Adam Ewing. The connections between each section are reinforced.
Overall, this made for an interesting read as I like to find connections between books. I often read three or four books at a time, and I have learned to keep the different plots in my mind. Because of this, I often notice similarities or connections* between various books. Like the six stories that make up this one, when I read several books at a time, the genres generally vary; reading this one, however, was a stretch. Had it been the only book I was reading, I might have had an easier time keeping everything straight. With the others I was reading and read during the same time plus the multiple stories that Cloud Atlas entailed, it was overwhelming and affected my enjoyment of the novel.
My suggestion for anyone who plans on reading Cloud Atlas is to focus on this one alone as the chaotic nature of this novel and its six interconnected, mind-bending story-lines require concentration for the fullest enjoyment. Having said that, I probably will watch the movie to catch all the nuances I missed.
* such as having the same character names, settings, themes