Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cloud Atlas

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Random House, 2004.

Submitted by R. Stuhr

It seems to be more and more common in novels and films to take seemingly disparate stories that gradually link link together through the characters and details of the narratives. Although it may start to seem like a cliché, it does reflect life if you step back outside of your everyday existence. Meetings that are chance or random become significant, actions of people unknown to each other may gradually (or not so gradually) may bring those people together or change the lives people unmet. Movements within history and politics, culture, science, dramatically change the lives of people born decades and centuries later. Mitchell uses this technique in his novel Cloud Atlas, but adds something a little different. His novel presents six stories that move forward in time in great leaps. It begins with a remnant of th journal of kept by a notary, a passenger on a 19th century ship voyaging through the South Seas.The next story jumps to Belgium between the world wars. A destitute, disinherited, morally shallow young man is seeking to study composition with a once prominent composer who has succumbed to ill health brought on by syphilis. These first two stories could be entirely separate short stories. The next story is reminiscent of the Karen Silkwood case of the 1970s. A minor overlap is introduced into this story. The next story takes place in what is perhaps the present day. The main character is a failing publisher who through sibling conspiracy winds up confined against his will in a gothicly horrific rehabilitation home. He has in his possession a manuscript that tells the story of Luisa Rey (the Karen Silkwoodesque character from the previous story). The next story takes the reader far into the future. Consumerism has triumphed; commodification is everything; cloning (taken a step further than the clones in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go) has done away with the need or possibility of most noncloned people to work. Finally, the story at the peak of this triangle of stories, takes place after most of the world has been laid to waste whether through war, environmental disaster or all of the possibilities of human induced catastrophe combined. Civilization is starting over in some cases with remnants of memories and evidence from earlier civilizations, in other cases, Battle Star Gallactica like, survivors of the disasters travel together on a ship, observing the newly developing civilizations. At this point in the novel, the reader is starting to pull some threads together and a theme is developing. In the second half of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell continues the stories in reverse order... all of the threads and themes coming together.

Now that I've gone on in great detail about the make up of the novel, I should say something about what first struck me about Cloud Atlas. It was Mitchell's incredibly beautiful writing. I was in love with this novel before the end of the first story. Mitchell's writing changes as the stories change. The first two stories have the most formal and evocative style because that is in keeping with the time period. The story that takes place far into the future (in Korea) features txt mssgng influenced vocabulary and spelling. Nothing seems haphazard or rushed off in this work. Mitchell's writing isn't a hobby or a commercial enterprise (merely), but he is truly a master with words and ideas.

Having said that, his novel, as I interpret it, explores how far greed, acquisitiveness, selfishness, and a craving for power can be taken. The penultimate story (moving forward) describes a society that has taken these aspects of the human character about as far as they can go. The novel opens and closes with the 19th century voyage. The notary is a simple and good man. He is troubled by the uninhibited colonial appropriation of land and control and throughout tries to reconcile his national loyalty, his religious instincts, and his belief in the essential goodness of his fellow "man" with what he observes. In the end he almost dies because of his faith in others, but even his narrow escape does not end his sense of hope and optimism. "Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves, and Gooses shall prevail" (508).

Can the opposite be true? You'll need to read this novel for yourself. Cloud Atlas, recommended to me by Claire Moissan, a Grinnellian and Writing Lab instructor, is a consummate novel. It tells a compelling tale as it sheds light on the human condition, provides new ways to view history and the future, taking away all hope and handing back a spoonful of it before the last page is read, all in beautifully crafted prose.

Read this book!

Burling 3rd Floor PR6063.I785 C58 2004

Other Novels by David Mitchell:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)

Black Swan Green (Random House, 2006)

Number9dream (Random House, 2001)

Ghostwritten (Random House, 2000)

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