Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004, Random House)
Imagine that someone left you in a forest with only the sliver of a map to would show you the way out.
This is what David Mitchell does in his novel Cloud Atlas—except he doesn’t actually let you find your way out. If you like a little mystery and intrigue, some action and coincidence this book is for you. I was disappointed in this book but want to reread it in the future—it seems like one that reveals more and more with time. Environmental irresponsibility, intolerance, and the spontaneity of life are themes that recur throughout the novel. Sometimes they come off as redundant, but nevertheless it is important to see again and again things like the “casual brutality lighter races show the darker.”
The book is comprised of six stories organized in onion-like layers. Mitchell plunks you in some remote city among slaves, trade, and missionaries. The setting and circumstances are familiar, bringing Heart of Darkness to my mind. As the novel progresses, each chapter moves the reader forward in time. By the middle of the book we are years into the future—after civilization has crumbled and only small tribes of humans survive. We then travel backward through time to finish the stories we started in the first half of the novel.
Mitchell starts us off with the bumbling character, Adam Ewing, who is travelling on a nineteenth century trade ship. Ewing narrates through diary entries and he fixates on the presumption of white men over others and the brutality of life. In the next sections, we follow a composer and a journalist (I would guess 19th and 20th centuries, respectively). Both live action packed lives—ducking out of hotel windows, chased by hit-men, affairs, and double dealing all included.
Next, the story of Timothy Cavendish allows the reader to catch their breath. He feels like our most contemporary character, but we are soon yanked out of his narrative and head to the future and begin an interview with Sonmi. Sonmi is a fabricant (robot) and here Mitchell imagines the future. I enjoyed this portion of the book because it required some guesswork to figure out new names for new objects and customs—it was a little more sci-fi versus historical.
Mitchell portrays the language, culture, and settings of these different periods and countries as if it were as simple as changing his socks. It’s a delight to witness the changes in language, though at times I admit I found some chapters quite tedious. For example, an entire chapter reads like:
Next dream, I was holdin’ my freakbirth babbit boy in Jayjo’s room. He was kickin’n’wrigglyin’ like he’d dont that day. Quick Zachry, said the man, cut your babbit a mouth so he can breath! I’d got my blade in my hand so I carved my boy a smily slit, like cuttin’ cheese it was. Words frothed out, Why’d you kill me, Pa?
Overall, I would have been more happy if Mitchell revealed if the future shifted due to the actions of the characters. Without this, the coincidences, the risks, and the heroics of the characters seemed for nothing which left me feeling neutral.