Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Christmas Day for Jews can be kind of boring. Personally, I’m just happy to get two days off in a row after working seventeen out of the last nineteen days in at my bookshop. It was hectic. Anyway after cleaning my disgustingly dirty house and finishing Cloud Atlas I now have some time to write about it. I’ve actually read Cloud Atlas before but in my mind I had it mixed up with another book that I can’t remember now. It’s actually really bugging me so does anyone know about a similar book, short stories ranging across the time with the recurring characters of Spike and Someone Else?

Cloud Atlas is a set of six interconnected stories ranging from 1850 to a post-apocalyptic future with each one cut off in the middle by the next only to finish in backwards order. The blurb says it explores “humanity’s will to power and where it will lead us” which sums up the main theme. There is the suggestion that the main characters are reincarnations of the same soul, linked by a birthmark in the shape of a comet. Each story is also featured in the next; the first story is found as a journal in the second, which is a series of letters in the third, which is an unpublished manuscript in the fourth which is a movie in the fifth which is a recorded interview in the sixth. If that makes sense.

The stories that were my favourites have changed on a second reading. From memory, last time I didn’t love the first part, but this time I enjoyed the diary of Adam Ewing, a moral but naïve lawyer on a journey from Sydney to California. It starts off the ‘will to power’ theme with the enslavement of races by those stronger, justified by religion, false morality or strength alone.

The second story is on a smaller scale, written as letters from Robert Frobisher, a disgraced musician who finds work transcribing the music of a blind composer in Bruges. His cocky and cultured voice and self-awareness gave the story my favourite tone of the six. He also gives the book its title with his composition ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’, which showcases six interrupted and then concluded solos. Sound familiar? Actually I thought it laboured the point a bit.

Next there is Luisa Rey, a reporter who investigates a cover up at a local power plant that extends to corruption and murder. Its tone is very airport novel which is fun but my main complaint is that, from a strong start, it coagulates into something too tidy, with too many neat coincidences and helpful friends turning up at just the right moment. There’s also an overbearing insistence on the ‘they’re all reincarnated’ thing.

The story of Timothy Cavendish, a vanity press publisher who goes on the run only to be trapped in a nursing home was the one I least enjoyed, but the one which I thought posed the most interesting questions about society. It’s that catch-22 thing: the more Timothy protests that he doesn’t belong, the harder he is restrained from leaving. It may not be totally original but as Timothy himself says, in response to the imagined criticism, “But it’s been done a thousand times before”, responding, “as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!” For me it raised the chilling issue of the powerlessness of those in aged care, especially once they’ve deteriorated. Any suggestion that they are being mistreated can be denied as confused fantasies by the staff who are meant to protect them and are in a position of complete power.

I fell in love with Sonmi  ~ 451, a clone in the near dystopian future who comes to question her society and ultimately rebel. I think it was my favourite but I am partial to a dystopian future narrative. I liked the cheeky use of ‘soul’, the repository of wealth that determines ‘purebloods’ from ‘fabricants’ and I thought the corporate culture on steroids depicted is scarily within sight. But I think I loved her most for her grim determinism, her mix of acceptance and defiance.

The post-apocalyptic story of Zachry and shows the outcome of all the preceding will-to-power, the ultimate destruction of civilisation and the return to domination and subjugation of one tribal group by the next. It takes the book full circle. I didn’t love it the first time but I appreciated it more on a second reading. Like the other stories it embraces traditional story forms like the quest tale, capture and escape, overcoming doubts but in a more stripped back form.

My main complaint is that Cloud Atlas sometimes pushed too hard. Apart from the deus ex machina ( most annoying in the Luisa Rey story) I also think its weakness came from spelling out that which had already been implied, particularly in the second half. But it’s obvious why it’s on the 1001 books list. From being cut off at cliffhanger moments, Mitchell takes no time at all to draw you into the next episode. The stories are a captivating mix of traditional story-telling tropes and original twists with a delightful self-awareness. Super worth reading!

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