-"Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides...I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds." (373)
I've finally gotten around to reading what seemed to be everyone's favorite Cannonball Read from a couple years ago: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004). I guess I could call it a cross between six short stories and a comprehensive philosophy of the nature of humanity. I wish I had come into this book with fewer expectations, though, because even though I enjoyed it, the hype was probably too much to ever live up to. I'm going to assume almost everyone interested has already read this book (because they have) and freely talk about plot points throughout the review without worrying about spoilers.
The stories are set up in a particular, chronological order that pyramids from the past to the future and then back to the past once again. This framework is later mirrored by one of the character's musical pieces. The stories take place from the 1800's to a post-apocalyptic, unknown future. Below (and primarily for my own memory and understanding of this book) are synopses of the six main characters:
1. Adam Ewing - San Francisco notary on a ship back home to his wife and son from Australia. We are introduced to his life through his diary entries. Ewing saves an escaping Moriari slave (who later saves him) from the rather evil "Dr." Henry Goose.
2. Robert Frobisher - a rather desperate musician who has been kicked out of school and disinherited by his family in the 1930's. Robert concocts a plan to be an amanuensis to a famous, ill, and reclusive musician in
Bruges, Belgium. Robert is generally selfish, a man who lies, steals, and cheats without any crisis of conscience. Frobisher finds Adam Ewing's published diary in the musician's home in Bruges and ends up writing the masterful, musical theme to the entire book of Cloud Atlas. We learn of Frobisher's story through letters he writes to a good friend (and lover?), Rufus Sixsmith
3. Luisa Rey - an intrepid reporter following in her father's
footsteps. She meets a much older Rufus Sixsmith in the 1970's in a broken down elevator and begins
to learn the story of a dangerous nuclear power plant that Sixsmith has been involved in engineering. After much intrigue and danger, Luisa Rey manages to stop the potentially unsafe nuclear power plant. I'm not sure whether Mitchell was trying to show an example of good triumphing over evil or the impossibility of Rey stopping the inevitable rise of Corpacracy that we see later--despite her initial triumph. Luisa's father saved the life of a fellow policeman who later ends up saving Luisa's life. Luisa Rey is connected to the ongoing narrative because she reads Robert Frobisher's letters that had been written to Rufus Sixsmith and listens to his "Cloud Atlas" composition.
4. Timothy Cavendish - an older gentleman with a small publishing company in London. Cavendish was fleeing some creditors when he unwittingly finds himself locked into a rather sadistically-run nursing home. Cavendish is sent the manuscript of the story of Luisa Rey and her investigative journalism. Cavendish's story seems to perpetuate the themes of imprisonment and treating yet another class of people without humanity.
5. Sonmi-451, a "fabricant" used for
food service. Sonmi's story is the first one to take place in the future. Sonmi lives in Korea and was created to serve others at a fast food restaurant. This was one of my favorite stories. Recurring theme of
dehumanization and rebellion. Good use of corporate words, such as Kodak
and Starbuck, etc. Sonmi watches a movie based on Timothy Cavendish's ordeal in the nursing home.
6. Zachry - lives on an island in Hawaii in
the far future. Sonmi is a god his people pray to, but they know practically nothing of her origins. Sonmi certainly influences their lives, but there isn't enough detail to know exactly how. Zachry's world is much more superstitious and religious. His people are decimated by the more war-like "savages" called the Kona. Zachry escapes with Meronym, a prescient, at the end of the book.
David Mitchell's ability to draw me into his stories and characters is remarkable. The cliffhanger at the end of each chapter always left me yearning to find out what would happen and reluctant to start yet another storyline. But it wouldn't take long until I'd fallen into the next character and setting. Zachry's story was the most difficult for me, though. Sonmi's life was mesmerizing, and I was a little bitter that Mitchell left me dangling once again. Then I was forced to abruptly switch gears and translate Zachry's strained speech. I also found Zachry's world the most difficult to understand. Who were the Kona? Who were the Prescients? how did Zachry's people come to worship Sonmi? I felt that I needed more detail and more understanding of Zachry's world before I could accept it.
There's a lot going on in this book, with six separate story lines, themes of right and wrong, reincarnation, the development of humanity, slavery and controlling others and more. This would be a fantastic book for students to write papers on because Mitchell never clearly answers any questions that come up in his book, he just shows some of the most disturbing and optimistic trends of human nature.
-"What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience." (16)
-"Freedom!" is the fatuous jingle of our civilization, but only those deprived of it have the barest inkling re: what the stuff actually is." (356)
-"Because, Preacher, of all the world's races, our love--or rather our rapacity--for treasure, gold, spices & dominion, oh, most of all, sweet dominion, is the keenest, the hungriest, the most unscrupulous! This rapacity, yes, powers our Progress; for ends infernal or divine I know not." (489)
-"Had I but known! I could have helped the child jump ship, deflect his destiny as the Channings did mine, or help him understand that no state of tyranny reigns forever." (500)
-"He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" (508)
-"Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" (508)
In the interests of wrapping up this overlong and meandering review, I will focus on a couple issues I had. First, I didn't really understand the reincarnation thing or how people always seemed familiar. Sure, there was a birth mark that seemed to travel through time, but if they were the same person, did that affect their characters at all. Not that I could tell.
Also, the tie between the six characters seemed relatively tenuous and fabricated, much like the arbitrary cutting in half of all of the stories. Who would tear a book in half, only carry half of your lover's letters around, or send in exactly half of a manuscript to an editor. Usually by the time I finally got back to the characters in the second half of the book, I'd lost some interest. In addition, although each story was interesting, I did not see how reading the previous person's story influenced the character coming after them in any way.
The length of this review (and I probably could have gone on) is evidence of what a fascinating book Mitchell has produced. I've heard a variety of things about the movie, but I'm now interested to see it, if only to get a different perspective of what I've read. I'm also looking forward to reading more of Mitchell's work in the future.