Monday, September 24, 2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

While author David Mitchell pays homage to numerous other works (e.g., Ulysses and The Bridge of San Luis Rey),  Cloud Atlas is a novel unlike any other I have read. It tells six stories, all in different voices, set in different places and time periods, and presented in different "genres"--Mitchell flexes his writerly muscles and does it well. The first five stories are interrupted in the middle; after the sixth story, the ends of the first five stories are presented. If this makes no sense, here is how one reviewer represented the structure: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The first story is written as the diary of an American notary, Adam Ewing, who has been sent to New Zealand to find the heir of a client. On the sea voyage home, he falls desperately ill. The second epistolary story, set in Europe after World War I, features the amoral Robert Frobisher. Disowned by his British family and pursued by debt-collectors, he has found work as the assistant to a well-known (and syphilitic) composer. He steals from his employer and sleeps for his wife, all of which he believes is justified by the work he is composing--the Cloud Atlas Sextet, featuring overlapping solos by six instruments. He also finds an interesting book in the library--the diary of Adam Ewing.

The third story is a mystery set in the 1970s. Reporter Luisa Rey is stuck on an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith (the former lover to whom Frobisher's letters were addressed), a physicist who shares frightening results of a study on the safety of two nuclear plants on an island off the coast of California. When Sixsmith is murdered, Rey comes into possession of the letters Frobisher wrote him. The fourth story features Timothy Cavendish, a British publisher (of the vanity sort) in the present; fleeing from "goons" who believe their jailed brother has been cheated of royalties, Cavendish ends up trapped in a nursing home. He receives a submission that is the story of Luisa Rey.

The fifth story, and my favorite, is set in the future in Korea. Sonmi 451 is being questioned by an archivist regarding how she, a fabricant genomed to work in a fast food emporium, ascended to sentience. In this corporatic future, brand names have become the generic terms for most items (starbuck for coffee, ford for car, nikes for shoes). Sonmi's favorite disney (movie) is the story of Timothy Cavendish.

The sixth story is told as an oral history from father to sons; it is the tale of Zachry, a goatherd on the Hawaiian islands even farther in the future. Civilization has collapsed, and Zachry's family lives hard-scrabble existence facing murder or enslavement by the neighboring Konas. Zachry's family takes in a Prescient--one of a group of educated survivors. Zachry comes to believe that the Prescient is Sonmi, whom he worships (how Sonmi became a deity is unclear).

The world of each story is violent, if not brutal. And much of the violence occurs across groups--one tribe or race enslaves and abuses another, countries lurch toward war, people create fabricants to be their slaves, and on and on.  Human nature and the direction of civilization are among the themes Mitchell explores.

The theme that resonates with me is the nature of time and reality. Are the stories simply nested fictions? Are they "an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of 'now' likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future"? Are the characters linked in some supernatural or genetic way (one character in each story has the same birthmark and Mitchell hints that the birthmarks represent a significant connection but never explains what that connection is)?

I'm sure Cloud Atlas would yield more if I read it again. However, even though I enjoyed the book, I don't feel drawn to reread it--at least not in the near future.

Favorite passages:
Snow is bruised lilac in half-lite: such pure solace. . . . Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.

. . . and there, in the background, the brite spring sky's sediment had sunk to a dark band of blue. Ah, it mesmerized me . . . like the snow had done. All the woe of the words "I am" seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully. Hae-Joo announced, "The ocean."

The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)

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