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Monday, June 27, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has an unusual structure -- each section of the book is the opening chapter of another, fictional book; alternating with these sections are sections about "you" trying to read a book called "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," but printing errors keep inserting the wrong first chapters, forcing "you" to hunt down each successive novel. It is a novel about reading and writing, and is rightfully considered a post-modern masterpiece.

Mitchell borrows this technique for his novel Cloud Atlas. Each section tells a different story, but it ends just at the climax of the tale, moving on to a completely different story in a different time and genre. Unlike Calvino's novel, however, the central story is complete, and then the process reverses itself, as each of the previous stories is completed in reverse order, back to beginning. The novel has been aptly described as a set of nesting dolls. (This structure is actually mentioned in the book too; one character describes life as a series of shells, and the "doll of 'now' [] encases a nest of presents yet to be" -- which is exactly what this book is.)

And what a set of dolls it is. Mitchell brilliantly writes a variety of time periods, characters, and literary styles. The first story purports to be the diary of an American on a Pacific ocean voyage in 1850, and the diary-writer has all the assumptions and biases you would expect of a white, educated man of that time. The second story is a collection of letters from a young, dissolute musical genius to his friend and former lover. The letters are dated 1931, and depict an uneasy Europe between the wars. The third story, taking place in 1975, is a parody of fast-paced, poorly written thrillers; so successful a parody, in fact, that I kind of didn't want to finish it. The fourth is in the style of contemporary literary farces, with the protagonist one so often finds in those novels -- a male baby boomer, educated and clever but with no common sense or wisdom, self-deprecating but convinced of his superiority to everyone else, randy but impotent, and almost totally lacking in values and integrity.* The fourth section is again a completely different style, this time a Blade Runner-esque distopian future where corporations rule all, "consumers" are required by law to spend a certain amount every month, and human clones are bred with specific traits to work menial jobs, with no rights or dignity or "souls" (microscopic chips that keep track of consumers and allow them to buy and sell). The final, or rather middle, section is yet another dystopia, this one a post-apocalyptic tale about humans struggling to maintain what little culture and technology they've retained, much like A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As different as these stories are, they are nonetheless linked in various ways. The 1931 letter-writer finds the 1850 diary, although he suspects it is a fraud; the recipient of the letters is a character in the pot-boiler and gives them to the heroine, who also tracks down the writer's last composition entitled Cloud Atlas Sextet; the protagonist of the fourth section, a vanity publisher, receives the the third section as a novel to be published; the protagonist of the fifth section, a clone on death row for attempting to forment a revolution, asks as her "last wish" to watch the movie made of the vanity publisher's adventures; and in the last/middle section, this same clone is worshiped as a god, and the narrator treasures (but cannot understand) the archival recording of the clone's story. Moreover, characters in each section share a birthmark, suggesting in at least some cases that they are reincarnations of each other (but this cannot be given too much weight, since, for example, the pot-boiler is supposed to be fiction). The structure alone of Cloud Atlas is quite remarkable.

Thematically, too, the stories are linked, and they allow us to see a certain degradation of civilization as more and more evil is tolerated in the disguise of progress. Slavery doesn't go away, it just takes different, insidious forms. One character lectures that "[a]nother war is always coming . . . . They are never properly extinguished." Over-privileged idiots maintain that the ideal governance is a corporate empire. The elderly and useless are shunted to the side, and nothing is allowed to get in the way of the future.

Despite what all this progress leads to, the book is not entirely bleak. Ụnderneath all the tricks and interlocking structure, there is a commonality of striving for something better, something transcendent. And so the 1850 diarist is inspired by what he sees to become an abolitionist. The dissolute composer abandons his hedonistic pursuits because of an overwhelming need to express himself in music and create a masterpiece that will outlast him. The clone goes to her execution, content in the knowledge that her actions have inspired others who may be able to change what she could not. And the characters of the last/middle story will not give in to lawlessness and violence the way others have, determined to hold on to not just culture and technology, but human decency.

References in the book and statements made by Mitchell himself liken souls to clouds that drift across the sky. The signs of decency in the book sometimes seem like little wisps floating in a sky of human failings, but they are there -- changing and dissipating and re-forming, but always there.

*See David Foster Wallace's "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think" in Consider the Lobster for a take down of more self-serious versions of this man. See Straight Man by Richard Russo for a genuinely likeable version.


  1. Janalynn, I look around and I see we currently have not a single book reviewer or crafter in our little city by the sea, so we'd like to invite you to become one of our Authors in Alexandria.

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  2. I read Cloud Atlas a few years back and your review is fantastic. I remember being particularly struck by the musical letter writer from the 1930.

    Do you ever read W.G. Sebald?

  3. Thanks! I had trouble with the review, for some reason, and felt like I was describing more than critiquing.

    No, I have not read Sebald, what do you recommend?

  4. I'd say, start with The Emmigrants. And build to my favorite, The Rings of Saturn. I was truly sad when the man died. He is amazing and strange and very 20th Century.

    Looking forward to your next review!