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Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Member Name: melee679
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Date: 18/04/05, updated on 25/04/05 (1269 review reads)
Disadvantages: Too Ambitious, Hideous Cover
If these are the sorts of things that would put you off reading a book, then Cloud Atlas isn't for you. However, if you are bloodyminded enough to wrap it in newspaper, and only dip into it at home with some large contraption you have build in your shed with which to hold the damned thing, then the following review may be of some interest to you.
Cloud Atlas is a ridiculously ambitious book - which may account for the size of the thing. It spans several hundred years, takes in a large handful of central characters, uses a different style and structure for every section, and collapses back onto you just as you are starting to come to terms with the whole thing. That isn't to say it's not worth persevering with, though. If you have the patience to get into it, you can derive some enjoyment. It is undeniably well written, and clever in a fashion. Which is why it caught the attention of the literary radar of the Booker judges. Do also note that it failed to win, and perhaps for the very reason that ambitiousness is all very well, but it has to pay off. And I'm not entirely sure that Cloud Atlas manages to.
Shall we start from the beginning?
The book opens with the pacific journal of a Mr. Adam Ewing, documenting his homeward bound journey from the Australias. He is a rather uptight chap, given to disparaging accounts of the seamen, but good at heart for all his bluster. The device, however, is one that has come to the literary fore rather too recently to be used again as an opener in any book wanting to be seen as original. Anyone who has read The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (and I do recommend it) will not be able to help comparing the two - the journal style, the attempt at representing the lilt of dialogues and accents that might be found aboard a colonial ship in sound and the patterns they make on the page - I very nearly gave up just a few pages in because I felt it was a poor imitation, but luckily it ends after just forty pages, and the whole thing becomes very much more readable. Ewing's account is left half way through - indeed half way through a sentence - with the reader aware that he is misguided in his friendship with Dr. Goose.
Next comes a delightful and completely unexpected account of Robert Frobisher - disinherited English rogue and would-be composer in Belgium between the wars. This tale is altogether more readable - and the character more likeable. We read a series of letters from Frobisher to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. The letters are witty and sparkle with tales of the characters in the house he has established himself in. The link seems non-existent, until Frobisher gets engrossed in reading a copy of the journal we have just been privy to. The letters then end just as abruptly as Ewing's diary, and we are transported into the life of Luisa Rey. Who bumps into Dr. Sixsmith. And also has a predilection for Frobisher's music - although she has never heard of him.
The coincidences, it is clear, are meant to be part of the story. From Luisa Rey and her journalistic attempts to get the Swanekke Island power plant exposed, we travel to Timothy Cavendish in England, a publisher into whose hands a Luisa Rey story has fallen - just before he is locked up for being mental. Then on to a futuristic world where genetically modified slaves are bred to serve burgers. Sonmi, our narrator in this section, connects back to Cavendish by watching a film of his life. And Sonmi connects to the island of nuclear fall-out survivors that follow by being their God. Somehow. And once you start getting a grip on this part of the book, it all caves back in and you go backwards again through the characters to hear the second part of their stories - Zachary back to Sonmi, to Cavendish, Rey, Frobisher, with the book finishing where it began - with Ewing.
So we finish at the beginning, too.
All sounds terribly confusing, doesn't it? Well, actually, it's not too bad. Once you are in each section and you have worked out the bones of what is going on, the stories are quite enjoyable and imaginative. If you can forgive Ewing's unoriginality, you can probably also forgive the Atwood-esque-ness of the Sonmi interlude, and just get on with trying to work out what Mitchell is trying to tell us in his epic book.
And, the answer is… I don't know. I'm not sure he was trying to impart anything to his reader. The book is just one big clever device that must have occurred to him one morning when sat infront of his laptop. Half forwards, all linked, half backwards, all linked. Then, of course, linked in lots of other ways too - Frobisher's sextet composition Cloud Atlas which is - wait for it - six instruments all going half forwards, and then half backwards, overlapping and conversing, Familiar? And then there's the very annoying main connector between all the characters - this silly birthmark they all have shaped like a comet, which is supposed to mean they are all in fact the same soul reincarnated. Bit hoopy-loopy of you ask me - never properly explained and just chucked in from time to time to 'explain' why, for example, Luisa recognises Frobisher's music the first time she hears it.
All in all. Yes, ambitious. Carried off? Not entirely - but not gapingly badly, either. Perfectly readable once you get into it. But not something that has made any great impression - there are no lasting lessons on humanity, philosophy, social order. And any fiction is bound to be poorer for that.