Cloud Atlas: A Novel
|Publisher:||Random House Trade Paperbacks|
Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, inveigles his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. And onward, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.” But the story doesn’t even end there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
It’s hard not to become ensnared by words beginning with the letter B, when attempting to describe Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s third novel. It’s a big book, for start, bold in scope and execution—a bravura literary performance, possibly. (Let’s steer clear of breathtaking for now.) Then, of course, Mitchell was among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and his second novel number9dreamwas shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Characters with birthmarks in the shape of comets are a motif; as are boats. Oh and one of the six narratives strands of the book—where coincidentally Robert Frobisher, a young composer, dreams up “a sextet for overlapping soloists” entitled Cloud Atlas—is set in Belgium, not far from Bruges. (See what I mean?)
Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race. The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he’s trying to fleece. Frobisher’s waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered. A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into Rufus’ death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer. And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish’s unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home. (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight). All this is less tricky than it sounds, only the lone “Zachary” chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all “dingos’n’ravens”, “brekker” and “f’llowin’”s) is an exercise in style too far. Not all the threads quite connect but nonetheless Mitchell binds them into a quite spellbinding rumination on human nature, power, oppression, race, colonialism and consumerism. —Travis Elborough
Future. Present. Past. Everything is connected. An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.The story is a time-shifting weave of six interlinking narratives, with diverse settings from the savagery of a Pacific Island in the 1850s to a dystopian Korea of the near future. Based on the New York Times best-selling novel Cloud Atlas written by David Mitchell.