15 November 2012

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

How do I begin this review?

Should I begin by saying that this perhaps is the most awesome and amazing book I have read in a long time? Should I begin by saying that I want to give this book 6 out of 5 stars? Should I begin by saying that David Mitchell is a genius?

Perhaps I should begin by first giving a synopsis of this book.

Cloud Atlas is a hexapalindromic novel. It’s actually six stories in one book. Or put differently, one massive story that is composed of six parts. And the neat thing is that each book is interconnected, each story is nested within the next, and it transcends genre, time, and language, and yet the book as a whole is coherent and cohesive.

Cloud Atlas begins with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, a diary written by Adam Ewing, as he is traveling in a ship from the Chatham Islands crossing the Pacific Ocean. The setting is somewhere in the 19th century. The ship’s captain as well as the first mate are undesirable beings, and he befriends a doctor, who later turns out to be an undesirable being as well. Unbeknownst to Adam Ewing, he is slowly being poisoned by the doctor so that his estate can be taken away from him.

This diary is read by the main character in the next story, “Letters from Zedelghem”, which is a series of letters written by Robert Frobischer, in 1931. Frobischer is an English composer who works for a well-known composer in Bruges, Belgium, as an amanuensis. He writes to his friend (and implied lover) Rufus Sixsmith. He has a not-so-desirable relationship with his employer, a composer who needs his services, and yet is so full of himself. This story narrates Robert’s interactions with various family members of his employer’s family.

The series of letters is read by Luisa Rey, the main character in the next story, “Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery”. Luisa Rey is a reporter for a gossip magazine, investigating a possible conspiracy. She works against all odds, discovering that the huge energy installation near a city in California is actually dangerous for the population around it. Many people try to kill her, as it is imperative that her story doesn’t come out. This story is set in the mid-70s.

The main character of the next story encounter’s Luisa Rey’s story as a novel manuscript, as the main character of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” happens to be a vanity publisher. Timothy Cavendish owes a bit of money from some undesirable beings, and he escapes them, only to be sent to a nursing home where he couldn’t seem to escape. Together with a few other tenants, he plans his escape to get back to the real world. This story is set a few years into the 21st century, in England.

The main character of the next story, “An Orison of Sonmi-451”, is Sonmi-451, a fabricant, or an artificially-engineered being. Set in a futuristic Korea, Sonmi-451 is a fabricant designed only to be a staff in a diner. However, she slowly becomes sentient, and leads a revolution of fabricants against the purebloods and the pureblood-created corpocracy. She encounters the previous story as a movie. This story is formatted as an interview; an interviewer asks Sonmi questions and she answers them. The reader later learns that this is an interview shortly before her execution, and the interview is recorded using a futuristic recording device, called an orison.

The final story is entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. The main character is Zachry, who watches Sonmi’s orison. This story tells of the battle between two post-apocalyptic tribes. Zachry seems to be telling his story to random people, around a campfire.

That was the synopsis of the book. Yes, this book has six stories in one volume. And not only that, it actually is a book that taxes the reader’s memory. The thing is, it is not the case that the first story will be narrated, and then finished, and the next story begins. No. The first story is narrated, and then interrupted, then the second story is narrated, and then interrupted, and so on. Every story, from the first to the fifth, is interrupted halfway. The sixth story is the only one that is not interrupted. Then, once the sixth story finishes, the book page-wise progresses, yet the reader regresses through time, and the continuation of the first five stories are then given. That’s the reason why I said this was a hexapalindromic novel. And I actually like how it is set-up.

Adam Ewing’s diary is read by Robert Frobischer, only halfway, because the book was torn in half. Later on, he finds the other half and continues reading. Luisa Rey reads Frobischer’s letters up to the mid-point, because the remaining letters were missing. Only later when she receives them in the mail could she continue on reading them. Timothy Cavendish’s reading of Luisa Rey’s manuscript is interrupted because of his misadventures. Only later when he receives the second part of the manuscript is he able to continue reading. Sonmi-451 first only was able to watch the first half of the movie dramatization of Timothy Cavendish’s life, because the police that were arresting her arrived. She was only able to watch the remainder as a final request to her executioners, before she is killed. And later on, Zachry also had an interruption in viewing Sonmi’s orison. Only later was he able to finish watching its contents.

The six stories transcend narrators, genre, and time. Adam Ewing’s diary is a historical novel. Robert Frobischer’s letters constitute an epistolary novel. Luisa Rey’s manuscript is a political thriller. Timothy Cavendish’s movie is a comedy. Sonmi-451’s orison is a dystopian science fiction. And Zachry’s monologue is a post-apocalyptic narrative. The language also varies, reflecting the time the narratives are set. Old forms of English are used in Adam Ewing’s diary, and it gradually evolves as the stories progress in time. There have been spelling and lexical reforms that are evident by the time Sonmi’s story is narrated. Unfortunately, the post-apocalyptic English looks a little bit like written Texan English, with plenty of written velar and alveolar nasal neutralizations (dropped “g”) and other clipped words. That’s perhaps the only thing I didn’t like, that post-apocalyptic English is reminiscent of Texan English dialects. Anyway, as diverse its individual pieces might be, this book still has a uniting theme to it.

So structurally, this book excels. Amazing. Ingenius. One should definitely read this, just for its structure alone.

So what are the themes that are explored in this book?

There are several main ideas that I think the book wants to present to the reader. One of the themes is human oppression. In essence, every story is the same. It is always a story of oppression, how the main character is being oppressed, and how he/she is trying to overcome it. Regardless of which story one picks, there is always the character that is the hunter, and the character that is being hunted. Human nature, in essence. This is exemplified by the “rule” the in the first story abides by, “the Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat”. I actually liked the fact that this was brought out at the very end, during the second part of the diary, as it provides a great way of tying the stories together. In all the stories, the main character sets himself or herself free from the oppressor. Sometimes, this is done in a comic way, sometimes, in a tragic way.

The second theme is hinted by the line highlighted in the book’s back cover, “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies”. Again, as every story is similar, it is implicit that the same soul experiences the same battle against oppressors, albeit in a different setting. One might take this idea further and say that the main character’s souls are interlocked, if not the same, and they are experiencing their life again and again, in a time- and location-appropriate setting. Perhaps this is the only aspect of the book that I didn’t like. This book is an etude on how to explain the concept of reincarnation in novel format. I think that David Mitchell succeeds in doing so, yet I still am not convinced that reincarnation is a fact. Just because one can find a series of events that are highly similar yet transcends space-time doesn’t mean that souls cross ages like clouds cross skies. Perhaps the easier and simpler explanation is that humans are inherently selfish, no matter when or where you are, whether you’re in the 19th century or you’re in a post-apocalyptic world. I think that is a simpler explanation than positing reincarnation, which is more than suggested in this book, and is reflected by many structural elements, including the hexapalindromic structure, as well as the fact that the novel comes full circle in the end, in more ways than one. For example, the sea voyage of Adam Ewing ends in Hawaii, which is also the setting of the final story. I find it actually a little disturbing that Mitchell’s view of the future is highly pessimistic, where generations ahead of me are portrayed as savages, with subpar technology, and quasi-barbaric methods. Mitchell seems to not have hope in the future.

Other structural elements worth noting is the usage of vertical symbolism. Characters ascend and descend, and this is actually meaningful. Robert Frobischer jumps from a hotel window, and later on he shares a view from the top of the belvedere lookout. Sonmi-451 ascends a huge staircase in order to leave her old life as a diner staff. And in her story, the process of gaining consciousness for a fabricant (gaining a soul) is also called ascension. The vertical dimension is thus used meaningfully, to signify many important themes in the book.

Overall, I am impressed. I might have points I want to contend, but regardless, I am impressed by this book. I haven’t encountered such a powerful book in a long time, this is actually one of those books that I wished didn’t end. It was well-researched, well-crafted, well-structured. It is post-modernism at its best. Very much mind-blowing. I give this book 6 stars out of 5.

See my other book reviews here.

(Statue, from my Central Park Series)

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