This book has been in my TBR pile for about a year, the recently released trailer
of the movie adaptation finally galvanized me to get on with it. The trailer actually looks quite good and having read the book I think it serves quite well as a book trailer also. Like a lot of readers I tend to stick to reading within my comfort zone which in my case is science fiction / fantasy, the problem with that is I tend to miss out on the ideas and perspectives that other genres and the mainstream has to offer. Fortunately sometime I chance upon genre busting books like Cloud Atlas that remind me to widen the scope of my reading to get the most out of this favorite pastime.
Cloud Atlas is comprised of six interconnected novella-length stories spanning hundreds - possibly thousands - of years (some of the dates are not explicitly indicated). The unusual structure of the book has been described as "like a Russian doll" or "nested", sort of 1-2-3-4-5 -6- 5-4-3-2-1
, Stories #1 to 5 are split in halves, #6 the middle story is narrated in its entirety. The best thing about this narrative structure is that it is unusual, yet not confusing, and kind of fun. You meet several new friends on your way to the middle of the book, then on your way back home you meet them again. I find it very pleasant, a little like passing through towns on a road trip and going back the same route.
David Mitchell's versatility is awe inspiring, the range of genres, styles, moods and tones in Cloud Atlas is a virtuoso performance. The six different prose styles cleverly represent the evolution and devolution of language as civilization rises and falls. However, the complexity of the book makes it quite hard for me to review so I will just cop out and briefly comment on the stories:1) The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
- a high seas adventure which tackles the theme of racism more directly than the other stories. A good start (and end) to the book, though not really my pigeon, as it were. I have yet to finish Moby Dick.2) Letters from Zedelghem
- the story of a young composer and his struggle to write a lasting piece of music while assisting a sick and elderly famous composer. This story is written in a flippant prose style somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse though the plot is not nearly so farcical and takes a dark turn later on. Of all the six protagonists Robert Frobisher is the least sympathetic, he is, however, witty and charming, which makes the story more readable than it would otherwise be.3) Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
- This story is a nuclear conspiracy thriller, with a plucky journalist at the centre. Some critics have dismissed this story as cliche or somehow "beneath" what the author is capable of, damn literati. Plebeian that I am I find it a riveting read with sympathetic characters, it seems like one of the more brightly colored components of the book.4) The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
- A lighthearted romp about a dishonest publisher jumping from the frying pan into the fire. I enjoyed this story tremendously, it is narrated by a curmudgeonly old man in our times (21st century) 5) An Orison of Sonmi~451
- A dystopian sci-fi story set in Korea in an unspecified far future year, very much my usual cup of tea. The story is narrated in a William Gibson-ish prose style. This story reminds me of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a little. Wonderful characterization of the clone Sonmi 451 (a little shout-out to Ray Bradbury there), man's inhumanity to clones remind me of Greg Egan's "dust theory" in Permutation City which basically posits that ill treatment of man-made sentient beings is cruel and unethical. 6) Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
- A post apocalyptic sci-fi story set in Hawaii, the prose style reads as if it could have been written by Forrest Gump, it takes a little getting used to but the power and passion of the story is undeniable. The narrator is more of a Watsonian supporting character I think.
The little links between the stories are a little tenuous but together they form a chain of stories with some common themes, the one theme that is present in all the stories is the individual's struggle against authority, be they the government, the corporation, the hospital staff, the captain and crew of a ship etc. All the protagonist eventually manage to "stick it to the Man" against all odds. Other themes repeated from time to time include social injustice, racism, friendship and loyalty. At the end of the day though I believe the author's intent is to create a work of art in fiction form, the themes and messages are secondary to the art. A truly unforgettable book.