Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review - Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Random House Trade Paperbacks
First Edition - August 17, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0375507250
528 pages


In many of my past book reviews I’ve discussed the concept of the writer’s voice when describing style, inventiveness, and thought-provoking, imaginative, and inspired literature. In the case of David Mitchell his voice resonates with unquestionable clarity and Cloud Atlas, which to me reads more like poetry than prose, is an outstanding opus for any genre. Indeed, by its nature, it cannot be simply pigeon-holed into any one genre but skirts the neighborhood of many. Masterful story-telling combined with creative plots and twists and turns make Cloud Atlas my favorite book of the year and is, in my opinion, a near-perfect work of fiction and an instant classic. Mr. Mitchell has crafted an interesting and entertaining tale filled with curious themes and remarkable elements that effortlessly tie together in some fashion or another, usually via a common thread (i.e. Movies, books, music, or people.)Themes of reincarnation, attempted murder, pirates and sailing on the high seas, the human drama, Science Fiction, suicide, dystopian society, poetry, succinct language (no one does two and three word sentences better), Fantasy, corporate cover-up, sex, altruism, and survival are all expertly and brilliantly represented in this multi-player and multi-thematic story.

Cloud Atlas is divided into six interrelated story-lines narrated by as many diverse characters and ascends up through history from the mid-19th century into a distant post-apocalyptic future world. The stories are all interlinked expertly using either certain reoccurring (reincarnated?) individuals and/or their associates or by the letters, music, or lives that they’ve touched. Everything is connected and spiked with head-spinning Déjà vu.

In the first vignette, written in the form of diary entries, we learn of Adam Ewing, a writer out to make a name for himself and his fateful trip from New Zealand to O-Hawaii in 1849. (Note: For some this may be the most difficult chapter in the book to read (the style is period) but stick with it - the rewards are entirely worth the work.) The book concludes with the sad story of Mr. Ewing and the hardship he suffers at the hands of a devious scam artist.

The second chapter introduces con-man Robert Frobisher who has been forced to vacate Europe due to a long history of philandering, gambling, cuckolding, and debt (in some cases all four simultaneously.) Frobisher decides to ingratiate himself into the lives of an aging but brilliant music composer and his wife and daughter in an attempt to gain employment and advance. His story is revealed in a number of letters to his friend and sometimes bi-sexual lover Rufus Sixsmith. (Aside: The number six, which is the number of harmony and balance, also recurs many times throughout the story.)

The third novella centers on Luisa Rey, a reporter, who has stumbled onto a huge corporate cover-up that could push the world over the edge of self-destruction. What she learns from scientist Rufus Sixsmith (the same considerably older character mentioned earlier) could change the course of history – if she can survive long enough to tell the story.

The fourth short story is extremely entertaining and could have been written for the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Timothy Cavendish, a book publisher, has recently achieved sudden and immense wealth by publishing the memoirs of a man that committed an unexpected murder. When the man is sentenced to prison Cavendish reaps the benefits of the popularity of the book but must contend with the murderer’s unsavory family. Mr. Cavendish’s unhappy fate is poignant, disturbing, and in some ways predictable.

In the fifth section Somni -451, a fabricant (or clone), has been pulled from her service job waiting tables and serving food at Papa Song’s to be used (and abused) as an experiment by a wealthy college post-grad. Unfortunately, her freedom comes at a very high price.

The sixth chapter, the centerpiece of the book, is my favorite. Written in the colloquialism of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian (Ha-Way) Islands the language takes some getting used to (I found it easier to read it quickly.) But the story itself is very compelling and filled with unique and creative dystopian tropes that will leave even the most jaded readers in awe of Mitchell’s skill. Technology, for the most part, is gone and the denizens of Hawaii have been living subsistence existences for years, But, when a ship arrives with people who use “old-un” technology things are about to change. And not at all how anyone expects them to…

Cloud Atlas does not end there, however. Each chapter, and subsequent story, folds back onto itself in opposite order to be neatly and comprehensively pieced back together and the preceding loose ends tied up into a climactic ending that is altogether brilliant, inventive, and concise. This is literature at its best combining fragments of Science Fiction, Fantasy, drama, mystery, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and the human condition together into a highly entertaining and spell-binding read. Cloud Atlas is a magnificently crafted and indelible work of fiction. Thank you Mr. Mitchell, it is definitely one of my top ten island reads.

I have never read any of Mr. Mitchell’s work before but I certainly will now… look out here I come, credit card in hand!

Recommended for, well, everyone…

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

David Mitchell Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Extended Movie Trailer

Huffington Post Review of Cloud Atlas

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