EPS Review #150 - Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas: A Novel, by David Mitchell, Hodder & Stoughton, 2004, 529pp.

My friend Paul recommended this several times, so I chose it for my book club. The other members had not read it, and professed to like it a lot. The club met at my house this time, and Patricia's passionfruit pavlova probably helped everyone's fine feelings.

David Mitchell is very good at plot and tone, just as confident with a novel of European manners, a nuclear thriller, a sea diary, or science fiction. Curiously, he stitches all these stories together in the pattern ABCDEFEDCBA, so that your interest quickens in each one and -- slam! -- you have to push down the stack and learn new characters and situations. The stories are related: there are recurrent birthspots (hints at reincarnation), and other motifs, plus each character is somehow reading or watching the protagonist of the previous section. The sections also progress in time, passing the present in "D" (about an acerbic editor imprisoned in an old folks' home), continuing through a future where North Korea reigns supreme, and ending in the centerpiece set in Hawaii. This part is two of my unfavorite literary things: post-apocalyptic and in dialect. But I managed it, and got ready for the big payoff of finishing the other five stories, and perhaps a mind-boggling tie-it-all-together finale.

There isn't one, really. There is a theme about dominance, and maybe the meek inheriting the earth, whatever might be left of it. But the book does make you think, and turn back to previous sections, and generally work harder than normal on a novel. This might irritate some people, but I liked it. I don't remember if it was Archie or Tim who suggested that the form ABCDEFABCDE might have worked better, since "A", The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, is the weakest story, while "E", An Orison of Sonmi, is the strongest. Sonmi has echoes of Brave New World and Soylent Green -- which latter story is referred to in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish ("D"). Mitchell does a lot of those cross-references, and the very form of the book is referred to in Robert Frobisher's sextet in Letters from Zedelghem ("B"). Archie fancied Luisa Rey in the nuclear-protest thriller ("C"), and her name must be a reference to The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Oh, and each section is in a different format: diary, letters, interrogation, etc.

I should mention that parts of the book are quite funny:

Temple of the Rat King, Ark of the Soot God, Sphincter of Hades. Yes, King's Cross Station,...

Mitchell spent many years in Japan. I had previously noticed Number9Dream, but didn't read it out of an aversion to Mob stories. It's on my list now, though. This interview with Mitchell is interesting. And so are the peaceful Moriori.

Neil wrote: I got bored and didn't have patience with this book - life's too short to retry

Paul wrote: #9 is good

the thing I really liked about the book is, as you say, the domination theme. The entire book seems so clever and interesting and smart, but when you really get done with it, you realize that it contains a truly profound dislike of any group of human beings size > 1. The fact that such a subtle theme could be buried in such an otherwise self-consciously written book was one of the two things that made me think this guy is a great writer (the other, of course, being the amazing malleability of his voice).

Glad you enjoyed it.

Tom wrote: my unfavorite literary things are serial killers and amnesia. [ As for working hard at a book] That's sort of how I feel about early Max Beerbohm. Almost every page has a new word for me, from hoyden to houri. [ As for aversion to Mob stories ] Me too!