Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.