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Monday, May 10, 2010

Masterpieces of the 00's decade: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

David Mitchell at Wikipedia
Order Cloud Atlas HERE

INTRODUCTION: A while ago I posted a list with my top novels of the 2000-2009 decade and I plan to review some of them in time. Since David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" which impressed me a lot too, is published this week in the UK, with US publication following in June, I decided to review "Cloud Atlas" now and the new novel either towards the end of May or in June.

Once in a while there is a novel that makes big waves and while it sounds something I may enjoy, I am not sure until I browse it. Cloud Atlas was like that in 2004 and once I opened it, I just got hooked and I knew I *had* to read it then.

An unusually structured novel in six episodes that are each divided into half that follow one another chronologically, followed by the last half of each episode that follow one another backward, so the middle of the novel consists of the concluding tale, while both the beginning and the end of the novel deal with the first tale, Cloud Atlas got a superb US cover to match its content too.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Cloud Atlas" stands at a little more than 500 pages with the structure mentioned above. I will discuss each tale and how they link one into the next below; each of the six stories comprising the novel is quite different from the rest and range from travel/adventure historical fiction to post-apocalyptic sf with most of them narrated in convincing first person voices that have a wide range.

The chosen point of bisecting each of the first five stories varies from mid-sentence to more natural stopping points and the experience of being immersed into a given period and story mode only to abruptly jump to something quite different is part of the novel's attraction, though of course you can always choose to read each story as a whole.

Imaginative fiction of power and beauty.

ANALYSIS: If there is a general theme to the novel, I would say that it is about the fragility of civilization and the easy descent into cruelty and barbarism if we stop nurturing it since for whatever reasons humanity cannot let go of the "strong prey on the weak" mentality; despite their different background and life experiences, each of the six protagonists can be mostly described as well intentioned but naive, however they think about themselves.

"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"
Told as the journal entries of a devout and idealistic American notary on a journey back to California from a legal mission to Australia about 1850, this tale that opens and ends the book is a tour de force that will hook you from the first page by the "goodness" of the narrator who is appalled at the treatment of the natives of the South Pacific by the Europeans and the more warlike locals; of course his essential naivety invites predators, so will his faith in human goodness prevail? The last page of the story (and the book) is one for the ages and illuminates the whole novel.

"Letters from Zedelghem"
This tale is told by ne'er-do-well young English musician Robert Frobisher in letters to an accomplice who helps him forge this and that; forced in 1931 to take an unwilling extended continental sojourn, Robert ends up near Bruges as amanuensis to a reclusive and almost blind elderly English musician Vyvyan Ayrs who has a much younger wife Jocasta van Crommelynck and a teenaged daughter Eva. Frobisher, while very interested in getting musical education from the famous musician and maybe even inspiration for the composition that will make his name and to be titled the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" is also interested in stuff like stealing valuable books from Ayrs and replacing them with forged copies and maybe even seducing Eva or Jocasta or both... One such book turns out to be Adam Ewing's journal.

Another very powerful story with its twists and turns like the previous one and with a quite unexpected ending.

"Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"
The only third person narration of the novel, a journalist investigates wrong doings and corruption at a nuclear power plant and its parent company in California of the mid 70's. Written in the noir style, this tale links with the previous one as Luisa Rey meets the correspondent of Robert Frobisher and gets the bundle of letters from him. The one story that I liked the least, maybe the noir setting, maybe the third person narration which disintermediates the tale from the reader, but somehow it read less sure and complete as the previous two.

"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"
In this episode the author reintroduces a minor character from his earlier novel "Ghostwritten" though here Timothy Cavendish who is that controversial bete-noir or writer's best friend - "vanity press" publisher - takes center stage in a darkly funny story set in the England of novel's time. After he receives the following letter:

"containing a MS titled Half-Lives—lousy name for a work of fiction—and subtitled The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Lousier and lousier. Its lady author, one dubiously named Hilary V Hush, began her covering letter with the following: “When I was nine my mom took me to Lourdes to pray for my bed-wetting to be cured. Imagine my surprise when not Saint Bernadette but Alain-Fournier appeared in a vision that night.”"

and some unsavory business acquaintances want to get in touch regarding some of Timothy's unfulfilled promises of bestsellerdom for one of his clients, the publisher goes on the run only to find himself confined in a nursing home...

Breathing energy from each page, this story is the most vigorous and page turning of the book, while being quite funny at the same time.

"An Orison Of Sonmi-451"
In the first sf-nal tale of the novel, which is both the subtlest and the most surprising one, we meet Sonmi-451 a waiter clone in a near future dystopian Korea who realizes the horrible truth about her condition in life and rebels for freedom.

Getting an inspiration from an ancient movie about an ordinary person called Timothy Cavendish flying for his life, getting confined and escaping by his daring and wits, Sonmi-451's attempt to take her control of her life ends in tragedy as we know from the beginning of the story since this one is told as an interrogatory before her execution, but things are not as simple as they seem and "An Orison Of Sonmi-451" pays close reading...

The "orison" of the title is a device that allows a holographic movie to be played and Sonmi-451's tale preserved as such will somehow get into the hands of the last hero Zach'ry, a primitive tribesman in a post-apocalyptic future.

"Sloosha's Crossin' An Ev'rythin' After"
Both the chronological ending of the novel and its middle, "Sloosha's Crossin' An Ev'rythin' After" is narrated by Zach'ry in quite a jargon as the title indicates; while I am usually not a fan of this kind of jargon in books, this story worked very well and it was worth the effort in "decoding" it. After most of humanity dies during an unspecified catastrophe called "the fall", civilization has only a tenuous hold with the last remnants of the advanced technological society barely resisting the "new barbarians" attempts to loot and kill them. Zach'ry who starts as another young and well intentioned if "ignorant" tribesman, has his life turned upside down by the orison and by contact with the last advanced tech survivors...

"Cloud Atlas" is considerably more than the sum of its parts and a novel that deserves all the acclaim it got.


Anonymous said...

My bookclub read this and we all (for the first time) agreed that it was the best book we'd read as a group - we've been reading one book per month for three years now...

Liviu said...

This novel has a few more subtleties I did not enter into since some are a matter of authorial intent which is always tricky (the reincarnation theme for example), while due to its format it has quite a lot of places you can "get into it" as opposed to a more unitary novel.


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