Every now and then a book comes along that grabs you by the throat and threatens to never let go. It’s uncommon and infuriating and wonderful. When you’re reading, nothing else exists and when you’re finished, just thinking about the book sends shivers through your body again. Does no one else feel this? If they don’t, then it’s time they picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Cloud Atlas seems simple: there are six narrators each with his own memoir/diary-type section. The first is set in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in a not-so-distant dystopian future, and the last on a post-apocalyptic island inhabited by a tribal people. The stories are connected in that the next narrator is reading the diary/memoir/autobiography of the previous one. In the first half of the novel, each narrative stops abruptly, and in the second half of the novel, each story continues and they appear in descending order, tying up loose ends and completing the story (for the most part). And just in case this wasn’t a bit too confusing already, five of the six narrators are related in some way [I don’t want to spoil it!].
There are many reasons why I loved this novel and why I think about it all the time. Obviously, with six narrators, the narrative has a lot of opportunities to become confusing, but Mitchell is such a nuanced and detailed writer that no confusion occurs. Not only does the author give each character a distinct voice, personality, and unmistakable speech habits, but also, each section of the novel is a completely different genre altogether. These aspects of the novel, coupled with the vibrance of the many settings and the elegance of the prose, elevates this story from gimmicky to profound. That’s why I was so disappointed with the movie: they kept the raw bones of the story but stripped it of what made it powerful–tragedy, loss of humanity, and humankind’s capacity for cruel and absolute power, both over the Earth and over others. They made it into a kitschy, easily-digestible story with a neat and frankly, a laughable ending. Cloud Atlas the novel is far superior and far more entrancing.
The first “novella” is the story of an American notary making his way back to San Francisco on a treacherous journey from the Chatham Islands; the second is that of a roguish bisexual composer writing to his former lover; in the third, a feminist investigative reporter in the 70s faces the scoop of a lifetime and sexism at every turn; in the fourth an aging vanity publisher finds himself [hilariously] incarcerated in a nursing home; in the fifth, a clone in a corpocratic Korea regales her executioner with stories of how she became self-aware; and in the sixth and final story, a tribe member in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii becomes acquainted with a “civilized” anthropologist.
Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry–the names all evoke in me affection and nostalgia and even vestiges of the fear I felt when reading. These are the books that stick with you and change you.
This book is about many things, and to list them all would be foolish and simplistic. Indeed, each story can hypothetically stand independent of the others, so that it’s like reading six distinct novellas, each with vivid characters and its own “point,” so to speak. But a common thread that runs through the narrative(s) is humanity’s relation to others and to the Earth. The first narrator–and the last–is a man named Adam who owes his life to a freed slave. The experience he had with the freed slave causes great changes in Adam’s philosophy and he ruminates on the structure of his current society and, essentially, how we may define humanity and how all of mankind may relate to each other:
If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
Is this the doom written within our nature?
This passage, on the second-to-last page of the novel, directly involves the reader, forcing us to answer some difficult questions about humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, kindness and subjugation. Implied on every page of this novel is the fact that people need other people to survive, and not just in societies or communities, but by actively practicing equality, compassion, and generosity. Colonialism destroys the colonizers and the colonized. A society built on consumerism strips away what makes us human and replaces it with a need for things. Indulging our basest instincts–power, greed, cruelty–can only result in the total destruction of mankind.
My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?
And the very last line of the novel reminds us that all of us, as humans, are connected in a vast web of future, past, and present, and that we are all beholden to each other to create a better world to live in.
This novel has become popular recently because of the film adaptation but I want to warn you: stay far, far away from the movie. It’s sappy and childish and the book is a world of its own. Many worlds, actually. Reviewing this book is like reviewing six, just like reading this book is like reading six. If Mitchell had released each section as a short story and fragmented each the way he did in the novel but staggered their releases, we would have a Harry Potter–release-night kind of hysteria on our hands, that’s how addictive these stories are. And it would have made a helluva marketing scheme.
Mitchell, D. (2004) Cloud Atlas. New York, NY: Random House