Book Review: Cloud Atlas

A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

As N.D. Wilson says,

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Cloud Atlas”

  1. Wow. Beautiful review. What a joy in this stage of motherhood to get some of the best book recommendations from my own son. I love you.

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