by David Mitchell
About the only review I've ever read for Cloud Atlas that I now know comes close to doing it justice is a tweet from Ayelet Waldman, which I must paraphrase for it was a while ago: "I wish I could re-experience the feeling of reading Cloud Atlas for the first time." The first time blows your damn mind; the first time is what you hope will be the first of many times. I honestly don't remember when a book last made me want to start at the beginning immediately after finishing its last page. I will likely be one of the many people who feel they lack the adequate vocabulary to concisely encapsulate this book, but oh, I'll certainly ramble on and try. Cloud Atlas is a marvel and David Mitchell is a genius, and no, I don't feel that I'm throwing around the terms loosely. I wanted to eat this book, it was so deliciously composed.
To call the six stories within the novel interlinked undersells their connection. What at first seems to be tales stretched across time — mid 1800s Pacific ship life, 1930s music composition in Bruges, roughly modern England and California, engineered Korea so far in the future, and Hawaii even farther beyond — are more like sections of a map folded atop each other. Time bleeds and blends into the different locales, with each at least peripherally aware of the story against which they lie.
Mitchell weaves together so many narrative motifs, and yet they never feel heavy-handed. Different methods of communication shape each story in a way that best suits their time, and on reflection, play into the larger idea of progress, and what sacrifices are worth making in the name of endless innovation.
The opener, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" comes across as though Ewing has subconscious knowledge of eventual publication. Still, the details are not thoroughly rendered solely for the benefit of others. With limited methods of record, how else is a person to fully remember their experience? Ewing has boarded a ship headed from colonized islands into San Francisco, where the gold rush is in full effect. The ship's crew mostly act as goods transport from the colonies to the United States, and as was the time, people have no trouble speculating about the inferior mental capabilities of the tribes they've "civilized."
The Moriori's generosity was rewarded when Cpt. Harewood returned from New Zealand with another four hundred Maori. Now the strangers proceeded to lay claim to Chatham by takahi, a Maori ritual transliterated as "Walking the Land to Possess the Land." Old Rēkohu was thus partitioned & the Moriori informed they were now Maori vassals. In early December, when some dozen Aboriginals protested, they were casually slain with tomahawks. The Maori proved themselves apt pupils of the English in "the dark arts of colonization."
It is worth noting that up until that point, the Moriori had not engaged in war in over six centuries, and Ewing wonders if the islands were "closer to More's Utopia than our States of Progress governed by war-hungry princelings in Versailles & Vienna, Washington & Westminster?"
The journal ends mid-sentence, right as Ewing is starting to feel his mysterious illness getting worse. From there, we're reading "Letters from Zedelghem," addressed to a man called Sixsmith, written by a young composer on the lam named Robert Frobisher. He's broken promises and owes a slew of money all over England, and he has run off to Bruges in the hopes of becoming the once-great composer Vyvyan Ayrs's transcriber/assistant/mentee, his "amanuensis," as he puts it. The older man's health has been in decline, and while Frobisher admires the man's music and hates its absence, he of course wants to use the experience to help himself. Writing to his close friend and sometimes lover, Frobisher has an eye on posterity, and so his way with words shows off a bit, but also in the same way that one might try to convince their loved ones that their lives are exciting or that their misadventures will be worthwhile in the end. Letters are also a way to pass the time when one feels so very alone.
Frobisher falls in well with Ayrs, but also starts an ill-advised relationship with his wife, Jocasta, while also managing conflicting thoughts for their daughter, Eva.
E. walked off to the stables, her whip swishing in the air like a lioness's tail. Went off to the music room to forget my dismal performance in some devilish Liszt. Can normally rattle off an excellent La Prédication aux Oiseaux, but not last Friday. Thank God E.'s leaving for Switzerland tomorrow. If she ever found out about her mother's nighttime visits — well, doesn't bear thinking about. Why is it I never met a boy I couldn't twist round my finger (not only my finger) but the women of Zedelghem seem to best me every time?
Completely changing in tone, Mitchell jumps into "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery." It's a straight-up thriller, complete with a young reporter hot on the trail of a nuclear power company's safety violations, and the silencing of those who might point out those flaws. It is divided into easily digestible short chapters filled with jaded co-workers, italicized internal monologue, double agents, a hit man... Hell, there's even a malfunctioning elevator scene in which Luisa Rey meets Dr. Rufus Sixsmith.
The puzzle solving escapism is exactly the sort of peril one enjoys reading on vacation or during a summer matinee. Bad behavior meets tenacious good. The power plant, Seaboard Incorporated, insists that their new plant on Swannekke Island will revolutionize energy consumption and availability, but:
Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jake's mock conviction. "He'd [Sixsmith] written a report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting for Federal Power Commission approval. When it's approved, Seaboard can license the design for the domestic and overseas market — the government contracts alone would mean a stream of revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith's role was to give the project his imprimatur, but he hadn't read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response, Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence."
Ah, but wait! Mitchell wants to simultaneously amp up and dial down the bewilderment. He can write suspense without it reading, as the next narrator puts it, "in neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay."
No, in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," our title man will most certainly not be running into the fight. In fact, he's headed north to Hull, precisely so he can avoid the thuggish family of the dead memoir writer of Knuckle Sandwich. Cavendish has profited massively from this book as its editor and publisher, and these brothers aren't going to be the only creditors looking for him. One halfway forgets that they were just reading the voice of a young reporter, so steeped in "curmudgeonly middle-aged Englishman" Cavendish is:
Temple of the Rat King. Ark of the Soot God. Sphincter of Hades. Yes, King's Cross Station, where, according to Knuckle Sandwich, a blow job costs only five quid — any of the furthest-left three cubicles in the men's lavvy downstairs, twenty-four hours a day. I called Mrs. Latham to explain I would be in Prague for a three-week meeting with Václav Havel, a lie whose consequences stuck with me like herpes. Mrs. Latham wished me bon voyage. She could handle the Hogginses. Mrs. Latham could handle the Ten Plagues of Egypt. I don't deserve her, I know it.
Of course, as the title would indicate, not all goes to plan. Cavendish speaks like a person telling a story to party guests after the fact. He uses the word "ruddy" — as in "No, that sign ruddy well did send me to this counter!" — what seems like every other paragraph, but instead of being irritating, it somehow comes off as amusing. At first, it's hard to see where this story fits in with the rest, apart from the tangential manuscript connection, but all becomes more clear later.
Secrets, expected behavior, willful ignorance in the name of progress — all of these notions intensify by "An Orison of Sonmi-451." What takes place is an interview between what is called an "xpedience," who records history, and a "fabricant," a human clone genetically programmed to serve a specific function — in this case, a server in a McDonald's-like restaurant. Somni-451 is considered a criminal, for reasons one has to be patient to discover.
The xecs at the Ministry of Unanimity insisted that you, as a heretic, had nothing to offer corpocracy's archives but sedition and blasphemy. Genomicists, for whom you are a holy grail, as you know, pulled levers on the Juche to have Rule 54.iii — the right to archivism — enforced against Unanimity's wishes, but they hadn't reckoned on senior archivists watching your trial and judging your case too hazardous to risk their reputations — and pensions — on. Now, I'm only eighth-stratum at my uninfluential ministry, but when I petitioned to orison your testimony, approval was granted before I had the chance to come to my senses. My friends told me I was crazy.
So you are gambling on your career on this interview?
… That is the truth of the matter, yes.
Your frankness is refreshing after so much duplicity.
A duplicitous archivist wouldn't be much use to future historians, in my view.
This might have been my favorite part of the book. The language, the science, the whole world that Mitchell has created never, ever seemed strained. It did not feel derivative of anything else, book or film, and his word choice? Perfect. One does not need to have an extensive vocabulary to understand what is going on because even if I did not know that "orison" was an actual word (and not a creation like the way in which he defines "soap" in this world), I got what he meant, and I've since read up on its relation to the word "prayer." What makes me want to dive back into the book is partly these little bits of language, all the subtle bits Mitchell has included that further enhance what he's created. (I've fought the urge to start rereading the book roughly one hundred and eleventy-blue times since starting this review.)
Pushing the futuristic motifs and language even further is "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After," in which the old man Zachry tells of his childhood, bringing everything back to oral storytelling. Set after an event referred to as "The Fall," Zachry is one of the few humans left on Earth who meets a mysterious older woman, a "Prescient" named Meronym, who knows much about what happened before that Fall. People live in basic huts and exist largely technology-free as they farm and avoid neighboring hostile tribes. Zachry does not entirely trust Meronym at first.
I'd got a bit o' the brave by now an' I asked our visitor why Prescients with all their high Smart'n'all want to learn 'bout us Valleysmen? What could we poss'bly teach her what she din't know? The learnin' mind is the livin' mind, Meronym said, an' any sort o' Smart is truesome Smart, old Smart or new, high Smart or low. No un but me see the arrows o' flatt'ry them words fired, or how this crafty spyer was usin' our ign'rance to fog her true 'tentions, so I follered my first question with this pokerer: But you Prescients got more greatsome'n'mighty Smart'n this Hole World, yay? Oh, so slywise she picked her words! We got more'n the tribes o' Ha-Why, less'n Old Uns b'fore the Fall. See? Don't say a hole lot does it, nay?
The reason why I go into this whole long plot summary/text example is that I just enjoy seeing the variance between the writing styles all laid out, not to mention the subtle connections to the previous stories. Why is it that I tired of heavy dialect in Huckleberry Finn, but ate it up in this book? Was it because it was only one section, a mere 70 pages? Because I was already in love with this book having read the previous 238 pages? Because after reading Mitchell's most recent book last year, I already wanted to hug his face off? It's probably all of these things. (That and a cranky once-upon-a-time high-schooler averse to classics is unlikely to pay too much attention to Huck, I reckon.)
"Sloosha's Crossin'" occurs in the middle of the book and resolves entirely in one spectacular piece. From there, we move backwards, listening again to the orison of Somni-451, then back still until we reach Ewing again. Threads come together, holy shit moments abound. In his cover blurb, Michael Chabon compares the book to "a series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes," which is quite apt. I feel like there are endless packages to unwrap within these pages. Not everyone could write a book like Cloud Atlas, never mind do it so well.
Honestly, we know I could keep going on. I could talk more about the idea of progress, our humanity, our unruly way of cutting off our noses to spite our faces, and also the great beauty and interconnectedness of the world. The remarkable unseen energy that floats through us all is endlessly fascinating to me, and should other readers of this book want to talk specifics, book club-style (side of wine-soaked aha! Moments optional), you've got the comment section right here.
Somewhat predictably, I'm going to have to resist the urge to fall down the David Mitchell back catalog rabbit hole for a little while longer while I move through other reading piles I've accumulated. Three other novels of his await, and perhaps its better that I break up the bouts of online gushing. They will come though, and I will enjoy every moment.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.
This post also appeared on Persephone Magazine on March 1, 2012.