Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
When the review in The New York Times stated, “it is not unheard of for a novelist of exceptional talent to write a deliberately difficult book,” I knew that Cloud Atlas was a novel to be read with a highlighter and a dictionary close by.
As benefits a two-time finalist for the Booker Prize, David Mitchell’s novel is predictably brilliant. That Cloud Atlas is also entertaining surprised me. This is a thought provoking book, the enjoyment of which is greatly enhanced by a discussion with fellow readers.
The book contains six stories set in various corners of the earth and covering about 1000 years. Each story is written in a distinctive style, and with the exception of story six is told in two parts. The stories are told in ascending and then descending order: 1,2,3 4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1. (Believe me; it helps to know this in advance.)
The first story takes place in the Chatham Islands off the coast of New Zealand in the 19th C. The protagonist is Adam Ewing, an American attorney and an innocent abroad. From New Zealand, we journey to 1930’s Belgium where a young bisexual composer named Robert Frobisher apprentices with a famous master. In 1970’s California, an investigative journalist named Luisa Rey doggedly pursues a corporate scandal. Present day London is the setting for the story of book editor Tim Cavendish. Tale five depicts a sci fi future in which a fabricated person (“fabricant”) yearns to be human. (I usually hate science fiction, but this may have been my favorite of the six stories.) Tale six depicts a grim post apocalyptic world.
The style of each story is as different as the locales. Just as I got used to the ponderous journal entries of Adam, we move to Robert’s histrionic letters, to the cliff- hanger crime fiction prose of Luisa Rey.
Despite the diversity, Cloud Atlas does not read like a collection of short stories. There are plenty of connectors between the tales, both literal and thematic.
This rather complicated structure begs the question, is Mitchell just showing off his literary virtuosity, or does he have something profound to say?
A little of both, I think, but worth the ride. Read the book; I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.