Chronicles of a writer abroad

Book Discussion: Cloud Atlas

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We are riding a heat wave here in Zürich. It’s our third day of temperatures above 30. My brain is a little scrambled, it feels as though an oven door is being opened in your face whenever you step out into the sun, and — horror of horrors — the chocolate is melting! I cannot abide chocolate-melting weather.

On the upside, though, our city has a lake that is clean enough to swim in (what a concept!), and this provides some relief. We were in it yesterday, and will probably be in it again soon. Today (she said with a grimace), we run instead.

But…I came here to talk about something else, didn’t I? Oh, right — Cloud Atlas. Notice I didn’t call this post a book recommendation, but instead a book discussion. The fact is, I do recommend this book, but only if you answer “yes” to the following criteria:

– you’re willing to invest a significant chunk of time in reading a sprawling, 526-page novel

– you’re not bothered by a novel containing six different stories told by six different narrators

-you think it’s worth reading a work that occasionally rambles if the author is an incomparable stylist (i.e., he can write like nobody’s business)

Intrigued? Then I’ll tell you a little more. Cloud Atlas, written by British author David Mitchell and published in 2004, is a Russian doll of sorts. It begins in the mid-19th century, with a young man embarking on a journey from the South Pacific to Hawaii by ship. Just as Adam Ewing’s story starts to gain momentum, it cuts off literally in mid-sentence, and we are launched into an epistolary tale — another young man named Robert Frobisher has come to Belgium in the 1930s, fleeing a previous life in which he ran into some kind of money trouble and was disowned by his father. A fledgling composer, he manages to obtain work as an amanuensis for an ailing idol of his; he writes letters to his lover, a man named Sixsmith, describing his experience working and living in the composer’s chateau. Interrupting Frobisher’s story is one about a reporter named Luisa Rey who works to expose the danger of a new nuclear facility in the U.S. circa 1970. Her tale is then occluded by that of Timothy Cavendish, who lives in present-day Britain, and has been consigned to a nursing home, he feels, as a result of a joke. He battles to convince the staff and fellow patients of this; when he cannot, his mind becomes fixed on escape. Cavendish’s ordeal is then  overlapped by the testimony of Sonmi~451, a “server fabricant,” or  humanlike but “soulless” organism genomed to fit the precise needs of a fast-food corporation in a dystopic future Korea. Finally, before we can hear all that Sonmi has to say, her story is cut off by Zachry, who is one of several surviving human tribes living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. We get to hear his whole story at once, before the dolls are nestled back in again…the reader is led back to Sonmi, Timothy, Luisa, Robert, and finally, Adam, the seafarer, as each of their stories is put to bed in turn.

This book reminded me very much of a workout I used to do on the treadmill. I realize this is a strange thing to say, but it’s true. My former workout consisted of increasing the treadmill’s speed from 7.0 to 8.0 — every 2 minutes, I would increase by an increment of 0.1 (to 7.1, 7.2, etc.), and after running 8.0 for 2 minutes, I’d start reversing back to 7.0 using the same increments of 0.1. I’d get up and back down in 42 minutes. I hated it and loved it.

This book has the same structure, and I hated and loved it in the same ways. In the first half, I was annoyed whenever the level changed — it seemed like I was just getting comfortable where I was. And what I hated most were the minutes spent at the top — Zachry’s story, in this case, which was the only one presented in complete form (this character, who narrates in some kind of futuristic yokel language, is singlehandedly responsible for causing me to spend a month reading this book — I kept putting it down during his part). But then, when the other stories started to close up, I felt like I was flying through them — each seemed almost more enjoyable than the last.

So, the book drags in places — at least it did for me. I did not love all of the characters equally, though I think the book is worth a read purely for the two that I really fell in love with (Frobisher and Cavendish). What is to be admired is how the author creates so many different “main” characters with such distinct voices. See if these don’t hook you:

Adam Ewing: “Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”

Robert Frobisher: “One can spot a fellow musician in any context, even among policemen. The craziest-eyed, unruliest-haired  one, either hungry-skinny or jovial portly.”

Timothy Cavendish: “You can see it, can’t you, dear Reader? I was a man in a horror B-movie asylum. The more I ranted and raged, the more I proved that I was exactly where I should be.”

Luisa Rey: “Where there’s bluster, thinks Luisa, there’s duplicity.”

Sonmi~451: “I have no earliest memories, Archivist. Every day of my life in Papa Song’s was as uniform as the fries that we vended.”

Zachry: “I creeped slywise’n’speedy but late I was, yay, way too late.”

I also enjoyed the author’s cleverness in mirroring his own story within his story (a meta-narrative of sorts). Frobisher, for example, describes his grand idea for a symphony, which sounds eerily familiar, thusly:

“In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished…”

I think I’ve now said enough about the book to either have turned you onto or put you off of the idea of it. The one question you may still be asking is whether the sundry characters of the novel are linked in some way. The answer: of course. But you’ll have to read it to find out how.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? If so, I’d love to hear your impressions! And, as always, please feel free to make your own book recommendations below.


One thought on “Book Discussion: Cloud Atlas

  1. Pingback: Recent adventures in reading | Milchtoast

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