Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

I'm not typically one to write reviews of books, movies or TV shows, but the book that I just finished was fairly interesting, and I felt it merited a review.

I first heard about "Cloud Atlas" roughly one week ago when a friend of mine showed me a trailer for the upcoming film adaptation (slated to hit theaters Oct. 26).  The trailer caught my attention: from what I could tell, the plot followed six different stories from vastly different times and places that seemed to overlap and connect in mysterious ways.  Plus, a superb cast, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, appeared to give the obviously unique story some traction (at least based on the short clips that were included in the trailer).

I discovered later, courtesy of a wikipedia search, that the movie was based on a 2004 novel by a British author, David Mitchell.  Mitchell's story intrigued me, as he had spent years living in Japan, met and married a Japanese women and eventually settled in Ireland with his wife and children.  Additionally, the book seemed highly acclaimed, so I decided to give it a read.

The book begins circa 1849 with the journal of a young American notary, Adam Ewing, as he begins the long journey home from the South Pacific on a small ship.  Out of all iterations of the English language that might now be considered archaic, mid-1800s is my absolute favorite: Civil War-era journals, letters, speeches and newspapers are precisely written, yet always with colorful description and sharp wit and Mitchell mimics the patois masterfully.
At one point, the journal is interrupted, and the reader is brought into a series of letters written from a mansion in Belgium by young English composer Robert Frobisher in 1931.  Frobisher has just become an assistant to an ailing, aging composer and writes about the struggles he endures as a poor, put-upon assistant to his friend (and implied lover) Dr. Rufus Sixsmith.  Frobisher, it turns out, had discovered Ewing's journal in his new home and started reading it.
The letters are interrupted and the scene shifts to the 1970s, as journalist Luisa Rey attempts to uncover a scandal that could go to the very top of a Nuclear Energy Corporation (for which Rufus Sixsmith works).  This story, written in the style of a bad detective novel, follows Rey as she gets closer to discovering the truth and simultaneously puts her life in peril.
At a cliffhanger moment, the story is interrupted and a new story begins in present-day England.  This story follows Timothy Cavendish, a crotchety publishing executive who goes on the run after a jailed client's brothers demand a cut of the profits from their brother's book.  Cavendish happens to read the Luisa Rey novel at various points, as it has been submitted to his firm for publication.
The story then jumps to Korea in what is meant to be a not-too-distant future (perhaps 100 or 200 years).  A clone named Sonmi~451 (a "fabricant" designed specifically to be a waitress at a large fast-food chain) is being interviewed prior to her execution for developing the intelligence to lead an insurrection.  At one point, Sonmi mentions watching the film adaptation of Cavendish's misadventures.
The final story takes place in a post-Apocalyptic Hawaii in the far-distant future, and is narrated in the storytelling tongue of a tribal goatherd named Zachry, who describes his encounter with the Prescients, a civilized people from across the sea, and who happens to worship Sonmi as a goddess.  Unlike the other stories, this one is told in full without interruption, concluding the chronological narrative.  But, the book is only halfway done at this point and goes on to revisit and finish each story in descending order, from Sonmi to Cavendish to Luisa Rey to Frobisher, and finally back to Adam Ewing.  The book concludes in the Pacific, in 1849 with the end of Ewing's journal.

"Cloud Atlas" is a valiant undertaking, epic in its scope, yet intimate in its characterization; the words are delightfully and skillfully crafted and each story feels authentic to its genre.  However, all of these wonderful features more or less end with themselves.  The book and its author clearly strive to be something new, something transcendent and because the style of the book succeeds hands down in this regard, I built up my hopes for a profound message befitting the end of such a grand adventure.  Yet, the book's ultimate conclusion is somewhat of a whimper, when one considers the medium: Ewing reflects on the greed in the hearts of man, a greed that he believes will ultimately be the undoing of mankind.  Considering that Mitchell puts this same thought in several other character's heads at various points, it feels tired and obvious to the reader (though perhaps not so to Ewing, to whom the future is a blank slate, unwritten and mysterious).  Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad ending, or a bad message to leave in the reader's mind--it just feels flimsy considering the innovation and intelligence of the writing and storytelling up to that point.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys writing.  As much as I was let down by the ultimate conclusion and substance of the story, the author's mastery of style and language is to be commended.  Evidently, Mitchell spent months researching and reading through old letters, journals and diaries to perfect his imitation of the 1849 diction and 1931 diction.  His skill and brains as a writer are obvious throughout the journey; it's just too bad they run out of gas before the destination.

Overall: 8.5/10

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