Where to begin with Cloud Atlas?
This is such a wonderful book, on so many different levels. David Mitchell takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride throught the past, present and future in an operatic opus of literary genius. It is only Mitchell's third book, and already he is demonstrating the deft hand and compositional skill of a literary master. Trust me on this - if Mitchell maintains his talent there will be much indeed to look forward to in the coming years from this author.
Cloud Atlas is a very cleverly structured book. Essentially, what you get are six stories about six completely different people told at different times in history. What Mitchell does is make the first half of the book an introduction to these characters and stories, only to leave off halfway through the telling to move forward to the next story. By the sixth story, (and middle of the book), you are left eager to discover the fate of the previous five in the remaining half of the book.
The stories are about a reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific Ocean in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a dubious parasitic existence in Belgium between the First and Second World Wars; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; an ageing vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; the testimony of a genetically-engineered dinery server on Death Row; and Zachry, a Pacific islander witnessing the death throws of science and civilisation.
Ultimately, this is not a book about hope. One is not instilled with confidence in the precarious maintenance of humanity and civilisation for the future. The message is bleak. One of the themes of Cloud Atlas is that mankind achieves civilisation and order through greed, selfishness and desire for more; trade and organisation by default cause organisation and structure. Mitchell argues that this expansion of civilisation is unsustainable and ultimately doomed because the overall all-consuming desire for more and more just cannot be satisfied. Everything has a limit. Indeed, with so much hanging in the balance, today's leaders would do well to study the facts regarding the demise of civilisations throughout history.
Cloud Atlas also explores the theme of survival - how in a dark, dangerous and risky world we must all be survivors. That we are all tested in life, in one way or another, and only the strong survive.
The stories are cleverly interconnected in a subtle way. The Wikipedia article about the book claims that one of the themes is reincarnation and that all six characters are the same reincarnated being over time. I did wonder about this while reading the book but was unsure whether that was the purpose or if it is more clever than that. On balance it's either about reincarnation or the interconnectedness of everything. The reader is left to make their own mind up about this. Having thought about the reincarnation idea though, I do not see how a journalist in 70's America could reincarnate into an aged publisher in the 1980's. It just doesn't make sense as a theory based on the books detail.
This theme is carried through as each character has a comet-shaped birthmark. I would suggest that this does not indicate reincarnation but implies they are all similar souls or genetically linked in some way.
One or two reviewers on Amazon complained that the sixth story and middle section of the book - Sloosha's Crossing - was too confusing in wording and difficult to read or understand. I must say that this is just not true. It is no more difficult to read than the text of the whole of the True History of the Kelly Gang. If anything, I found this easier. Mitchell is trying to capture how the passage of time and isolation of being cut-off from civilisation leads to a gradual morphing of language into new forms of speech and vocabulary, and he succeeds in this.
Another complaint I read on Amazon was that the book was a 'flawed' masterpiece. Again, I disagree, not least because those describing it as flawed offer no evidence to validate their argument. They got one thing right though: it is a masterpiece.
The only trouble I had with Cloud Atlas was the problem I have with some other literary books. The sheer density of wording and structure means that you must concentrate hard to absorb the meaning of each sentence, and therefore, it can become easy to get bogged down by the book. This is not really a complaint, as Mitchell is one of the most inventive authors I've read in quite some time and he cleverly paints with words. Just a niggle I have that might not be if my IQ were perhaps a little higher.
I wouldn't recommend Cloud Atlas to just anybody. Despite the exciting premise and ambition of its themes, Cloud Atlas can be tough going and I imagine it might not appeal to a few people. However, if you are on the lookout for trying literature that is different, unique and challenging, you couldn't go far wrong with Cloud Atlas.
I give Cloud Atlas;
9/10 (it lost 1 point due to the treacly density of the text in places, but this is a minor gripe).