Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell

When David Mitchell's newest book, the The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was released, I read an excellent review of it in the New Yorker, which spent a good chunk of its space praising Mitchell's other novels.  I wasn't familiar with the writer, and have had a long-standing prejudice against British novelists (which I now find myself reappraising), but whoever wrote that review really made me want to try one of his books.  Shortly after that, I found a cheap copy of Black Swan Green, and really liked it.  The book that most intrigued me from that review, though, was Cloud Atlas.

Cloud Atlas is really six  mildly interconnected short stories, but they are structured rather like Russian nesting dolls.  The first story, 'The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing' is cut off mid-sentence, and on the next page, the next piece, 'Letters From Zedelghem' begins.  It is itself cut off, as is the story that follows it, until we reach the sixth piece.  After that, we return to the previous five stories for their conclusions, in the reverse of the order that they began.  Each of these stories references the previous one in the book's chronology in a few places, but that is just about it for their similarities.

'The Pacific Journal' is written by Adam Ewing, a notary from San Francisco, who is returning to his home in San Francisco from a business trip to Australia.  It being the late 1800s, Ewing is forced to take passage on a boat which stops frequently at various Pacific islands.  Ewing is a prudish member of the religious upper middle class, and so his observations of the sailors he travels with is rather negative.  Ewing suffers from a tropical parasite which has infected his brain, but is fortunately cared for by his friend, the British Dr. Henry Goose.  This story is told exclusively through Ewing's journal.

The second piece, 'Zedelghem', is told through letters written by Robert Frobisher, starting in 1931, to his friend Sixsmith.  Frobisher is a young composer who has disgraced himself in England, and so has travelled to Belgium.  He has no access to his family's considerable wealth, and has decided to present himself to the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs.  He ends up securing employment as Ayrs's amanuensis, but also has to deal with the old man's unpredictable moods and petty jealousies.  Frobisher worms his way into life at Ayrs's estate, bedding his wife, and verbally sparring with his difficult teenage daughter.  Frobisher is a bit of a con man, but his letters are pretty fascinating.

It's in the third story, 'Half-Life, the First Luisa Rey Mystery' that this book really begins to come to life. This is a mystery novel, starring intrepid reporter Luisa Rey, who has come to realize that something questionable is happening in the nuclear power plant being built by a company called Seaboard on Swannekke Island in the late 70s or early 80s.  This is a pretty conventional thriller story, with the standard greedy corporate villains, and the slightly psychotic security men that they hire.

In the fourth story, 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish' is about a small-press book publisher who has stumbled upon great success when his newest writer pushes a critic out of a window at a party, killing him.  Financially flush, Cavendish runs into problems with the author's brutish family, and has to go into hiding.  His brother helps with this, but suddenly Cavendish finds himself an inmate at the Aurora House, a retirement home that is equal parts One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Kafka.  This story reminded me of Sam Fuller's movie Shock Corridor, but is funnier.

After this story, Mitchell moves into the future with 'An Orison of Somni-451'.  This story is told through the transcription of an interview between an unnamed journalist and Somni-451, a fabricant (genetically engineered person) who attempted to spark revolt in Nea So Copros, which is basically Korea.  In Somni's world, fabricants are designed to do most of the work, and the Juche exert a form of corporate totalitarianism over all citizens.  Somni is one of the first fabricants to become fully self-aware and transcend her programming, and so it's not long before she becomes manipulated by Union, the resistance.  This section of the book is fascinating, as Mitchell creates a new approach to speech, peppered with brand names that have replaced the actual names of items (no one wears shoes, they wear nikes), and a fully-realized society, as seen by the ultimate outsider.

When we temporarily abandon Somni, it is to travel further into the future, for 'Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After', a story set in Hawaii after almost all of human civilization has fallen into chaos and decay.  Zachry is a young boy when his father and brother are killed by a rival tribe, and he lives convinced of his cowardice and guilt in that event.  Later, when he is a teenager, a Prescient named Meronyn comes to live with his family and study them.  The Prescients are the most civilized people left in the world, but their numbers are very low, and it soon becomes clear that Meronyn is on the island to look for knowledge left behind by earlier inhabitants.  This story is also very well-realized, as Mitchell explores the question of what makes civilization civilized, but also tells a gripping adventure story.

Mitchell shows himself to be a very versatile writer with this book, exploring a number of genres and conventions, without becoming mired in any of them.  His character work is incredible, and I found this book to be gripping throughout.  Recommended.

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