Book Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
509 pages. Random House, 2004 (US edition). $25
544 pages, Sceptre, 2004 (UK edition). £17

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What a surprising book. How can one begin a review of a novel so unlike other novels, one that almost stands in its own category. Okay, I should go easy on the hubris, but this book is a unique one. Like a series of Russian dolls, this book contains a story within a story, within a story, within…

As one character explains, about the Cloud Atlas Sextet he is composing, it is a “sextet for overlapping soloists”, where, “in the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…”For this book is an equal part of form and content. Its six stories intertwine, influence each other in tiny ways, as, for example, one character mentions reading part of a book which was the previous story, or another character sees a movie of another story. Yet one should not look at this book as a series of stories glued together in some post-modern fashion. Even though Mitchell owes a lot to the French nouveau roman, his approach is original.

Mitchell gives a few comments on the structure of his novel; or should they be meta-comments? “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices: they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.” Yet he builds up a novel of surprising complexity, which is nevertheless more than the sum of its disparate parts.

So what about the story – or stories? From a journal about a traveller in Australasia in the 19th century, to letters from a young composer in the 1930s, the story hops forward, relentlessly, to the 1960s, the present, then the future, and even the post-future. With different voices for each period, Mitchell creates worlds that stand on their own, yet have tenuous links with the other worlds in the book. In the manner of Robert Pinget, he creates subtle reminders of previous incidents, characters and places, allowing the reader to piece together the narrative.

Yet there is no overall narrative, unless it is a simple principle that returns in every story: greed, and its many consequences. From the exploitation of savages in the Pacific to the (not so?) distant future after “the Fall”, where the world has reverted to one of savagery, greed stands out. Sometimes tossing out almost cliched anti-globalization slogans, at others looking at the real motivations of some of the players in the centuries-long drama, Mitchell nevertheless draws a portrait that makes the reader think.

That might be the most powerful element in this “novel”; that the reader has to do a bit of work to make its ends meet. In spite of a somewhat anticlimactic climax, the disparity of the stories becomes apparent at the end. As one character says, “Every nowhere is a somewhere.” Mitchell manages to create an unforgettable somewhere out of a group of seemingly disparate nowheres, and does it with style and imagination.

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