Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Impressions

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell manages to connect the past, present, and two levels of dystopian futures in an engaging and insightful novel consisting of loosely interlocking narratives told in drastically different styles. The structure is very different from anything I've read before - it is somewhat modeled after Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, A Traveler, a collection of stories that seem to stop in the middle or just before the climax. Cloud Atlas, however, picks up those threads later in the novel and finishes each story.

The characters range from a gullible young lawyer to a scheming and talented obscure composer to an "awakened fabricant" (think Blade Runner) in the future. An aging publisher, who manages to get himself trapped in a retirement home, laments upon his life's chosen profession:
Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. 'Admire me, for I am a metaphor.'
The most difficult section for me to read was "Sloosha's Crossing," which is written in a sort of future ruralspeak dialect, but it was also such a riveting section that I couldn't help but read it quickly. The narrative's main climax occurs here, basically, in the middle of the novel, and yet you still want to pick up the threads of each of the other stories.

The overarching themes in the background occasionally seem heavy-handed, but never in an offensive way. In one aside, a tertiary character offers this explanation of how humanity has arranged itself:
'Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will... The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.'
Quite a bleak outlook on the state of things, and one that currently can't help but ring mostly true. But out of this hopelessness, one finds optimism at the conclusion of the novel, one of my favorite reads this year, and one I'd recommend to anyone looking for something different and does not mind elements of dystopian futures. I'd also recommend reading it at the same time as others - it was a joy to read this with Erin & Anita, even if I was the slow one in the group!

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