Book review Tuesday: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I read the novel Cloud Atlas when I was back in San Francisco visiting my family. It took me almost a week to plow through, because it’s massive and complex and it can be a tad long-winded. But to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.  You see, I didn’t expect to like Cloud Atlas, mostly because of this hot mess of a trailer for the movie, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in a number of unflattering wigs and facial prostheses:


Based on that trailer, this movie did not look good. Grand? Yes. Sweeping, even? Sure. But good? No. It looked, as I said above, like a hot mess that took itself WAY too seriously.  So the book could have been the same, for all I knew.

But, in fact, the book is seriously good.  David Mitchell has created a novel that takes place in six layered vignettes, each of which takes place in a different time period with different, but sometimes overlapping characters, each written in a completely different voice and style.  Sounds confusing, but it makes perfect sense once you get past the first chapter.

The book begins with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the diary of an American lawyer who is making the journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, via several Pacific islands.  He’s slowly dying and can’t figure out why.  The diary cuts out halfway and we enter the next vignette, Letters from Zedelghem, a series of letters written in 1931 by a young musician named Robert Frobischer to his good friend Rupert Sixsmith.  The next vignette is called Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which is in the form of a novelette about an intrepid young reporter, Luisa Rey, who gets in over her head investigating the shady dealings at a nuclear facility in the 1970s.  After that we have The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a story about a publisher, sometime around the present day, who is involuntarily committed to a seemingly inescapable, abusive nursing home.  Next is An Orison of Sonmi, which is a recording made in the future by a clone in a so-called “corporatist” society who rebelled, with disastrous consequences.  Finally, in the very distant, post-apocalyptic future, there is a vignette called Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After, which is told from the perspective of Zachary, a boy living on what is now Hawaii and who’s on the run from murderous cannibals.  Then, Mitchell steps down backwards through the vignettes again and ties them all together.

Confused yet?  Don’t be, just read it.

The book is thematically complex, weaving together issues such as corporate greed, cannibalism (both figurative and literal), sexuality, past-lives and karma, religion, dreams, premonitions, the connection between past and future, the value of human life, the moral value of honesty versus dishonesty, and so on.  Although the topics are weighty, the book is not, for the most part, heavy-handed or preachy, and is often quite funny.

My favorite of all the vignettes were the Letters from Zedelghem, written by the spirited Robert Frobischer to his dear friend Sixsmith, reporting on his life as the amanuensis of a famous composer living in a small town in Belgium.  Frobsicher gets up to a fair amount of mischief and manages to piss off nearly everyone in the composer’s family, with whom he boards.  The descriptions of his misadventures are really entertaining.  His description of his visit to a Belgian family full of homely daughters particularly tickled me:

“The v.d.V. daughters, a hydra of heads named Marie-Louise, Stephanie, Zenobe, Alphonsine, and I forget the last, ranged from nine years of age to said Marie-Louise… All girls possess a thoroughly unjustified self-confidence.  A v. long sofa sagged beneath this family of porkers.”

And then:

“Luncheon was served on fine Dresden crocks in a dining room with large reproduction of The Last Supper over floral wallpaper.  Food a disappointment.  Dry trout, greens steamed to a sludge, gâteau simply vulgar; thought I was back dining in London.   The girls tittered glissando at my trivial missteps in French — yet their frightful English rasps on one’s ear unbearably.  Mme. v.d.V., who also summered in Switzerland, gave laborious accounts of how Marie-Louise had been eulogized in Berne as ‘the Flower of the Alps’ by Countess Slãck-Jawski or the Duchess of Sümdümpstadt.  Couldn’t even force out a civil ‘Comme c’est charmant!’.”

I don’t see how any of this wit could come out in the movie unless the entire thing is narrated word for word as it appeared in the book.  Based on the trailer, they didn’t seem to go in that direction. Oh, well. You know what they say about the movie always being worse than the book.

Overall, I recommend Cloud Atlas for anyone who’s looking for a meaty but light-footed piece of literary fiction with the capacity to make you ponder the long-term future of our society.  Also, for writers, Mitchell’s ability to switch between voices and styles is astonishing and envy-inspiring.

And you know what? I kinda want to see the movie now.

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