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“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell – Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
“Cloud Atlas” By David Mitchell

A+

Excellent (98%)
Summary of My Review:
This is an amazing book with something for everyone. If you want to read it for six separate, interesting stories, you can, but if you want to dig deeper, there’s a near inexhaustible mine of deeper themes and concepts.
ISBN: 978-0375507250, Pages: 528

Book Review

Warning!

I go in depth with some major themes, so there are spoilers in the themes section. If you haven’t read the book, just skip the part on corruption and just go straight to the writing section and you should be fine.

The Story

Where to start? It’s a massive story taking place from the 1800s, circling the globe in space and time, arriving in the distant, post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii. The stories are, briefly, as follows:

  1. The journal of a lawyer traveling in the South Pacific (1800s)
  2. The letters of a young composer as he is trying to con (study under?) a musical great in belgium (1930s)
  3. A detective novel, of sorts, starring a woman trying to take down a government/corporate conspiracy (1970s – America)
  4. The autobiography of an aging English publisher who gets himself trapped in a nursing home (present day)
  5. The interviews of a clone about to be put to death for mysterious reasons (South Korea – the future)
  6. The verbal narrative of a man living on Hawaii trying to escape hostile tribes (The distant, post-apocalyptic future)

The Characters/Themes

Also kind of too massive to delve into. Each story has its own distinct cast of characters, with one exception (one character is referenced in the second story, but you meet him in the third).

The reason I combine charaters and themes together is that though each of the characters are fleshed out and complete characters, they are also stand-ins for grand themes. For example, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away with all the movie promotion going on, 5/6 of the narrators/main characters are essentially the same character reincarnated over and over. We are given hints are this throughout the book (the birthmark they all share, experiences they have from earlier selves, etc), but it never smacks us in the face (except when Sonmi sees the Buddha and remarks that it reminds her of the previous narrator), which I thought was a nice touch.

Corruption and the role it plays in society

There is so much to Cloud Atlas that I will hardly do it justice trying to parse out the main themes in a blog post, but oh well. Here I go.

Each incarnation strikes a balance in relation to the forces of evil and corruption. The first, Adam Ewing, is almost completely naive. Quite racist, he’s a colonist, but a passive one. He is ultimately a good man, but his chief sin is allowing evil, evil he recognizes and secretly dislikes, go on around him. He allows this ultimately due to fear, but wraps it up in a way that he’s just acting like this because that’s what society dictates – because it is proper. Society is wrong, but he is hiding behind it. His downfall/redemption comes at the hands of someone he trusts in society betraying him, forcing him to reconsider who he is and what he believes. Most of the corruption, it seems, is on the personal level.

The next character tries to strike a balance with society, and with evil, participating in his own brands of corruption (conning, petty theft, adultery) to small degrees. It is interesting that in this story, there isn’t a “bad guy,” just an old composer with syphillis and his unfaithful wife. The narrator, though, learns that he will never fit in with that society, and thus kills himself. Not willing to be the nasty, corrupt old man, he dies young and clings to what virtue he has. In this story, the corruption and evil has worked itself into the culture and society, but not much farther than that.

Luisa Rey decides to fly in the face of very obvious signs of corruption – an evil corporation putting the lives of millions at risk with a (possibly) defective power plant. Almost melodramatic, it is a clear good-vs-evil story with protagonists and antagonists, and the main character is determined to fight it at all costs. Corruption, though working in relationship with the government, isn’t completely institutionalized.

In a slight step backwards, we see the morally gray story to Timothy Cavendish – an aging publisher who publishes a gangster’s poorly-written autobiography, and subsequently benefits from him throwing a critic off a balcony. Long story short, he’s trapped in a nursing home by the “evil” nurse Noakes. In this story, we see the start of institutionalized corruption. Cavendish, though neither the best or the worst of people, is trapped by this system. It is no longer going against the Luisa Rey’s (the people actively trying to fight evil), the Frobishers (geniuses on the fringe of society), or the Ewings (easy marks for con men), it’s trapping and exploiting normal, flawed people. There’s a brief victory in this story, but it’s not to last.

The next story is set in a dystopian Korea, far in the future. Corruption has completely taken over, to the point that there are entire sub-classes of people, created for service and destroyed when they are finished. Sonmi~451 is one such person, but she has been genetically engineered to learn quickly, and manipulates the government into publishing an account of her life, ultimately leading to its downfall.

The final story deals with Zachry, a man living in one of the last human civilizations on earth on the Big Island of Hawaii. In a reversal of the first story, he is a humble man with a poor vocabulary whose civilization is being constantly raided and hunted by the island’s equivalent of the Maori. The rest of the world has undergone an apocalyptic event known as “The Fall” and most of the remaining humans are primitive. They are studied sometimes by the Prescients, a nation-less people who travel in fancy ships and identify Sonmi as their god. They are also wary of interfering with any of the Big Island affairs and view them with a mix of admiration and responsibility. This story is a reversal of the first – the Prescients are a society trying to do better than society has in the past, and though they almost don’t help when “innocent” people are faced with violence and barbarism, they ultimately do.

The story says a lot about corruption and society. In many ways it seems to imply corruption is inherent, but it also seems to suggest that repeated, purposeful fighting against the evil in our natures can win out. We might have to start over after destroying most of the world, but hopefully we can improve, if only incrementally.

There are many more themes to this book. More than I could hope to cover in my increasingly less brief book review. I’d love to hear in the comments of some other themes you found while reading the book.

Writing

Zounds. This book is a gold mine of different writing styles. Mitchell really flexes his literary muscles, and it absolutely works. The first chapter is extremely anti-immersive and difficult, and it really reads like a diary from the 1800s, if you’ve ever read one of those. Moving on, each chapter’s writing reflects the content and the characters. Frobisher’s complex and cheeky writing reflects his genius. The simple, clear writing of Luisa Rey’s chapter reflects the pulpy mystery novel nature of the melodramatic story. The well-told, ridiculous story reflects the Cavendish chapter, and the same is true of Sonmi’s cold interview and Zachry’s personal, almost private dialect.

Overall

This is an amazing book with something for everyone. If you want to read it for six separate, interesting stories, you can, but if you want to dig deeper, there’s a near inexhaustible mine of deeper themes and concepts. The writing styles are not going to appeal to everyone, but if you are up to the task (and can make it past the first chapter) it is an incredibly rewarding story with a lot to offer.

Adaptation

I haven’t seen the movie starring Tom Hanks, but I can’t imagine the themes or complexity carries over real well. And Hugo Weaving as a Korean man? Really? Have you seen the movie? Did you like it? Let me know in the comments.

  • DukeLeto4 President

    Thanks. I had a hard time with the first chapter and got pulled into other things. I’ll pick it back up though.