Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

I've recently finished the last book of my "Dystopias and Disasters" reading list for this year with The Road, and for the first time in a while I've felt to read a book on a whim rather than because it was the next one on the list or out of the sort of mild obsession that made me read all of A Song of Ice and Fire earlier this year. The book that fulfilled that whim was David Mitchell's highly regarded Cloud Atlas - a book I know little about other than that it had a cool title and a good reputation amongst people with similar tastes to me.

So, with a quick click of a button, it was downloaded to my Kindle - and I'll start with a slightly off-topic observation about the reading experience. Mostly I've been very happy with my Kindle; it's a good size, great screen, broadly speaking a pleasure to read on. But with Cloud Atlas - for reasons that will become obvious - for the first time I missed the tactile nature of a "real" book, and the ability to easily flick backwards to earlier chapters to refresh myself of characters or events. The search function isn't really the same...

So, Cloud Atlas opens on the Chatham Islands, with the diary of an American Notary and his stay first on the islands themselves and then as he starts his voyage back to San Francisco. His journal is interrupted mid-sentence, and we find ourselves reading a series of letters from a dissolute English musician in Holland, 1931. Then Buenos Yerbas, in the mid-70s. Then Modern Day London. Then Future, Dystopian Korea. Finally, we reach Hawaii, long after the fall of civilisation, before rolling back down the timeline to where we started, resolving each storyline and leaving the reader with Adam Ewing, looking towards and unknown future. In simple terms, Cloud Atlas is 6 novellas, each apart from the middle one interrupted by the others, with little, at first glance, to connect them. But Cloud Atlas is far from simple.

In some ways there is little point in recounting the individual stories other than to note that they've all very well done. Each has it's own, appropriate style; Timothy Cavendish's somewhat overwritten and flowery prose contrasting with the simple and soft-spoken narrative from Somni-451, to Zackry's patois; this is a neat trick for any author and it helps keeps the sense of these characters as individuals as you move between them. They are all also very knowing - having read a lot of dystopias this year I was repeatedly amused by the references and nods in "The Orison of Somni-451" to previous works, and the other stories are equally (if less obviously, at least to me) stocked with similar nods and winks. Yes, it's a bit of an exercise in literary cleverness, but it stays the right side of outright smugness, and more importantly ties into one of the main commons themes of the book.

Amongst the many things that tie the stories together is the unreliability of the narrators. It's most obvious with  "Half-Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery" which is presented to Cavendish as a novel in his story, although that doesn't preclude it being based on real events. Louisa finds herself in possession of Frobishers's letters, and he's so mercurial and self-absorbed (and trying to get money from the letters recipient) that he's hardly the most reliable source himself. Further up the chain, Somni is recounting her versions of events she witnesses and are part of, much of the information she is supplied with on her journey is questionable, and some of her assertions unconfirmable. Zackry is recounting his tale at the end of his life and often ascribes superstition, or outright lack of knowledge to things the reader has to guess at. You can't know for sure, says the book.

As a whole, the book is about morality, and how people, and cultures, and organisations, prey on one another and how we struggle against that and at what cost. Thematically all the characters experience the rise and fall - physically and morally - of what I'd guess you'd call "the Human Condition", and whilst the stories range from the horrific to the comedic they start to gradually bleed into each other; not directly of course, but just in the mind of the reader and the characters start to hit the same marks, and march to the same beats, although to different destinations.

As one of the characters reflects, and Atlas of Clouds would be akin to a guide to the ephemera of human experience and happiness. Cloud Atlas is a book that works both as a series of solidly well-written novellas, but also as a reflection on that; on people and what they do for good and ill. It's a clever book; occasionally a bit on the showy side but never enough to put me off. I found it thought-provoking, hopelessly sad at times, and wonderfully funny at others, and beautifully balanced. If reading it was simply a whim, then I should be whimsical more often.