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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

January 6, 2011

The ambition of this book is stunning. If one were to talk about the structure of Cloud Atlas (and if one is talking about Cloud Atlas, they’re most likely talking about the structure), they might describe a physical structure, a sort of pyramid with six floors. Six stories, connected by staircases, and we travel halfway through each level before heading up to the next. At the top, we get one a complete story, then we head back down, picking up where we left off on each level, finishing each of those stories as we descend. It’s something like the movie Inception, only it makes more sense.

In the second-level story, a character describes the concerto he is obsessively composing:  “…a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. 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.” It’s clever. What he is really describing is the structure of Cloud Atlas as a whole.

The second most impressive thing about Cloud Atlas is what is described above—that each level, each story, has it’s own tone and is of a different genre. The first is from the journal of a passenger on a 19th century trading ship in the south Pacific; the second (my favorite), a series of hilarious letters from an aspiring composer who has conned his way into the tutelage of a famous (but suffering of syphilis) musician in Flanders in the 1930s. There is a suspenseful thriller about a conspiracy over a nuclear power plant that takes place in the 1970s, a “ghastly” story of a book publisher wrongly confined to a mental institution, a futuristic sci-fi about a clone savior, and a story about a post-apocalyptic tribal society in which the language has evolved (or devolved) into a weird but somehow understandable sort of pig-latin offshoot. Were these imbedded genre stories caricatures or clichés, the structure of the whole thing would be pointless. But it all holds together because Mitchell is so adept at each style, and each story is good in itself.

On top of this, Mitchell stitches the stories together with just enough thread to hold. The south Pacific journal exists as a book found by a character in the second story (and, cleverly, the journal has been torn in half, the second half of it jammed under a piano leg to level it for the character to find later). One story is a book manuscript in another, one a movie in the next, one the mythology of an entire religion in the next. It is never heavy handed. Mitchell leaves just enough clues to make it interesting and allow the reader to find the door from one level to the next.

The one piece of evidence that exists in all the stories is a cryptic birthmark, in the shape of a comet, that the main characters share. I’m not sure of its significance beyond the fact that every time I encountered it I wanted to jump up and shout “There it is again!” And that is the thrill of this book. Whether or not one “figures out” the significance of everything, it is the excitement of discovery, of moving toward an answer, that is the theme and thrill. The character of the book publisher at one point says: “What I wouldn’t give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.” There is no atlas. No constant. Perceptions, story, character, genre—everything shifts. That’s the fun of it.

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