It’s inevitable. When someone finds out you’re a book person, they will ask you that single, awful question: What’s your favourite book? How on earth can you answer a question like that? Narrow it down by genre, perhaps, or by the criteria that define “favourite”? Give a top-5 answer instead? Or just shrug and say “too many to count”?
Well, if I were pinned down and had to answer that question, I would have several strong contenders, including Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. And numbered among those is David Mitchell’s luminous, challenging, storytelling masterpiece Cloud Atlas. You may have heard the buzz about the Wachowskis’ movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and opening in wide release on October 26th. In order to appreciate the film to its fullest, I’m going to re-read the stunning source novel, and I thought you might enjoy reading along and discussing with me.
The first installment will go live Tuesday, August 14th, and in it I’ll look at the first section, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” (first half). Each Tuesday we’ll look at the next section of Cloud Atlas, from “Adam Ewing” to “Sloosha’s Crossin'” and back again. The final section will take us to Tuesday, October 23rd, just in time for the movie…
Never read Cloud Atlas? Started but gave up because the language of the Pacific Journal section was too dense? Read it and want to read it again? Please join me in discussing Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas is a strange, mirrored mosaic of a novel, a set of six barely linked stories that are “nested” within each other. The stories are cut in half, each ending abruptly as though the reading or viewing of the story has been interrupted, apart from the sixth, middle story, which is told in its entirety. Then the first five stories are given an ending, mirroring the order they first appeared (so, in essence, following a A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A pattern). Each story is referenced in the subsequent story, with a character from the current section reading or watching what has come before. In some cases, the current main character throws doubt on the authenticity or reliability of the previous story.
And to make matters even more complex, each story is told in an entirely different style and voice, in a different genre from any of the others. Mitchell flexes some serious literary muscle, setting his six stories in vastly different time periods and in different places. He suggests that characters in each subsequent story are reincarnations of previous ones, and he plays with themes of ascent and descent, of repeated mistakes, of greed, corruption, and deception, and of dominance and subjugation.
The stories are as follows:
“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”: Set in the 1850s, in the Pacific Ocean and on the Chatham Islands near New Zealand. Follows an American notary and is written in the style of Daniel Defoe or Herman Melville, in the first person, in a journal.
“Letters from Zedelghem”: Set in 1931 in Belgium, following a young musician named Robert Frobisher who goes to work as an amanuensis for an ailing composer, Vyvyan Ayrs. The story is told in epistolary format, as Frobisher writes letters home to a friend named Sixsmith.
“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”: Set in 1975 in California, written in third person as a so-called airport novel: a cheap, suspenseful, high-stakes mystery in fairly simple language that tells the tale of a spunky reporter who is turned onto a major story about corruption at a nuclear power plant.
“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”: Set some time in the early 21st century, perhaps just a bit later than when the book was published (2004), the story of an aging vanity publisher who attempts to flee a client (who happens to be a gangster) and by turns of fate ends up imprisoned in an old-folks’ home. This tale reads like a contemporary British novel.
“An Orison of Sonmi~451”: We move further into the future here, a consumerist dystopia perhaps a few centuries from now, set in a new iteration of Korea called Nea So Copros. Sonmi~451 is a clone who works in a MacDonald’s-like corporate restaurant empire called Papa Song’s. The tone recalls Philip K. Dick and George Orwell as Sonmi’s growing awareness and autonomy cause her to rebel against the corporation.
“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”: And then into a post-apocalyptic far-future we go. What’s left of humanity survives in tribal societies, scratching out a primitive living and evading the dangers of this Pacific world and of each other. Mitchell develops an evolved (or devolved), highly believable language for his characters, many centuries and several disasters away from how we speak now, and bridges the gap between the ascent of the previous stories’ openings and their descending closings in one narrative arc.
The reread will cover 11 weeks, looking at a section a week (and examining “Sloosha” in its entirety, as it is presented in the book). Each post will include a plot summary and then my ramblings about how I reacted to the book and what I think Mitchell is doing. I invite you to join in and let me know what you think each week!
And finally, in case you missed it, here is the visually stunning five-minute-long trailer for the movie:
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