David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" (Random House, 2004) is a novel that demands much of the reader. After a previous attempt, I finally finished it this year because my cousin Susi and I decided to read it at the same time. Read this book with a buddy, a book club or some other support system. Before you lose heart, let me also add that the book is worth the effort.
The unbelievably gifted Mitchell can write in tongues, and he uses this talent to serve his story rather than show off. (Tom Wolfe comes to mind.) Six stories unfurl forward and backward, leaving a double chapter in the center of the novel. Experienced novelists know that part of a writer's job is to teach readers how to read the book. Mitchell explains this six separate times in vastly different voices that each take some getting used to. At the end of every chapter, I would find myself taking a breather before tackling the next one, occasionally even reading another book as a palate cleanser.
A gossamer thread holds the stories together. Adam Ewing's 1850 South Pacific journal, which constitutes the first and last chapters of "Cloud Atlas," is found in a Belgian chateau in 1931 by enfant, terrible musician Robert Frobisher, the epistolary narrator of the second and 10th chapters, who sneeringly comments that Ewing reminds him of the "bumbler Cpt. Delano of Melville's Benito Cereno" and instructs his consigliere Sixsmith to sell it for lucre. Listen to Frobisher's voice in these passages: "Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman." Or, "Wars are never cured, they just go into remission for a few years."
Contrast that with Adam Ewing: "If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw."
The recipient of the letters, Rufus Sixsmith, appears in the third and ninth chapters - unfortunately pursued by Machiavellian executives of a California nuclear power plant determined to cover up the faulty design of its reactors. He attempts to get his report into the hands of reporter Luisa Rey, who in the course of her investigation discovers Frobisher's letters and his Cloud Atlas Sextet, which, he writes "holds my life, is my life; now I'm a spent firework, but at least I've been a firework."
The strangest chapters are the fifth and seventh. Titled "An Orison of Sonmi-451," these take place in post-modern Korea, where corporate might has run amok and brand names have become nouns - fords, sonys, kodaks. (Mitchell's spellchecker must have seized up.) Cloning is the norm, with fabricants cultured in wombtanks being promised an eventual ascension as reward for years of slave labor. One can imagine these chapters to be Mitchell's chilling vision of the future, where any semblance of humanity has been replaced by "corpocracy." This seems to be the dubious pinnacle reached by civilization before a worldwide apocalypse, named the Fall.
The character Zachry narrates the middle chapter from post-Fall Hawaii. Curiously, he and his tribe worship Sonmi as a goddess. Zachry reveals the underlying structure of the novel when he says, "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud and so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?"
"Cloud Atlas" is available at the Los Altos Library, 13 S. San Antonio Road.