This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23327005), which has significant echoes of this.
Imagine six very different short books, each open at roughly the middle, then pile them up - and that is the structure of Cloud Atlas (story 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b). The structure is echoed in this clever and very brief review: http://www.fromnought2sixty.com/finally-had-a-chance-to-read-and-review-cloud.
(The structure of the film is entirely different: it cuts between all six stories repeatedly, which emphasises the parallels in the different stories. In the medium of film, I think it works quite well - if
you already know the stories.)
Each story is a separate and self-contained tale, told in a different format, voice and even dialect, but with similarities in theme and some overlapping characters.
There are many themes. Connectedness (and possibly reincarnation) are perhaps the most obvious - and the themes themselves are often connected with other themes. In addition to connectedness, themes include: victim/predator/leech, journeys, escape, transformation, falling/ascending (both literal and metaphorical or spiritual).
I think the overriding theme is the many, varied, but perhaps inevitable ways that humans exploit each other through power, money, knowledge, brute force, religion or whatever: “The world IS wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.”
There are also connections between characters and events, and, less subtly (completely unnecessarily, imo), someone in each has a birth mark that looks like a comet.
(Connectedness is much the strongest theme in the film, partly through rapid switching between stories to emphasize the parallels, and also because the same actors are used in multiple stories.)
1a THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
The opening tale concerns a voyage, and immediately draws the reader in with echoes of Crusoe, “Beyond the Indian hamlet, on a forlorn strand, I happened upon a trail of recent footprints”. Adam is a wide-eyed and honourable young American lawyer in 1850 (somewhat reminiscent of Jacob de Zoet in Mitchell’s latest novel: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169401426), on his way to the Chatham Isles to trace the beneficiaries of a will. He struggles with the politics of the ship’s crew and issues of colonialism, slavery, genocide (Maori of Moriori) and then… it breaks off mid sentence!
This story has particular parallels with Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/559208830): a voyage between colonies, with a theme of exploitation.
2a LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
This is a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English composer, to his friend Rufus Six
smith, written in 1931 (quite a lot of sixes in this book). He has a wealthy and educated background, but has been cut off from his family, so is in Belgium (Edinburgh, in the film!), searching for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he hopes to gain a position as amanuensis and collaborator: the journey involves literal travel, but also the seeking of fame and fortune. This section opens with a visceral passion for music, which infuses this whole section; Frobisher hears music in every event: dreaming of breaking china, “an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats”. Frobisher is an unscrupulous opportunist (very unlike Adam Ewing), but not without talent. The latter enables him to wheedle his way into the complex lives of the Ayrs/Crommelynck household (the latter cropping up in other Mitchell books).
3a HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
It’s 1975 and Dr Rufus Sixsmith is now 66
. He is broke and either in trouble with mysterious forces or paranoid. This one’s a thriller, involving a would-be-investigative-journalist, Luisa Rey. Mitchell inserts a caveat via Sixsmith, “all thrillers would wither without contrivance”, though actually much of this story is obscure until the second half.
4a THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
This is contemporary comedy: Cavendish is a vanity publisher with an unexpected best-seller on his hands (memoirs of a murderer). Like Sixsmith, he ends up broke and fleeing enemies, though this one is more of a farce, with echoes of Jonathan Coe’s “What a Carve Up” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23325312).
5a AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
This is set in 22nd century Korea, which is an extreme corpocracy (corporate capitalism taken to its logical conclusion – which even affects the language (see below)). Purebloods are “a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor” and it is a crime to fail to meet one’s monthly spending target. (In the film, this section looks stunning, but the underlying philosophy is largely ignored.)
The format is an interrogation of Somni-251, a fabricant (humanoid clone), who is a monastic server of fast food at Papa Song’s – which just happens to have golden arches as its logo (the film plays safe and is not so obviously McDonald's). She is knowledgeable and opinionated, though it’s not immediately clear what, if anything, else she’s done wrong. There are plenty of nods to Orwell, Huxley and others – even to the extent that Somni mentions reading them. The ideas of ascension, heaven, an afterlife and so on that are suggested in many sections are explicit in this one; it’s where the themes of the book really begin to come together. What it means to be human, exemplified by the relative positions of purebloods and fabricants, are reminiscent of the slavery that Adam Ewing considers: the idea that fabricants lack a personality is a “fallacy propagated for the comfort of purebloods”. She has a distinctively poetic voice, which lends beauty to the section of the book, but causes problems for her: a fabricant that is as eloquent as a pureblood creates unease.
6 SLOOSHA’S CROSSIN’ AN’ EV’RYTHIN’ AFTER
The only section told, unbroken, from start to finish, which is ironic given that it’s set in a very broken future world. Even the language has disintegrated to some extent, much as in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, to which Mitchell acknowledges a debt in this article:
See below for specific linguistic quirks, and here for my review of RW: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326332.
Zachry is explaining his life, beliefs and practices, though it isn’t clear who he is addressing (or why). He talks of “The Fall” and “flashbangin” which were the end of “Civ’lize Days”, though some “Prescients” survived on a ship which visits and barter at regular interval, but never leave anything “more smart” than what is already there. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too” – even though Malthus was revered as a prophet by that earlier civilisation.
Then one of the Prescient, Meronym, comes to stay for six months. She wants to learn and observe, but many of the islanders fear her motives. Zachry is keen to explain himself and to learn from her. His language can make him sound simple, but he’s actually quite prescient: “There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”
, which is perhaps the message of the book. The deeper question in this section is who is exploiting whom (there is also a warfaring tribe, the Kona)?
5b AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
Somni’s story starts to make more sense, particularly the meaning and method of ascension and her story’s connections with Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6).
4b THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
Imprisoned in a most unlikely place, Timothy hatches an extraordinary and comical bid for freedom. (It’s not quite The Great Escape.)
3b HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
There is real excitement in this, though some may find it slightly confusing. When one character writes notes comparing the real and virtual past (p392-393), the levels of stories-within-stories and boundaries of fact and fiction are well and truly blurred, which is part of what this whole book is about. (Is Luisa "real" in the context of the book? She doesn't always feel it, but there is a direct link between her and another character.):
“The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming… in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”
“Power seeks + is the right to ‘landscape’ the virtual past.”
“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” – something this book is often likened to.“The uncreated and the dead exist solely in our actual and virtual pasts. Now the bifurcation of these two pasts will begin.”
2b LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
Will Frobisher make good – or even be good? “We do not stay dead for long… My birth next time…”
1b THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
Adam lands on an island where white Christian missionaries appear to be doing good work. However, the relationship between blacks and whites (and even between man and wife) exemplify the unequal power relationships that are common to all the stories. Adam dreams of a more utopian world, though.
The two futuristic sections are notable for their language. Some people seem to dislike or struggle with this aspect, but I think it adds depth, interest and plausibility.
The corporate world of Somni-451 (5) means that many former brand names have become common nouns (as hoover, kleenex and sellotape already have): ford (car), fordjam, sony (PC), kodak (photo), nikes (any shoes), disney (any film/movie), starbuck (coffee).
There are neologisms, too: facescaping (extreme cosmetic surgery), upstrata (posh), dijied (digitised).
Perhaps more surprisingly, a few words have simplified spelling: xactly, xpose, fritened, lite (mind you, that is already quite common), thruway.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6), the dialect is a mix of childish mishearings and misspellings, very similar to that in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (see links in the section about Sloosha, above): I telled him, hurrycane.
At times, it’s very poetic: “Watery dark it was inside. Wax’n’ teak-oil’n’time was its smell… An’ then we heard a sort o’ roaring underneath the silence, made o’ mil’yuns o’ whisp’rin’s like the ocean.” More graphically, “We’d get a feverish hornyin’ for each other… I was slurpyin’ her lustsome mangoes an’ moistly fig”!
LINKS BETWEEN SECTIONS
Adam Ewing’s journal (1) is found by Robert Frobisher (2).
The recipient of Robert Frobisher’s (2) letters is Rufus Sixsmith (2, 3).
The letters from Frobisher (2) to Sixsmith are sent via Sixsmith (2, 3) to Luisa Rey (3). Rey ponders, “Are molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand, dormant in this paper for forty-four years, now swirling in my lungs, in my blood?”
Ayrs/Frobishers’s (2) music is heard by Luisa Rey (3), and she has a sense of deja audio.
Luisa Rey’s (3) manuscript is sent to Timothy Cavendish (4).
Apparently, Luisa (3) sees Ewing's (1) ship, The Prophetess, in a marina, but I read that after I'd read the book.
A film about Timothy Cavendish (4) is watched by Somni-451 (5).
Somni-451 (5) is prayed to by those in Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6) and a recording of her interview is watched by Zachry. She also has a memory of a car crash (perhaps like Luisa 93)?)
Who has comet birthmarks:
(1) No one
(2) Robert Frobisher
(3) Luisa Rey
(4) Timothy Cavendish
(6) Meronym - but in the film, it's Zachry (why??)
Mind you, the first time I read it, I expected it to be Zachry who had it.
See discussion here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/800107-reincarnation-and-plot-holes
* I love the bathos of “cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, spoiled Sussex… versified cliffs [Dover] as romantic as my arse in a similar hue.”
* “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction.”
* “I felt Nietzche was reading me, not I him.”
* “Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb.” Attributed (in the book) to JFK.
* "Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'"
* “The room bubbles with sentences more spoken than listened to.”
* “A predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises.”
* “Time is the speed at which the past decays, but disneys [films] enable a brief resurrection.”
* “Lite [sic] from the coming day defined the world more clearly now.”
* “Sunlite [sic] bent around the world, lending fragile colour to wild flowers.”
* “We [over 60s] commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly… Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori.”
* “Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary… its victory is assured.”
* “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”
* “As dear old Kilvert notes, nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire.”
* “Her contempt… if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison… I heard male indignation trampled by female scorn.”
* “The colour of monotony is blue.”
My review from early 2000s
A novel comprising six interlocking tales on the theme of connectedness and predacity (few likeable characters, though certainly some interesting and amusing ones).
The idea is that souls drift through time and space (and bodies), like clouds across the sky. As one character learns the story of another, the layers of fiction meld: which are "fact" within the overall fiction?
Each story has a totally different style, appropriate to its time, genre and supposed authorship. The two futuristic ones use two different versions of English: etymologically logical, but lots of made up words; the capitalist Korean one hints at the political/corporate philosophy underlying the society (as in Orwell's 1984) and the primitive Hawaiian one has more shades of Caribbean/Pidgin and a very similar feel to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326332). One crucial but evil corporation is a fast food place with a golden arches logo - I hope Mitchell's lawyers checked that was OK!
Somewhat incestuously, a couple of main characters had a mention in his first novel, Ghostwritten (Louisa Rey & the Cavendish brothers, the latter having echoes of Coe's What a Carve Up) and the composer's daughter from this book appears in the later Black Swan Green.
Much as I enjoyed this, and think the Russian-doll, nested story structure is clever, I preferred the more subtle and less gimmicky approach he uses in Ghostwritten (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23327005).