3 journalers for this copy...
David Mitchell was one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists (along with Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Rachel Seiffert and others). His first novel, Ghostwritten, won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His second, number9dream, was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker.
The six stories told in Cloud Atlas span the period from approximately 1850 through a time hundreds of years in the future. Here's a quick description of the protagonists who make up the "sextet":
- Adam Ewing: a San Francisco lawyer during the gold rush era of the 1850s, who has been travelling in Australia in search of the beneficiary of a will created in California. As the book begins, the ship on which Ewing is voyaging (the Prophetess) has landed in the Chatham Islands.
- Robert Frobisher: a Cambridge, England-based musician and composer whose story is told through a series of letters written in 1931 to his intermittent lover, Sixsmith. Frobisher becomes the live-in amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive and syphlitic English composer living south of Bruges, Belgium. While living with Ayrs, he discovers a manuscript entitled The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
- Luisa Rey: a Buenas Yerbas, California-based investigative journalist in the mid-1970s. After getting stuck in an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher's former lover (who by the 1970s has become an acclaimed scientist), she receives from Sixsmith a lead on a cover-up at a nuclear power plant on Swanneke Island.
- Timothy Cavendish: the 60-something year old owner of a vanity press in London. He publishes Knuckle Sandwich, a book by Scottish autobiographer Dermot Hoggins, which becomes wildly successful after Hoggins murders Sir Felix Finch, editor of the Trafalgar Review of Books during the reception following the awarding of the esteemed Lemon Prize for literature. Timothy later comes into possession of the manuscript for Half Lives, Luisa Rey's story.
- Sonmi-451: a cloned fabricant ("Sonmi" and "Yoona" aren't names, but generic terms for fabricants derived from particular stem cells) whose story has been immortalized by the Archivist in an orison -- a three-dimensional recording stored in a silver egg. She is a prisoner within a corpocracy, in which -- the reader will notice -- many familiar brand names have now become proper nouns (such as the "disney" through which Sonmi-451 learns the story of Timothy Cavendish).
- Zachry: the 50-something inhabitant of post-apocalyptic and environmentally savaged Hawaii, on which babies are routinely born with birth defects. Twice a year the island is visited by another tribe, the Prescients, who come to barter (ironware for fresh water).
- The Prophetess: the ship on which Adam Ewing sails the South Pacific shows up as an antique vessel in Half Lives, moored in the same marina as Rufus Sixsmith's Starfish.
- Souvenir teeth: Dr. Henry Goose is collecting them on the beach in the first pages of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, and Timothy Cavendish makes a point of keeping one belonging to Johns Hotchkiss when it happens to splash into his beer from fifteen feet away.
- Gold fever: a literal phenomenon in 1850s San Francisco (read Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune for a wonderful description of the era), and a metaphor for the "corpocracy", and for all that Zachry tells us ultimately goes wrong with the world. Interestingly, Adam Ewing notes in The Pacific Journal that he "fears" gold fever, without elaborating as to why.
- Ewingsville, California: Judith Rey -- Luisa's mother -- lives there. It may or may not be named for Adam Ewing, an early resident of California.
- Zachary: in the first Cavendish story, the words of Timothy's cab driver -- whose accent is so thick he can't be understood -- are first heard as "Sick teen-squid Zachary" ("sixteen -- quid -- exactly").
- Burial grounds: there's a parallel between the dendroglyphs (tree carvings or sculptures) discovered by Adam Ewing in the Chatham Island mausoleum, and the icons Zachry visits in the Icon'ry in Sloosha's Crossin'
- Margo Roker: when Timothy Cavendish comes out of his coma at Aurora House, her name is one of the first phrases he utters. He seems puzzled by the name (which he may or may not have read in the Half Lives manuscript), and it's never mentioned again in the Cavendish segment.
- Swanneke: the Hydra nuclear reactor in Half Lives is located on Swanneke Island, and the Swannekes are mentioned as a tribe in Sloosha's Crossin'.
- "A" to "Z": both Adam and Zachry's names are significant. Aside from representing the first and last letters of the alphabet, Adam was the first man in the Old Testament, and the name Zachary comes from Old Hebrew and means "God remembers" (from "Zokher" - remembers and "Yahveh" or "Yehovah" - God).
I'm going to resist the temptation to go on about Easter Eggs, although it does make an interesting intellectual game. And I'll try not to get too involved in postmodernism and the role of the narrator. I have a profound distaste for authors who play those kind of games with the reader - I'm an old fashioned gal who feels cheated when told that I've invested several precious hours of my time in an elaborate con trick (It ruined "Atonement" for me). But (with the exception of one outrageously unnconvincing truth-inversion which rendered a very significant character morally bankrupt for me) I'll add a caveat to this prejudice. Cloud Atlas is a story about stories and their importance to the human race. Whether told around a campfire or recorded on a solar-powered holographic egg, stories define our humanity and separate us from the beasts. They are a definition of civilization, probably the first and last hope of the human race. And, like Yann Martel in "Life of Pi", Mitchell argues convincingly that the veracity of the tale (the "real past" as one perceptive character puts it), is less important than the emotional and spiritual sustenance drawn from the tale's retelling by future generations.
Art deals in metaphor and imagery, as does religion. What is religion, anyway, except the conscious choice to regard certain stories as life-changing? Mitchell knows the power of a haunting image, and there are many in this book, reverberating across wildly different times and situations. A ring, for example, can be a wedding ring broken by a friend turned betrayer, it can be an artificial barcode implanted under the skin recording our financial transactions for scrutiny by a corporate ruler, or it can be the simple framing of a receding landscape between two bent human fingers. Or the ancient mythic image of a Hydra resonates so that, whether applied to a clone-factory or a nuclear reactor, it conveys the natural tendency of evil to resurface in a myriad of new guises as soon as one is conquered.
It's not a perfect book, by any means. Cloud Atlas reminds me of a Stephen Sondheim show - immensely clever, spiky and worldly-wise until the conclusion of the first act - at which point, as if dismayed by the nihilism of the abyss all this has led us to the brink of, it backs off from complete despair and journeys towards an unconvincing conclusion. Some of the plot denouments are frankly an insult to the reader's intelligence, and I'm surprised this hasn't been commented on more. Maybe Mitchell is trying to be terribly smart and to pastiche the formulaic endings of airport thrillers and Hollywood movies, but I doubt it. I think he's against a deadline and out of his artistic depth, but even to dive in as far as he has and surface with so many pearls is an amazing achievement.
Another, less well-known treatment of the reincarnation theme, used across an epic timescale to comment on human history, is Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate history, "The Years of Rice and Salt". KSR, a leading and unfashionably optimistic Buddhist SF writer, takes as his starting point the Black Death virtually wiping out all Caucasian civilization from the earth, and thus leaving the field wide open for Muslim, Eastern and traditional ideologies. I think "Rice and Salt" is a much less successful book but, as the kind of person who spots movie refs in "The Simpsons" I did wonder whether Mitchell might be offering up a subtle tribute to his fellow Pacific Rim philosopher when he mentions an unknown disease wiping out the last remnants of advanced civilisation in his dystopia. It could mean nothing, but the remark that less than one in two hundred victims survive the disease points to odds very similar to KSR's lethal plague on Caucasian society.
I've read so much about Mitchell here in BC-world and on the internet and he "smells" like quite interesting literary refreshments.
Ruth thank you very, very much indeed. And of course thank you for lovely postcard - you should come here on Mediterranean :-)
This is David Mitchell!