In order to prepare for seeing the movie adaptation of David Mitchell’s complex novel “Cloud Atlas”, it made sense to check out a copy of the book from the Spokane County Library District (SCLD) Digital Downloads collections.
Readers on a budget in Spokane County and other areas served by SCLD who use Amazon Kindles, Barnes and Noble NOOKs, or other electronic devices to read books can find everything from classic literature to a wide variety of recently published works online at www.scld.org.
Their ebook collections are invaluable resources, especially around the holidays when somebody might not have the extra money to buy more books for themselves.
Based on the information available on Wikipedia, the film version of “Cloud Atlas” is structured differently than the novel and features some extra content. People who read the book after watching the movie may be confused at times by the source material.
In addition to the fact that some characters in the book originally had a different gender and/or ethnic background, “Cloud Atlas” raises many questions that are never explicitly answered by the author as the story focuses on characters from six different settings ranging from the South Pacific in 1849 to two different horrible post-apocalyptic future time periods.
Each chapter of “Cloud Atlas” is written in a different style and features a different protagonist, usually narrating his or her story in first person. The first five chapters are interrupted at crucial points in their stories, and the connections between each timeline are not always immediately obvious.
To make things worse, Mitchell has some fun with playful metafiction by doing things such as having the narrator of the second chapter suggest that the journal the first chapter is an excerpt from might be fictional. In the fourth chapter, the narrator/protagonist Timothy Cavendish is reading the first half of an unpublished suspense thriller that appears to be the third chapter “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.”
After four chapters that could plausibly be set in our world, the book suddenly transitions into science fiction in “An Orison of Sonmi~451.” This may be the only time that fans of the movie have an advantage over people who have not seen it yet. The fifth chapter introduces readers to a dystopian future version of Korea where genetically modified clones such as Sonmi are an oppressed slave class.
Chapter six, the only story that is not interrupted, presents another grim future where people living in Hawaii after “The Fall” have been reduced to primitive tribal societies. People on “The Big Island” usually don’t live past 40, thanks to rampant disease and strange mutations. The narrator, an old man named Zachry, tells his children about some adventures he had when he was 16.
After Zachry’s tale ends, Mitchell revisits each set of characters in reverse order. This both deliberately echoes the structure of a musical composition called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that is important in at least two of the six timelines and allows him to build on his novel’s recurring themes in fascinating ways.
The pieces of Mitchell’s complex puzzle begin forming a clearer picture as Mitchell makes many interesting points about topics such as racism, slavery, abuse of power and sexuality. Zachry’s musings about right and wrong and how civilized people should treat each other are echoed by other characters–especially Adam Ewing, the devout Christian protagonist from the first chapter.
Ewing closes the novel by writing in his journal about how his experiences at sea have made him to decide to do what he can to make the world a better place, even if it isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. A recurring idea in the novel is an optimistic notion that if more people were like Adam Ewing, the human race might not end up destroying itself and the future might be better than what Mitchell describes in his book.
Even if the reader disagrees with Mitchell’s moral view, there is much to admire about the ambition and scope of his novel. It is amazing to see how the author goes from the quirky broad comedy of the Cavendish storyline, to the ornate stylized prose of Sonmi’s story, to the strange dialect he invented for Zachry. It is also interesting to see how little details connect the six timelines and how themes build in ways that aren’t always obvious.
“Cloud Atlas” is emotionally satisfying even though it may be hard at times to tell what Mitchell is trying to say through his characters, or understand why he repeatedly undermines his own story by making readers wonder how much of each protagonist’s tale actually “counts.”
Depending on how readers feel about science fiction or the Cavendish chapters, some parts of the book may seem too gimmicky. However, even things about the book that could be perceived as flaws will get readers thinking about important aspects of life in ways that might not have occurred to them before. Reading “Cloud Atlas” is a profoundly rewarding experience.