Friday, October 19, 2012

CBR IV: Live Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 4: "Cloud Atlas" By David Mitchell

Life, like any good story or piece of music, is told in movements.  These movements all link together to form harmony, dissonance, and ultimately the story that is our civilization.  Where we’ve been just might tell us where we’re going, and if we ignore it we’ll put ourselves into more trouble than we could imagine.  Such is the theme of Cloud Atlas, and such is a wondrous device to tell a story that spans from 1850 to the far flung future, over the course of six separate yet linked stories.  Cloud Atlas is a drama.  It’s a love story.  It’s a detective thriller, a comedy, and a disturbing social commentary.  Above all else, Cloud Atlas is a story about hope brought by those who seem insignificant, no matter what the future holds in store.
Now, before I get into the review portion, I have to say something about how the book is laid out.  It’s definitely a bunch of wibbley wobbly action, as it tells the first half of the first five stories, tells the sixth story in its entirety, and then proceeds to finish the rest of the stories in descending order.   Like so:

1.1   /2.1 / 3.1 / 4.1 / 5.1 / 6 / 5.2 / 4.2 / 3.2 / 2.2 / 1.2
Confusing?  To the untrained eye, yes; simply because it’s a hard concept to explain.  But in practice, it works perfectly as each story is influenced by the other.  What’s more, little references and nods to things that happened before are also present.  The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is half read by the protagonist in Letters from Zedelghem, whose partner in letter writing is a key figure in Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery which is a manuscript read during The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  That ghastly ordeal is viewed during An Orison of Sonmi-451, which makes an appearance in Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, which leads us to the rest of An Orison of Sonmi-451, and so on.  (To spoil all of the connections would be the biggest disservice to the reader.)

Make no mistake, this isn’t just an anthology that you can read at will; nor should you read each story in its entirety, in order.  The book is laid out for a reason, and that reason is the story is so layered that it challenges the reader to make the connections and reinforce them throughout each story.  Better still, each entry is written with a different framing device and writing style.  We go from a journal written in older English to a first person recollection of one’s life written in a tribal future dialect, with each story evolving in linguistic style as well as narrative style.

With those flourishes in style though, we’re treated to the same overarching themes of reincarnation and power struggles.  A comet shaped birthmark heralds one soul’s journey through three of our stories, with each story posing the same central conflict: the underdog versus those in power.  Through each of these stories, dominance is possessed, challenged, and both lost or gained on a whim.  All the while, the protagonists of these stories aren’t the stock vessel that an audience member is expected to put themselves into.  Instead, they are the little guy…the character under the boot heel of whatever power may reign.  They aren’t intrepid heroes or heroines who are perfect and inspire us to be like them, they’re just normal people who somehow got wrapped up in rather interesting circumstances.  These characters aren’t wish fulfillment paradigms that have all the money and all the power, they’re the David that fights said Goliath when something is wrong.
Overall, the book is fantastic, with it being hard to even dare to pick a favorite story.  Imagine reading one unified storyline through different eras, perspectives, and genres that somehow made sense as a cohesive whole.  Then read Cloud Atlas and tell me how much different it is from your expectations.  It’s a book that demands an audience, as well as demands to be taught in English Literature/Linguistics classes alike.

Next Time: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling