Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Genre: *unidentifiable*
Release Date: August 17, 2004
Publisher: Random House
Format: Paperback
Pages: 509
Links: Goodreads | Amazon | Bookdepository
Read from November 23 to December 6, 2012
My rating: 5 stars: I love it! It's amazing! + Favorite
Summary: A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

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 an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed  from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? ... only the atlas o' clouds. 

On October 11, 2011 a certain wide-eyed girl added this book to her Goodreads shelf. Quite an impressionable reader that she was, she felt giddy with the idea of one day taking on something so big and sophisticated, yet at the same time, she couldn't help but feel intimidated by that very same idea. What if she wouldn't like it? She couldn't bear the idea of ending up not liking a book she'd been wanting to read for so long; the desire to love it was too much too handle. What if that desire wouldn't be fulfilled? How would she feel about all the time she spent believing she would love the book, but ended up not liking it the slightest bit? Now over a year has elapsed, her fear's died down quite considerably, and that girl's become me. And I was ready to take it on.

When I picked up David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, I did so due to the want to see the movie. Admittedly, had the trailer not been released, I would've had no incentive to pick up the book at all. Having read number9dream, I grew to adore Mitchell's brilliant writing skill and its complexity, and learned to be fond of  his peculiar style. But since one Mitchell a year is undeniably more than enough, I postponed Cloud Atlas, waiting for the time near the movie release date enough to start what would be a 15-day's journey of adventures of some sort, of explorations and sheer awesomeness.

Of course, I didn't know what to expect from Cloud Atlas, and I didn't really give much thought about what it would be like. All I knew was, since it's his highest-rated book, I was ready to be blown away. And then I dove in. I trusted that Mitchell had something wonderful in store for me, and I was hoping that it would be a nice surprise and that I would like it a lot.

Now, before I go any further, I think I should point out that this novel's first distinctive element is its form of narration. And here I quote Mitchell's Robert Frobisher (whose quote you won't come across until about 87% of the story), so that you have an idea of what the story-telling is like:
a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late. 
This book is, in Mitchell's own words, a "sextet" of six overlapping stories--each one is connected to another in certain ways, spanning across continents and centuries of time. Thus the book runs so: #1-#2-#3-#4-#5-#6 in its uninterrupted entirety-#5-#4-#3-#2-#1. #1 until #5 are interrupted mid-way and resumed after the 6th story (I love this). Strange? Yes! But it's also delightful. And I'd go with revolutionary instead of gimmicky. I learned about this before I started the book, which I'm not sure if I was supposed to, and it kept me eagerly anticipating and actively wondering how all this would play out. I'm not sure if it will enrich your reading if you know about this narrative form beforehand, but it's definitely not doing any harm, if you ask me, since it isn't a spoiler.

Now that the B-format paperback with such a pretty cover felt snug in my palms as though it belonged there, the journey began. However, much to my dismay, it took off onto a bumpy road—or you could say a stormy sea—and wasn't a very comfortable ride. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing bored me in indescribably tedious ways. This part is written by Adam Ewing (aged 33, becomes 34 later), a lawyer of San Francisco, as a journal of a voyage on the "Prophetess" from Sydney to California. It's probably dated in 1849 or 1850. This part touches on racism, slaves, abolitionism, and friendship. What does it mean to be a friend? Is it correct when Dr Henry Goose—Ewing's uncut diamond of the first water—says, "Friendship between races, Ewing, can never surpass the affection between a loyal gundog & its master" or "The weak are meat, the strong do eat"? The writing in this part was difficult to get into. While the narration is interesting in that it's written in diary form with contractions and whatnots, it failed to interest me. Definitely not a page turner. It just made me sleepy. I'll admit it here, Adam Ewing is the part I liked least.

I encountered the book's first interruption when Ewing's journal is suddenly cut mid-sentence and gives way to Letters from Zedelghem. The numerous letters in this part are sent by Robert Frobisher (aged 24, if I interpret it correctly) to his old friend Rufus Sixsmith in 1931. Frobisher is a young English musician who runs away from home to work as an amanuensis for a great composer named Vyvyan Ayrs, who lives in Bruges, Belgium. While helping VA, Frobisher comes across temptations and frustrations in various forms, taking all the emotional whirlwind out on the letters he sends, making them very intimate and personal. He uses people; he falls in love; he talks about war and power; Zedelghem is the part I liked most of all the six stories. Frobisher is also the composer of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which he says "holds [his] life, is [his] life." And when it's done, he sees himself as a "spent firework; but at least [he's] been a firework." I loved Frobisher's striking narrative voice, his wits and his honesty. He isn't the most likeable character if you think about it, yet he's got so much charm it would be crazy not to like him. When the story takes an unexpected dark turn, my heart ached terribly for him. It crushed me that the firework had to burn out so quickly and  tragically. The last letter put me on the verge of tears. I haven't read something nearly as beautiful as that in a long while.

Next, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is mystery/thriller set in 1975. If you look closely, you'll realize that it's intended to be a novel since its first page from the chapter number, which doesn't appear in the previous two stories. Like the repeated opening lines "Sixsmith" in Zedelghem, the chapter number in Luisa Rey serves as an element that tells you in which form the story is written—a novel, a mystery/thriller novel to be exact. Surprisingly, Rufus Sixsmith from Zedelghem appears as one of the main character in this novel. I won't say much about the plot of Luisa Rey because saying anything about it would be spoiling it for you. Let's just say that I really enjoyed this part. It revolves around power, money, truth, lies. Different as it may be from the previous two, it's easier to follow and understand, but still mediocre in my opinion.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is the fifth part in this sextet of stories, which is set in Britain in our present day. Timothy Cavandish is a 65-year-old publisher running away from the cruelties the world lets loose on him, yet ends up in another one, and another one, and another one. The story is narrated in the first person POV with lots of humor and sarcasm that can make you laugh, and at the same time you feel bad for Timothy's plights. But no, not really, most of the time you can't help but find them hilarious. It makes you think about how we treat elderly these days. I really enjoyed this funny and colorful story, and I don't think there's anything more to be said. This is the lightest of all the six stories, which lets you relax a little before bringing you to the next part, which is going to be ten notches heavier

Set in the dystopian future in Nea So Copros (futuristic Seoul, Korea?), An Orison of Sonmi~451 is a long interview between an archivist and Sonmi~451, a genetically engineered fabricant. Sonmi~451 is an ex-worker of a diner called Papa Song, among other fabricants working other undesirable, unhealthy, dangerous jobs for "pureblood" human beings. The fabricants of the Nea So Copros are subjected to maltreatment as if they are perfectly dispensable, expendable slaves, but of course they don't know that; in fact, they think their jobs are the best thing in the world. What's so special about this particular Sonmi is that she has anomalously glitched, broken free from the mind-control of Nea So Copros, and developed a "human" mind of her own full of personal opinions. She isn't brainwashed anymore; she sees the truth as it is. She devours philosophy, history, books, because "we are only what we know, and [she] wished to be much more than [she] was, sorely." In a way, this story reminds me of George Orwell's famous 1984. What Winston Smith and Sonmi~451 share is their struggle against the power that be, their trust in the wrongest person, and their unforeseen downfall. Sonmi~451, however, being smarter than us sees it coming all along, and yet, being braver than Smith, willingly puts herself in that position just so she can try to make a difference, try to get the truth out there, even if the only person listening is the archivist. Dealing with heavy topics such as politics, utilitarianism, and ethics, this story is fascinating in its own right.

Now we've reached the last, central story: Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After. Notice all these apostrophes? The story's full of them; annoying at first, but I later found them to be a part of the story's charms. Zachry tells his story in an orison, which tells his recounting of the story of when he is 16 and meets Old Georgie for the first time, and everything after, including his meeting with a Prescient human named Meronym which would change things. Zachry lives in a post-apocalyptic future world where civilization has collapsed; he and his people live in the valley of Big I, Ha-Why. They don't supposedly speak the same language as the people of the old world anymore, thus this weird use of language in the narration. Tell-it-true, the voice of the narrator is—in his own words, a duck fart in a hurrycane—fun and honest, yay. I don't remember being bored, nay. I admit it's a little hard to decipher, but I went through it really fast. It even felt almost poetic to me, and I enjoyed Sloosha's Crossin' tremendously. And David Mitchell? You're unbelievably incredible. 

Now that this review is getting unbearably long, I'll wrap it up soon. I could talk about this book forever if anyone's willing to listen. I adore it that much. I didn't include the connections between the stories above because it will be much more fun for you to try to see them yourselves. I myself looked hard for the  connections and hints, and I succeeded in gathering most of them (I think), and it just satisfies the perfectionist in me. How these stories are bound together is actually amazing, and I don't know how Mitchell did it but he did it so well. Birthmarks, echoes of each other's exact words, distant memories, transformations of ideas and forms and statuses. I love it. 

Above all else, I love the complexity of the book. And I love that I didn't always love it, but I ended up loving it all the same. It's like I was put to test in some ways, and passed it. Reading it felt so much like a challenge to me, and 15 days spent doing so weren't always happy days. I think very highly of this book, but it should be mentioned that it isn't always enjoyable. I mean it's a great book, but it isn't for everybody (as I said, hard to read)—if you're looking for pure entertainment ("escape literature"), I'm afraid this book won't satisfy you much in that department. Like most "interpretative literature," this book has a tendency to be boring. In all honesty, it's tedious at some points. There are parts that I just wished they'd be over soon, parts that dragged on and on, parts that bored me to sleep *coughadamewingcough*.

But after all is said and done, those parts slipped into the past, they weren't important enough to stay. But most parts still linger in my mind, forever imprinted here. For what I'm worth, I'd say this is one of the best works of fiction I've ever read in my life. I'm thankful for the movie that finally put the end to my procrastination, because as I went on this journey, I lived six different lives at six different points in time, read six different stories in different genres, most of which I couldn't identify. It's an eye opener in a way. I savored the brilliant writing, played with the ideas around in my head, laughed and cried with the characters, and highlighted the amazing quotes (got 94 passages). I finished the journey feeling somehow richer with maturity and life experience. This book is, after all, a memorable reading experience that's sure to be lived again. 

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This review is also posted on Goodreads.

7 comments:

  1. thanks for linking this in. Have a good week.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love the comparison to music--the overlapping brilliance of the symphony orchestra being transformed with literary vigor sounds beautiful to me! And the the quote you pulled about clouds at the beginning of this post...it gave me a good ole' case of the heebie jeebies. I MUST read this!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for giving that acquaint information.That admonition is so attainable to us.Will be adjustment afresh on your website.
    Yüz Germe

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi writer i am read your blogs this is very useful information you have post for users i love blogs for read and i like to write some my idea for discussion so it is best way to share your knowledge thanks for post nice information.keep it up.
    Estetik

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for linking this in again. Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for sharing this book.

    My featured book is SEVEN LOCKS.

    Stopping by from Carole's January Books I Loved. I am in that list as # 46.

    Elizabeth
    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

    ReplyDelete
  7. Cloud Atlas was the most thought-provoking novel I've read in years and I found myself meditating on the lives of the characters long after I'd put it down and moved onto something else. Extraordinary work.

    ReplyDelete

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