Threepenny Thursday – Cloud Atlas

13 Sep

I just finished this book; like literally half an hour ago, and its words are still fresh and hot in my head. By writing this I’m leaping into the thick hazy deluge of emotion and introspection that immediately follows that last, melancholy turn of the page, before it solidifies into concrete opinion – so my thoughts here may be a bit jumbled. Such is the nature of Cloud Atlas, however: it’s powerfully moving and passionately beautiful, but ever so slightly schizophrenic.

Giving a “basic” plot overview would be unwise, because to abbreviate the wonderful complexity of the narrative is to do it a grievous disservice. Basically, though: the story follows six seemingly disparate narratives which take place across centuries, from the recent past to the distant future. There are threads of common theme and action which connect these stories across time, and characters who – either consciously or otherwise – are led along shared paths of destiny and fate. The reader begins with the journal of Adam Ewing, a sick American convalescing on a lengthy 19th century Pacific sea voyage. Then the story transitions to 1930s Belgium, where a saucy musical genius named Robert Frobisher discovers Ewing’s diary. And so on, hopping through epochs into a grim not-too-distant Korea where society has become a “corpocracy” and artificially-created human clones called fabricants suffer a subhuman existence as a caste of slave labourers – and beyond, into the even-further future.

Each separate story focuses on a different lead character, all of whom feel somehow, vaguely, obliviously, inherently, that their own short lives are linked to a grander cosmic scheme. These feelings are subtle and mostly unrealized, but as the reader, we enjoy a lofty position from which to draw the connections that these people cannot, while they remain unaware of how significant they really are. The author, Mitchell, infuses these extraordinary individuals with unbelievable depth and realism – every one is a flawed, fallible human being, and they speak with such unique voices that it’s sometimes hard to forget they never existed.

Or maybe they did?

The characters are the glowing nucleus of the book, impelling the action and connecting the timelines, and I suspect I will remember them for the rest of my life. I enjoyed them, I hated them, I envied them, I pitied them, I loved them, I learned from them. I wanted to be some of them. I won’t tell you any more about them though, because that would rob you of the singular joy of meeting them and getting to know them. Ewing and Frobisher, Luisa and Cavendish, Sonmi and Zachry – I feel like I just woke from a dream, in which I met the most amazing six people I’ll ever meet, and in the space of one slumber I spent a lifetime in their company. Quite a bittersweet feeling, that, and a sign of very very skillful writing on the part of Mr. Mitchell.

As a wannabe writer, reading Cloud Atlas was like catching my girlfriend in bed with Marilyn Monroe: I was filled with a confusingly enjoyable jealousy, but I was mostly just impressed by the technique. Each narrative could be read as a standalone book; so contrasting was the language of each. Compare the above picture, the urbane and Christian writings of Adam Ewing in the 1800s, to this, the orally-delivered remembrances of the post-apocalyptic tribal Hawaiian, Zachry:

Like, what? It’s crazy to me how deftly Mitchell juggles the sound of these settings. Each is so vividly alive and so ripe with tantalizing detail. The flavour of the language changes, too: Sonmi-451, the fabricant protagonist of the dystopian Korea sections, speaks with cultivated intelligence and natural grace, her phrases peppered with futurisms; but her turn of phrase is distinctly Asian. The Englishmen sound like Englishmen, etc. This manifests itself only in subtle detail, but it went a long way toward drawing me into the world of each character.

Despite its apparent intricacy, Cloud Atlas is surprisingly readable – very much a page-turner, in fact. The narrative-as-puzzle that other authors have employed can be fun, but it requires concerted time and effort to parse; this is before something as sophomoric as “enjoyment” may even be considered. Cloud Atlas has no such pretensions – from page one it’s both accessible and gripping. The only effort required of the reader is to reach out and pinch the threads of commonality which link each narrative, and admire their exquisite and understated cunning.

I’ll close by mentioning that the Wachowskis of Matrix/V For Vendetta fame have turned Cloud Atlas into a Tom Hanks/Halle Berry/Hugo Weaving monsterpiece, which is getting astronomically good press since its debut at TIFF on September 9th. The trailer is a whopping 5:42 long, but somehow reveals very little – having just finished the book, I’m in the position to tell you unequivocally, watch it. Nothing is spoiled. This is one of those trailers that comes along very seldom; the kind that provoke an involuntary Keanuesque “whoa”:

To say I am “excited” is an understatement on par with, “The Rape of Nanking was pretty bad, I guess. If you’re not a big rape fan.”

I’ll remember Cloud Atlas forever. You really should read it. It soothingly shushes the cynic in me, assuring me that life is never insignificant, no matter how fleeting or small. It breathes a whisper of hope that beyond our experience, across the glittering firmament of time, there is a reason for everything. The shadow of the void beckons – but the light pushes it away.


One Response to “Threepenny Thursday – Cloud Atlas”

  1. Chris Maxner September 14, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Awesome review, you’ve convinced me to invest after sitting on the fence for the last week and a half. This is going to be my next purchase on iBooks for those long, excruciating train rides to work.

    Also, big props to the # of Jeff Goldblooms out of Jeff Goldblooms rating. WE’LL HAVE BARBECUE JUMBO SHRIMP!!!

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