Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Cloud Atlas presents an optimistic view of the world, despite a set of stories teeming with characters who often present the worst of what human nature has to offer. Human nature is what it is, and Mitchell's six connected short stories that comprise this novel — set over widely ranging geography and time — build the groundwork for Mitchell to explore why we are the way we are, were, and will be. Indeed, "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."
But here's the trick: Mitchell only gives us half of each of the first five stories — we go from 1849 on a Pacific Island, to 1931 Belgium, to the 1970s in California, to modern day in England, to a future dystopian Korea. Then we get the whole of the sixth story, set in a far-future Hawaii, in which human kind has "fallen" and reverted to tribalism. The protagonist of the Belgium section is a composer named Robert Frobisher, and in a letter to his friend Sixsmith (who is one of the protagonists of the California section), he explains the piece of music he's working on, (which, incidentally, is titled the Cloud Atlas Sextet): "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order."
How very meta of you, Mr. Mitchell — because that's the exact structure of his novel, as well. After the long sixth story is finished, each of the previous five stories is concluded, in reverse chronological order. By further way of explanation of the structure, a character, who happens to be a physicist, is writing notes to himself: "One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents) I call the actual past which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of 'now' likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future."
Yes, it's all very high-concept — but it's not difficult. As with any book of connected short stories, some of these are better than others, on strictly a "reading pleasure" basis. One of the stories is about a journalist named Luisa Rey, who is investigating a big evil energy corporation. Both parts of this story hum along at a pace akin to a John Grisham thriller. My favorite was actually the story set in modern England, about a publisher named Timothy Cavendish, who has to escape from some thugs demanding money. And he winds up trapped in old folks home — but he seems to be your prototypical unreliable narrator, and so we have no idea if what he's telling us is true. It's great fun!
The most difficult part of the novel is the sixth story about the far-future tribe in Hawaii. It's difficult because it's told in a made-up dialect, so you really have to slow down in your reading to understand. At first it's cute, then it's annoying, and then it's just gut-wrenching and you can't wait for it to be over.
On the whole, though, I loved this novel. But I think I was more in thrall with what Mitchell was able to do with the structure. I could've taken or left most of the stories — but the plot's not the point, here. What's fun is figuring out how Mitchell is able to connect his ideas and themes across all the stories
One of those themes is best summed up with one of my favorite quotes from the novel: "In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction." I loved that idea. And to expand it further, Mitchell seems to be saying that whether bad or good, humans are connected through time and geography in ways you'd never conceive of. And when at their worst, sometimes the worst wins — but sometimes "the human spirit" succeeds as well. Goodness seems to have an uphill battle against bad, but sometimes good triumphs. And that's cause for optimism.
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 3:15 PM