Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I don’t do long books. If I am to commit to a book of over 400 pages it had better be good. If I am going to dedicate so much time to a novel it will not be Harry Potter. It must be substantial, weighty and intellectual. It should reward me and love me for the time I have put in.
Fortunately, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is both big and clever. Weighing in at an initially unpalatable 544 pages, the novel is actually 6 separate-but-vaguely-linked tales, and reaches from the 18th century to the 25th. Make no mistake; this is an ambitious undertaking.
I was initially introduced to the work of David Mitchell through comparisons with Haruki Murukami (who is a god). Mitchell's previous, Booker nominated novel "Number nine dream" is a direct homage to the master of modern Japanese fiction. Although Cloud Atlas does, in part, bare reference to Murukami, the fractured, jumping narrative shares more in common with Paul Auster, or George Perec.
The story opens on an unnamed Pacific Island. Adam Ewing, an explorer and entrepreneur, is shored here until he can set sail for Hawaii. Ewing is a successfully comic (though not comical) character, and the prose is a pretty accurate take on Melville. I assumed Ewing was an affectionate homage to Ishmael, of Moby Dick. An entirely unrelated character in the second chapter corrects me: he finds a manuscript of Adam Ewing’s journal, and declares it a pastiche of Cpt. Delano in Benito Cereno. This gives you a good idea of what the book is like: it is filled with references to writers and genres, and it is often tricksy – pre-guessing the reader’s associations, and then inverting them. If you like this king of thing (and I do) then Cloud Atlas is a recommended read. There are problems however. I felt that the sci-fi section was the least successful part of the book. Told in the format of an interview-transcript – it interrupts the flow of the narrative.
The book climaxes in post-apocalyptic Hawaii when we are reunited with each of the characters that we met on the way up. It is testament to the success of Mitchell’s characters that I found it a pleasure to return to each of them. Thematically, the whole book considers how an individual’s actions can influence the future: part existential-curse-of-freedom, part Blackadder. This idea is sometimes examined implicitly; through clues such as the recurrent Cloud Atlas and the comet-shaped birthmark which adorns each of the protagonists’ bodies; occasionally the theme is more explicitly stated: Luisa Rey discussing the future with her friend Javier. Luisa concludes that she would only like to see into the future if she were able to change it. But can you change the future or not? "It's a great imponderable, Javi."