Cloud Atlas (2004)
by David Mitchell
Almost fifty pages into Cloud Atlas, a line ends abruptly in mid-sentence, making you wonder if an unfortunate printing mistake or some missing pages had caused it to be so.
This is hardly the case, however – David Mitchell’s third novel follows an unconventional method of storytelling. It consists of six different stories that move forward, before shifting gears to move backward instead. The first five stories are split in half and are told chronologically, with the sixth story marking the center in full, uninterrupted. The second halves to the earlier stories, which are arranged in a reverse order, then follow (effectively marking the sequence as “1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1”).
Once you have warmed up to the idea of reading the stories in its peculiar order, the fun begins as you look out for hints, trying to figure out how the characters in the stories are related to one another. The six stories are separate yet connected in some ways, illustrating how the “six degrees of separation” can be carried out through the course of time.
We are presented with the contents of a diary written by an American notary detailing his miserable sea passage in the South Pacific circa 1850; letters from a struggling, young musician serving as an amanuensis for a composer living in Belgium during the 1930s; an Erin-Brockovich-like mystery/thriller concerning a reporter investigating reports of corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant during US president Ronald Reagan’s tenure; a book publisher’s hilarious attempts to make a daring escape from an old folks’ home in London; a futuristic tale a la Blade Runner of a genetically-engineered “fabricant” who has ascended to a higher level of consciousness, interviewed just before her execution; and the post-apocalyptic distant future of Hawaii, where mankind is reduced to a primitive state after most of humanity dies during “the fall”.
It is almost like being in a time machine, harvesting snippets of memories off every stop and putting them together again – and strangely enough – they all still made sense. Set in a different time and place, each story possesses its own distinct style that keeps it apart from one another. Readers can immediately identify the honest yet carefully computed answers from the clone, the annoying and almost incomprehensible Pacific Islander language, and the intense writings of a lovelorn musician.
Mitchell is no doubt a versatile writer. He demonstrates his ability to switch between genres and style with such ease; it is no wonder that this book was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
This is an unpublished book review written for a national daily in early 2006. I felt inclined to put this up after seeing the book on almost every table, untouched, at the recent warehouse sale. The next time you see a copy of Cloud Atlas, get it.
by David Mitchell
It had one thing that caught my eye – a rather nice cover. Sure, do not judge a book by its cover, as the popular saying goes – but then, this is a David Mitchell book. For only RM10. In a warehouse sale. Sold.
The premise is simple enough – twenty-year-old Eiji Miyake is on a quest to locate his estranged father. One would envision plenty of pointless hitchhiking, hopes and fears, tearful reunions and happy endings.
But no. This is a David Mitchell book.
The destination is clear, but it is the journey that matters.
The sci-fi-ish first chapter starts off excitingly enough – as all daydreams and fantasies do, unfortunately. Then suddenly – like a smack on the face – we are led back to the goings-on of the real world, one that leaves you reeling in confusion momentarily. Okay. Was that real, or just another figment of Miyake’s imagination?
However, we eventually warm up to the idea of “becoming” Miyake as he in turn becomes distracted – with the alternate realities of his own making; the violent video games in the arcade; a handful of bizarre short stories left in the attic; the carefully penned thoughts of a kaiten pilot as he nears his final mission – in the process sharing with us his experiences, feelings and observations. All this, while engaged in the search for his father.
The yakuza wars, secret societies and bowling heads; the girl with the “perfect, beautiful neck”; a talking hen that goes to the market… surely none of this can be right. Or real. They cannot be easily added as an afterthought. You furiously turn the pages, hoping to be enlightened next.
But – as if you did not already know – this is a David Mitchell book.
And so you get an entertaining mish mash of genres – a jack of all trades of a book, if you will – but ultimately, master of none. Not that Mitchell intends it to be so.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each with its own little quirks and mannerisms (!!). Interestingly enough, the final chapter is left blank because, according to Miyake: “the ninth dream begins after every ending”.
This is a book review hastily whipped up on a boring Wednesday afternoon. Period. But oh, go get this book, too.