Cloud Atlas

I haven’t been writing about books I’m reading for a while; a while back I actually kept a running commentary for over a year on all the books I’d read, but I got tired of that.  So I’m just writing about this one because it’s so striking.  I was at Barnes and Noble looking for something to read, and this book just jumped out at me.  It’s Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

It’s structurally interesting, to start with.  I’m a sucker for books within books; one of my all-time favorites is Freddy’s Book, by John Gardner, in which an English Lit professor giving a talk at a small liberal arts college spends the night at the department chair’s house.  The chair’s son, Freddy, is a giant, huge and painfully shy.  Never comes out of his room.  Somehow the visiting prof makes contact with him, and the giant shoves his manuscript out the bedroom door.  The rest of the book is Freddy’s manuscript, about King Gustav I of Sweden and the devil.

So Cloud Atlas takes this structure to the extreme.  It starts with the “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” a nineteenth-century traveler’s tale.  This is interrupted in the middle, and the next section is in the 1930s in England, where a young composer finds that diary in a private library.  This section stops suddenly, and we have a later character reading the composer’s letters, and so on.  Six narratives in all, the latest one taking place in a sort of cyberbunk future in the center of the book, after which we go back picking up the endings of the others in reverse order.

As Robin pointed out, author has tremendous skill with narrative voice, which changes dramatically in each of the segments.  The relationship among them is somewhat cryptic to me, but I plan to re-read it — we’re going to do it for book group next time.  I’m looking forward to reading it again more carefully, as the first time it was kind of a page-turner — I wanted to see what the ending of each story would be.  Next time I’ll be able to parse the relationships among them better.

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