Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
1. In Cloud Atlas, the character Robert Frobisher refers to an incomplete book he is reading as a half-finished love affair. This notion is one in a flood of fantastic insights in the novel. However, my love-affair began with the recent film adaptation. To fall in love with Cloud Atlas is to fall in love with a half-dozen storylines separated by decades and centuries. It is to find kinship among an ensemble of characters living in distinct cultures and places. As Frobisher says in the film: “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”
2. Unlike some, I did not find Cloud Atlas inaccessible, either on film or in print. What is cryptic about a sextet of storylines exploring the same themes: love, loss, captivity, and the quest for liberation from tyrants? As one storyline examines, what were the personal costs for past societies deeming slavery not only acceptable, but divinely sanctioned? How might analogous struggles play out today, or centuries from now? Author David Mitchell establishes explicit links between these stories, but avoids the trap of conveniently spelling everything out. It is a needy audience that requires everything to be tied off and explained. The rewards of Cloud Atlas come from realizing the tales’ unifying themes.
3. As the novel progresses, the independent storylines harmonize. A 19th century slave and a futuristic clone servant face similar perils and outright abuse, recognizing they are pawns of the rich and powerful. Other characters face analogous quandaries in their love lives and professions. Yielding sometimes happiness, sometimes tragedy, they harness philosophy and mythology while making desperate forays into intimacy. Time and again, our oh-so-human struggles are repeated and validated in bittersweet fashion. By halfway through the novel, the effect is choral.
4. We industrialized folk are not so different than those who came before. Style and slang evolve dramatically; however, the themes of humanity change little. Even as the impatient, 21st century reader in me craved stunning plot twists and clearly-defined action, my deeper self found inspiration by meandering through the appropriately convoluted chain of events. Within the multigenerational turmoil, the longings of various characters braided together and revealed their sublime universality.
5. Any of us could be characters in Cloud Atlas. For example, I may not be literally enslaved. But I live in a society where billions of dollars are wielded by a few to dictate the course of our entire culture. Any given casino owner, not especially more intelligent or ethical than me, has a far stronger say in the course of society. I declare the myth to be any belief that he sails at the top, and I float in the ignominious middle, because of some divine decree. The disparity of our stations ought naught be reduced to a single in-vogue ideology. As great storytellers know, the truth is murkier.
6. Reading the book helped me settle on a favorite character: troubled composer Robert Frobisher—a quintessential struggling artist driven on by golden opportunity, dubious choices, and prevailing circumstances. Of course, there were at least five other characters who could just as easily have become my favorite. Their stories are every bit as relevant. As Cloud Atlas depicts, there is a kinship among humans that persists across time and throughout generations. One can get lost in the nuts and bolts of this grand idea. And the novel or movie that does it justice is necessarily complex. Still, as Frobisher comes to realize in plotting his course to fulfillment: “If one will just be still, shut up, and listen—lo, behold, the world’ll sift through one’s ideas for one…”
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