Twitter is great for snooping and horning in on things. I saw that two of my favorite bloggers, Amy of My Friend Amy and Iris of Iris on Books, were planning to read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas , and asked to join in. Then a fourth blogger, Zibilee, decided read along, too. Zibilee’s blog, Raging Bibliomania, is new discovery, another great thing about twitter. Our plan is to read a chapter or two a week, and rotate the posts around. This post is on the first two chapters.
First some background, from Wikipedia:
Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel, the third book by British author David Mitchell. It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards.
Cloud Atlas is now a film to be released in October. While I adore the films of Tom Tykver (Winter Sleepers, Run Lola Run, Heaven, Perfume), I couldn’t be less happy with the Wachowskis or the “ensemble cast” headed up by one of my least favorite actors, Tom Hanks, but maybe it will be great:
The novel was adapted to film by directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis. With an ensemble cast to cover the film’s multiple storylines, production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The film is scheduled to be released in the United States on October 26, 2012.
Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure. It has eleven chapters, and six intertwined narratives. The first five chapters present the first part of each of five distinct narratives. How distinct? In terms of both setting and style, very. Ranging from mid-19th century Chatham Isles, near New Zealand, to 1930s Belgium, to a 1970s California political thriller, to a contemporary assisted living facility in London, to a near future Korea dominated by corporations and genetic modification of humans. The sixth chapter presents one whole narrative. Then chapters 7,8,9,10,11 present the second half of each of the first five narratives, in reverse order. So it goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Here’s a screen shot from the Table of Contents in my Kindle edition:
In an interview with The Paris Review, Mitchell says that
“Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title.
In the same Paris Review interview, when asked how he came up with the idea for Cloud atlas, Mitchell responds:
The first time I read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I thought we’d be going back to the interrupted narrative later on in the book, and I very much wanted to. Finishing the novel, I felt a bit cheated that Calvino hadn’t followed through with what he’d begun—which was, of course, the whole point of the book. But a voice said this: What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning? That idea was knocking around in my head since I was eighteen or nineteen years old and, by my third novel, had arrived at the front of the queue.
The first chapter is the South Sea Pacific journal of an Adam Ewing, a Californian aboard the Prophetess, who journals his experiences including the white Christian missionaries’ work on the islands. What I enjoyed about this one is Ewing’s moral compass getting all screwy as he navigates new fields dealing with colonizers, missionaries, native peoples, and seamen. His voice is not delightful to read (unless you love Defoe?) but when I fought through the priggish formal tone of his diary I liked what he said:
As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.
Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 17). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The second chapter is the letters of Adam Frobisher, a musical genius, rogue, sexual omnivore, written to his lover and best friend, Sixsmith, in Cambridge, about his life in the town of Zedelghem in Belgium where he is charming and lying his way to become amanuensis to a reclusive and irascible English musical legend Vyvyan Ayres. Adam is irresistable. A complete narcissist but astute and very compelling:
Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again.
Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 75). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I could understand some readers who feel Cloud Atlas is gimmicky, or that it apes too seriously other literary styles, or is too precious, or too knowing. As the NYT’s Tom Bissell put it, “The novel is frustrating not because it is too smart but because it is not nearly as smart as its author.” I’m sure I missed most of the literary allusions. I certainly had to use the Kindle dictionary more in the first two chapters than in any other book I’ve read. But I like everything about Cloud Atlas so far. I like the structure, I like the fact that the style and tone changes dramatically to reflect the setting, I like the surprising but sense-making connections between the stories (will I destroy my nonexistent literary cred if I compare that to Crash?), and I like the implied author I sense behind the words. I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote, again from the Paris Review interview:
Is there such a thing as overreading? Just because it wasn’t part of my grand design doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Things do happen in books that the writer is too submersed in bringing the narrative to life to notice. To put it a little pretentiously, Cloud Atlas is a novel about whose echoes, eddies, and cross-references even its author possesses only an imperfect knowledge. That’s not unique—many writers can say the same about many books.
There is much more to say about this book, but alas, I chose the week I am on vacation with my family to post! Have you read Cloud Atlas? Any thoughts?