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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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One of the greatest difficulties with reading a novel where structure has become so inverted is to get past that inversion and still appreciate the story. David Mitchell has constructed his novel Cloud Atlas from six novellas which are broken up in Russian-doll style with the first half of the first story coming first and the last half of the first story being last so that the stories sandwich each other like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. The reason to do something like this should not be just to do it and Mitchell does make great efforts to tie his stories together but ultimately the cleverness of the conceit never gets much beyond that: being clever. The upside is that his ability in this effort is fluid and flawless, his prose brilliant.

Mitchell is clearly a writer whose strength is in his intelligence. Reading Cloud Atlas in any order would be a formidable challenge to most people's vocabulary and I found myself wishing for an index, a glossary, or a guide to understanding Cloud Atlas so I could flip directly to the last time that comet-shaped birthmark was mentioned or where in the story that name 'Meronym' appeared before.

Traversing from one story to the next you find out the first is a diary of an American abroad in the Maori Islands, and in the second that very diary is a book being read by a young musician writing letters to a friend about his experiences as an assistant to an ailing composer. The third section is a pulp-mystery about a young female reporter trying to track down a scathing report (written by the man whom the letters from the previous section were written to) that will topple the corrupt board of an unsafe nuclear power plant. The fourth story is about a man in the publishing business who's been sent the pulp-mystery novel which you've just read the first half of, who's running away from a collection and gets tricked into signing himself into a nursing home from which he can't escape. The fifth story is set in the future where the clone 'Sonmi-451' attains independent thought and, along the way, watches a movie which is the previous story. The sixth section is in the far-distant future on a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island where a new religion has sprung up in which Sonmi-451 is God and "King Georgie" is the devil. Then of course, it all descends back down the scale with the conclusions of each story.

If that brief description wore you out, don't worry. The ascent up these stories through time and humanity is an unbelievably enjoyable read. Where Cloud Atlas loses steam is the descent. It's not so bad- just a bit of an anticlimax. After following David Mitchell on an epic adventure through history and time, to simply land where you began is underwhelming. This is where the structural cleverness of Cloud Atlas fails but it is also where the prose succeeds.

Mitchell's blending of so many genres into one larger whole is remarkable and its depth and scope allow room for stumbles which might have gotten in the way of a shorter piece. He can be annoyingly self-mocking, the subtle and not-so subtle political undertones are unnecessary and distracting, and the fifth story of clones and ultra-brands has a "been there, done that" obviousness about it. But the deft way with which he handles so many different voices in so many different times is awe-inspiring. From the ancient, Melville style of the first section to the Twain-esque dialect of the sixth section, Mitchell carries all of these disparate elements of literature with almost sly ease, where the magic of such ability is in having it not seem like magic at all. He encompasses all of the recent past and far-distant future and puts our lives, our religions, and our cultures into the ultimate perspective of time. It's a humbling experience and one that makes Cloud Atlas thoroughly enjoyable.

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