September 17, 2012

Book: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:27 pm

This book has garnered renewed attention due to the movie about to be released, with Tom Hanks in the lead. Having read this book before all this attention, I wonder how they are going to film this, as the book, in my view, does not lend itself to movie making. (Why? Read on.) But, if Hollywood thinks that they can make a successful movie out of The Life of Pi  (reviewed here earlier) which is an even more bizarre story from the point of view of movie making, they can film anything, I guess.

Back to the book itself.

My advise to you, if you take this book on hand to read, is to be patient. The book is a good read, but you do not realize it while reading the first part of the book. If you are the type who reads a little and discards the book if it does not prove interesting, you wll not stick with this book, unless you have a hint that it gets better, and so I duly provide that hint here: It Gets Better!

The easiest way to explain the book is to imagine six different books, with six different stories. However, unlike the traditional reading, where each story ends before the next one begins, imagine the book published as if each book is embedded in the other. That is the first story begins first, goes half way through, and then the next story begins. Before that one ends, the third one starts and so on. (For the computer geeks out therse, these are nested function calls !) The sixth or the innermost story, is told in full. Then the second part of the fifth one is told, and then the fourth etc, in reverse order, as if you are reading the second half of the books so arranged.

This alone would not be enough to mark this book apart, and as a finalist positon in the MAN Booker List for that year attests, the book distinguishes itself in many other respects as well. For one, each story is told in different time periods, progressively forward right from the slavery ridden past of the early 20th century to the future world of designer men and women. Even more interestingly, the ideas criss cross (in the style of Holes, by Louis Sachar, also reviewed earlier here).

For example, the central characters have moles that look like comets. A certain hill that looks like a man reclining (man made? natural?) make their appearance. In almost all cases, these are interpreted differently by the characters in the story. Even more impressively, the stories refer to each other as characters come into contact with things that relate to another story! For instance, Sonmi, in one of the stories a central character, becomes revered as God in another.

As if all this is not enough to make you love the book, each story has an unexpected twist that takes the reader by surprise. Not as effective or dramatic or as late in the story as the famous ‘Tales of the Unexpected‘ by Roald Dahl, but still packs quite a punch.

In addition, the very language (narration) style changes from story to story, to suit the times. In the 1930s it is the old style of writing with ‘&’ and ‘etc’ liberally sprinkled, to the loss of language skills slowly in the futuristic days – presumably due to reformation in one case and loss of skills in the other. The beauty is in leaving these unstated, for the reader to puzzle out.

All these make this book a great read.

Bad points? Some ‘deux ex machina’ endings and even events – it is one thing to pack a surprise in the story, but another to contrive events to generate that surprise. These make the book like watching a James Bond film, where reason must be locked in your home cabinet before you can enjoy the story.

Now for the stories themselves. The first one is 19th century and deals with an Adam Ewing, who sails home on a ship from Australia via Polynesia. He befriends a good doctor, and rescues a slave, and they set sail on a ship bound for Hawaii. Adam is an American but the doctor Dr Goose is British. Thge story is told through the journals of Adam Ewing, and revolves around many events. The description of the punishing of the slaves, the hardships on the ship voyage, the stay in Polynesia where cruelty reigns in the attempts of the British reverend Horrox to ‘educate and reform’ the natives all make intersting reading. The suffering due to worms of Adam Ewing that gnaw his ‘cerebral tubes’ and his real agony due to the illness are vividly described.

The second story is the story of Robert Frobisher, who becomes famous for all times for his composition ‘Cloud Atlas’. (Yes, clouds are a recurring theme in all stories as well). The surprise here is his letters to Sixsmith, his friend. He comes across as an idle, unscrupulous, penniless vagabond, who worms his way into the good graces of a great composer Vivian Ayres. His wife Jocanda(?) and daughter Eva loath him on sight but the musician hires him as his apprentice. (No, the twist is not that he stole the composition.. nothing so trivial. ) He ends up having an affair with the wife and feels stuck to the place. This story is set in the early twentieth century.

The third story is that of an intrepid reported called Luisa Rey, who, though working for a tabloid rag called Spyglass, is an intelligent and honest young girl, rather pretty. Having stumbled into a huge scandal in a huge corporation called Seaboard Power with a dangerous discovery. The scientist who invented it, Rufus Sixsmith (yes, the very same who, as a youngman, received Robert Frobisher’s letters) has written a report recommending closure of the project but powerful forces suppress the report and want to kill everyone, especially Luisa Rey, who are getting too close to the truth… The time period is the 1960s, I think,

The fourth story is that of Timothy Cavendish. He is the owner of a wildly successful book, writen by Dermot Hoggins, who sold it for a song and Timothy reaps all the money. Dermot dies and his relatives send goons to ‘recover’ their portion of the cash. Timothy is fooled into signing into an Asylum, from where he has no way of escaping, and is kept in forced confinement… The story, with its references to Al-Qaeda, among others, is late nineties.

The next story is Orison of Sonmi – 451, in the future, where women and men can be fabricated to design to do certain tasks. Some are bred with altered eyes so that they can be used in mines etc where there is very little light. Others, like Sonmi, have been genomed to be waitresses. When Yoona 939 shows signs of increasing awareness not natural as per their design, and even plans to escape to the outer world where she is not allowed, she is killed to ‘rescue a child she had kidnapped’. For Sonmi 451, who is also showing signs of awareness and even had learnt a few things she was not supposed to see from Yoona, the adventure begins…

The last story is about Sloosha’s Crossing And Everything After. This is related to the Valleymen, who are civilized but live in mortal fear of the barbaric tribe Koona, who kill and steal at will. They also trade with the alien tribe of advanced technology called Prescients, who come across the ocean in a giant thing called ‘ship’ that moves by itself and brings wonderous tools that Valleymen had never seen. The story narrates Zachary’s life, whose father is killed by Koona due to Zachary’s own mistake and his brother Adam is carried off as a slave.
Due to another mistake of Zachary, a Prescient woman called Meronym as a guest. He spies on her, as she charms and wins over the entire village population, convinced that she is up to no good and even snoops inside her bag. He sees wonderous things but no proof that she is a spy. But his suspicions do not go away at all.. The story is set far into the future.

Good read, if you have the patience. I would give it a 8/10
— Krishna


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