Friday, July 6, 2012

The Bag Lady Reads - Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I love books, more specifically, I love stories built up by a collection of words.  The more beautiful, the better.  When there is that synergy of language and story-telling that comes from the heart along side characters that linger long after the book has been closed, the reader experiences that sense of contentment that only beautiful books can give.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is such a book.  The novel explores the ever-recurring philosophical facet of the human condition; goodness versus evil.
        Adam Ewing provides clarity on this point when he argues against his imaginary father that he is naive to change the ‘natural order of things’ when he states: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (529). This is the final line in the final narrative of Cloud Atlas.  It is an overt challenge to the ‘Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat’ doctrine that permeates the book.  Virtue is elevated above vice despite the reader traversing from the eighteenth century to a post-apocalyptic era brought about by cannibalistic consumerism that reverted the world back to tribalism.  It would be foolish to believe that idealism is the dominating vein throughout the novel.  It is not.  The leading characters suffer greatly; be it attempted murder, death, imprisonment, alienation from society, the loss of loved ones or suicide.  There are passages in the novel that depict the core of evil in all its glorious banality. Yet it is freedom from tyranny that is the overarching theme as both Adam, in the first story, and Zachary in the last, escape death and enslavement.  This mirroring of experiences links in nicely with its second central theme of reincarnation or the recycling of souls and civilisations.  
           Mirroring is used throughout the novel; be it the truncated narratives on either side of the central story or the duality of air and water.  The final allegory of the ocean made up of a multitude of drops is one such example.  If one considers that water is evaporated into the air, morphing from liquid into gas and later recycled back into the ocean, this links in with Zachary’s observation when he escapes death in a boat.  He looks up at the sky and states: “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies...” (324).  The novel mirrors time and timelessness because it is both linear and cyclical.  The reader moves through the centuries via six beautifully written narratives: a journal, a series of letters, a thriller, a memoir (which later becomes a film), a testimony and an oral story.  In addition one is treated to a historical and futuristic line up of writing styles that adopts the language of its age.  One thing that struck me as an undergraduate studying a variety of English texts from Anglo-Saxon to post modernism was same shit different century.  I noted the recurring themes and stories but each presented in a wholly new style.  Cloud Atlas follows in that trajectory.  The novel is cyclical because each protagonist is the same reincarnated soul evidenced by the comet shaped birthmark on their collarbone.  This motif can be seen again when Adam Ewing finds safety and sanctuary in Hawaii as does Zachary centuries later.  Also what is interesting is that there is a hint of a new generation when their prospective offspring add postscripts to their father’s narrative.  
         Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Cloud Atlas was the experience of reading what happens next alongside the character.  The reader experiences the same confusion and annoyance as Robert Frobisher (second story) when he finds only half of Adam Ewing’s journal or reading alongside Zachary’s offspring as they hear the rest of Sonmi 451’s testimony (fifth story).  I am not aware of any other author using this technique but I am open to correction.  This is a powerful and bold move by Mitchell and I am profoundly grateful to feel that frisson when experiencing a story in a totally new way.  As a writer one could be envious of Mitchell but he is very generous with his knowledge towards us aspiring writers so I won’t hunt him down just yet, instead I urge everyone to buy Cloud Atlas

UPDATE - 28/07/2012

At the age of 41 I finally feel like a groupie that screams for their favourite band.  I have just seen the film trailer for Cloud Atlas and O.M.G... I need to see this movie when it hits the cinema screens on October 26.  Directed and screenplay written by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, the film looks to be as moving and epic as the book.  Only three months to wait!!!!

© The Bag lady July 2012 


  1. Thanks for your wise review and the delightful video. Hope you still feel like a groupie after seeing the film. I do! I spent part of the afternoon with near graduates at my old university. Along with the usual advice, I urged them to watch & read Cloud Atlas. FWIW, I reviewed it on (can't seem to paste the link here - maybe not everything is connected!) LW

  2. Hi Linda

    I am glad you enjoyed the review and I had a quick peek at your review of the film. I like the connections you make between it and the election. As for being a groupie, I always will be but I have not seen the film yet as I live in Ireland. It is not due for release until next year but all good things come to those who wait.

    I have pasted the link to your review here so others can check it out, I moderate comments to weed out spam etc:


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