"...and the glittering skyscrapers turn the blooms of youth into withered cacti".
This is the third masterpiece from author David Mitchell. In a similar vein to his debut Ghostwritten, it is split into short stories comprising of snippets from different lives, places, times. Rarely is a book so aesthetic (even aside from the beautiful front cover). Mitchell's plot slots together like a Russian doll as it sweeps across boundaries of time and genre. Set within it are vivid gems of characterisation, and from the protagonists to the apparently inconsequential each is unforgettable.
Adam Ewing is a new American 'man of letters' sailing the Polynesian islands in the late 19th century, our introduction is brief before we find ourselves amid a tragic epistolary tale of the flaming talent of a young composer in the 1930s who burns out alone. The reader then awakens in the midst of a 1970s tale of journo hackery and government-level corruption in nuclear-obsessed America, before being catapulted into the modern day in the company of an obnoxious publisher battling the onset of old age and thuggery in the East end of London. Like a siren the note of the novel alters as it recedes ahead of us into the future. A tale of corporate slavery and a vision of a world dominated by material desire precedes its post-apocalyptic aftermath – the only complete tale within the split shells of its fellows. Between this pair a lesson on the value of knowledge V.s money materialises, betraying the inhumanitarian spirit of contemporary capitalism.
The parts of our Russian doll are discernable yet dissimilar like the movement of clouds across the sky, at once the same entity yet constantly shape shifting. I won't give away the unifying key, though anyone familiar with Mitchell's previous works will identify it instantly. I've only read Cloud Atlas through once, but I've no doubt each further read will peel back even more subtle connecting layers and threads. There is no heart of this novel, though each section becomes a hub of themes within itself. Our publisher in section 4, for example, even provides us with a critical analysis of his own story, allowing a more indepth appreciation of Mitchell's aims as an author. The central piece provides the circular tale of story-telling itself, evolving through narrative style to return, finally, to it's origins in oral transmission (which is how literature began).
I feel Mitchell's intelligence, confidence and adeptness as an author allude any full analysis of his motives, and like any work of art it is probably best just to stand back and admire the technique and beauty we are confronted with than over-analyse its method. Enjoy Cloud Atlas as a piece of socially relevant holiday escapism.