At the moment I am reading Cloud Atlas. Partly because I added it to my top 5 the other week without having read it (I just liked the sound of it) and partly because I’ve seen the movie trailer and wanted to read the book before seeing it (I don’t think I’ll finish it in time though!).
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell tells the tales of six different characters in six different stories that are interwoven and nested like little Russian dolls. It begins with the 1850 diary of Adam Ewing, who is exploring the Chatham Islands as he waits for his ship to be repaired, then moves on to a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a musician in Belgium in the 1930s (who incidentally happens to be reading Ewing’s diary).
The next story focuses on the recipient of these letters, Rufus Sixsmith, now an old man, and a young reporter called Luisa Rey who is investigating a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. Then we have ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, the tale of a publisher (who happens to have the manuscript of the ‘Luisa Rey Mystery’ in his bag) who ends up stuck in an old people’s’ home when escaping from the three angry brothers of one of his authors.
Next we jump forward in time to a future where the world is populated with clones as well as ‘pureblood’ humans. The tale focuses on Sonmi-451, a clone who works in a burger bar. She is is shown glimpses of the outside world by her friend and ‘ascends’ becoming self-aware and hungry for knowledge. She is rescued and allowed an education, and at one point watches a movie called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’.
After that is a post-apocalyptic tale set after ‘the fall’. It follows a young man called Zachry who lives a basic life herding goats. There is no electricity and no more technology, other that what the ‘prescients’ have retained. One day a prescient called Meronym comes to stay with Zachry and his family to find out about their way of life. Zachry discovers that Meronym has an ‘orison’ – a communication device which holds a recording of Sonmi telling her story.
So, this is where I am, about half way through, and the rest of the book continues with the stories in reverse order. So I will finish Zachry’s story, then Sonmi’s, then Timothy’s, Luisa’s, Robert’s and finally Adam’s. The structure is exciting because you feel like there’s a build up and a meshing and interconnecting of characters across space and time. There’s just a small hint towards each story in the other, but that’s what makes it interesting.
The other thing I like about the structure of the novel is the fact that not every chapter is a straightforward narrative. The first chapter is styled as a diary, the second as a series of letters and the fifth as an interview transcript. The first two chapters are written in first person, the next two in third, and the final two in first again.
Mitchell also uses very different narrative voices for each story and the settings are all very different. This means that the stories are not easily confused and it’s fairly easy to keep track of what’s going on. The only problem is that some chapters are therefore more challenging to read than others. Mitchell uses dialects and vocabulary choices to reflect the time period the chapter is set in, so the nineteenth century diary has the tone of a classic novel; the letters from Robert Frobisher sound quite clipped and formal; and in the final story, Zachry has a very strong colloquial accent (I can’t quite imagine how it sounds), with the result that I found it impossible to decipher some of his sentences. The chapters I found most enjoyable were Luisa’s (the language was most straightforward here) and Sonmi’s, which had the sense that everything was so fast, powerful, commercialised and inhuman that it was on its way to its own undoing. I also liked the use of current and invented brand names – it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Somehow a world seems so much more tangible when it is filled with brand names!
Part of the reason I like Sonmi’s story the best is because it fits well into a science fiction or dystopian genre of writing. In fact, each of the stories seems to fall into a different genre. The diary reads like a classic novel (perhaps a Dickens); the letters equally read like a novel from the 1920s or 30s (like something by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh); the Luisa Rey mystery reads like a 1970s crime thriller; Cavendish’s story is oddly postmodern; Sonmi’s tale is dystopian; and the final chapter story is an odd mix of post-apocalyptic (something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where there’s an emphasis on family, relationships, survival in the wild, tribes, war and religion) and an almost biblical tale about a boy who goes up a mountain with a messianic woman, faces the devil, and comes back a man.
Finally, one little thing stood out to me that I particularly enjoyed. In Timothy Cavendish’s chapter he insults Mrs Noakes and she says ‘Because you are new I will not have you eat soap powder’; then at the start of Sonmi’s chapter we learn that clones eat a product called Soap.