Monday, June 28, 2010

Cloud Atlas

It's been a while since I've read a book as creatively structured and stylistically diverse as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

I'm putting a mild spoiler notification here...

The structure of the book could be compared to a mountain, with the first five chapters residing on different altitudes or clines. Each cline is a somewhat self-contained short story, and the sixth chapter is the summit of the mountain. Here are the titles of the first 6 chapters and the style they're written in:
  1. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"--19th century travelogue at sea
  2. "Letters From Zedelghem"--Modernist, set in the 1930s
  3. "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"--mystery novel set in the 1970s
  4. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"--contemporary cockney gangster style a la a Guy Ritchie script
  5. "An Orison of Somni~451"--Philip K. Dick-ish sci-fi future
  6. "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After"--sci-fi even further into the future with Clockwork Orange level invented language (actually, that far into the future, it would be like someone who spoke middle English reading modern English--so it's not an argot but a futuristic version or dialect of English)
These chapters, as I indicated, have nothing to do with each other, for the most part. Chapter 2 is not a continuation of chapter 1. But there is a connection between the two. The main character from chapter two, a young and wayward British musician who's sort of apprenticing with this old, half-blind composer in Bruges, ends up finding a copy of the travelogue that we have read in chapter 1. But that's the extent of the connection. There is no significant role that chapter 1 plays in chapter 2. Maybe all the chapters could be said to have a thematic connection, but the plot connections themselves are tangential.

The same kind of link is made between chapter 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and so on. The previous chapter is almost non-chalantly referenced. That's it.

So, you might be wondering, how many chapters are there? There are 11. And here's another thing I haven't mentioned. The first 5 chapters end in the middle of things. They're cliff-hangers. The sixth chapter is complete, but chapter 7 picks up where chapter 5 left off. Chapter 8 completes chapter 4, 9 completes 3, et cetera. Here's what it looks like using the mountain analogy:

5         7
4                  8
3                            9
2                                       10
1                                                11

You don't get the conclusion of chapter 1 until you travel up the mountain and come back down to the same cline at the end of the book, at chapter 11. In that way, the entire book is a kind of mystery, where threads are lost and picked up again, in a satisfying way. Or maybe I should say, they are unsatifisfying as a typical mystery. What I mean by that is, for the most part, I don't like mysteries. They usually get all neatly wrapped up in the end. Things are too tidy. Life isn't like that. Mitchell links his chapters and supports his themes (according to my reading they are slavery/colonialism/consumerism and human nature), but he leaves a lot unresolved. 

His next book is actually being released tomorrow. It's called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

No comments: