On My Bookshelf: Cloud Atlas

I’ve spent over a week with David Mitchell’s thoughtful and intriguing Cloud Atlas. The book has been highly praised in critics’ corners. I noticed the film release a few months ago. But a book is nearly always better than its adaptation. I can’t compare novel and movie, but I can recommend the book. Let’s talk about it.

This work is like a nesting doll. The first story, set on an 1850 Pacific Ocean journey is interrupted by a 1931 summer adventure of a would-be composer, which in turn is left behind for a mid-70’s mystery thriller. A cliffhanger moment leads to the next century–ours–and a farce. From farce to next-century-Asia, and the final story follows, told in one part, in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each of the other five stories are finished in reverse order, and at book’s end, the reader is treated to a resolve of the 1850 situation and a philosophical insight that incorporates compassion and mercy in the face of inhumanity and the long stretches of time.

Cloud Atlas gives us something of a demanding read. The author gives us different viewpoints, multiple genres, styles, and use of language. The first story’s interruption is abrupt, and unlike chapters which switch points of view, the reader has to recall, “Oh yeah, that’s where we left off.” So it’s a clever idea integrated into the narrative. There is something of a forward and backward flow to the whole book. And the thread of reincarnation, though not essential to the plot, isn’t the only common thread. I think the author is successful in transcending what could have been a gimmick in lesser hands.

Religion has an interesting portrayal here. It’s not Mr Mitchell’s strong point. Colonialist Protestants, but a faintly positive spin on monasticism, both Buddhist and Catholic. By the time we get to story 5 in the 22nd century, corporations, at least in future-Korea, have abolished religion.

Does one-third of this narrative taking place in the future make this a science fiction novel? It’s a good question. Let other readers decide, but I’m a skeptic on that. I take this as a work of historical fiction.

Pelagianism is inevitable in an optimistic novel without an explicit religious worldview. Will it be enough to bring humankind back from the brink of a dystopian and ruined future? I don’t think so.

All the main characters struggle with virtue. Some are more successful, but each is flawed in some way. The final message of the book is one of optimism born of an experience of showing someone mercy, and having it turn out to be a lifesaver for the character later on. But in the final analysis, the character considers the single good deed, the well-lived life of virtue. Is it enough to matter when forces of brutality overwhelm humanity? Does on pure drop matter in an ocean? Perhaps there will be more than just a single drop. And Cloud Atlas presents other moments of generosity–even grace.

This book isn’t a work of genius like another recent read, Mariette In Ecstasy. But this excellent and thought-provoking book is well worth the effort to digest it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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