Friday, October 31, 2008

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel

Cloud Atlas, simply put is a landmark achievement of fiction. An epic, sprawling, impossibly ambitious novel- that is in actuality six discreet novels woven seamlessly into one meta-narrative. These different stories are not only separate genres of fiction, but are written in entirely different styles of prose. Each style perfectly suited to it's respective era and genre.

They include: the south pacific adventures of a seventeenth-century American notary, told through entries recorded in his diary. The life of a young, virtuoso, English composer as recounted in a series of correspondences in the early 1930's. A classic hard-boilded detective tale set in 1970's California. A Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities-esque yarn, set in Britain circa early twenty-first century. A brilliant piece of Huxleyan styled dystopian science fiction set sometime in the not too distant future. And a bizarre, post-apocalyptic sci-fi meets Mark-Twain-style-dialogue-and-character-development story set in the distant future.

The really ingenious part of the whole thing is the way Mitchell ties together these seemingly disparate tales so convincingly. The stories progress linearly through time, each story set in a different period, but featuring some element of the story that preceded it (e.g. The English composer finds the notary's diary and becomes engrossed in it). In addition, each story is cloven in two so the reader is continually being interrupted in the first half of the book- left hanging just as he/she becomes acclimated with the characters (somewhat frustrating, but the payoff in the second half makes it worthwhile). This continues until the last story, the Twain-ian sci-fi hybrid, which is told in its entirety. The second half then moves backward in time completing each story to arrive finally at the conclusion of the first- making the whole thing circular in trajectory.

At 500+ pages this book is a commitment indeed. But the manner in which it unfolds and the skill of it's narrator keep it from lagging at any point. And the ending is breath-takingly beautiful. This to me is what fiction is all about- utterly losing one's self in the world of the author. Unable to put the thing down. Cannot recommend this highly enough, to those with the stamina to endure such an undertaking.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Hodder & Stoughton 2004

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