SPOILERS here for those who haven't read the book. I'd recommend skipping out after the second paragraph if you want to enjoy the book untainted.
Cloud Atlas is a novel that plays with the ideas of structure and narrative. It is six stories set in different time periods ranging from the 1800s to a postapocalyptic future. Each story begins and is interrupted halfway through by the next story until you reach the penultimate story which is told unbroken. After the finish of the last story, the others resume each after the completion of the previous story. It's rather like climbing a mountain - with each story, you progress higher until you reach the final story; then, as you come down the mountain, you pick up the end of each tale in reverse order that you started them.
The novel begins with the journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary who has sailed to the South Pacific for work and on his trip home finds himself the unlikely savior of a stowaway "savage" Maori. His journal is cutoff mid-sentence by the next story, which is a collection of letters sent from Robert Frobisher, a roguish musician in the 1930's who travels Europe and seduces a prominent composer into taking him on as an amanuensis [yeah, I had to look that up. It's basically a secretarial slave]. From Frobisher's journeys we then travel to California in the 1970s, where Luisa Rey, a journalist at a sleazy gossip rag has stumbled onto a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. After Rey's story comes the "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," which tells of how Cavendish, a publisher in London, ends up trapped against his will in a retirement home. The next story, my personal favorite, is an interview with Sonmi-451, a clone from the future corpocracy of Nea So Corpos, in the former region of Korea. From Sonmi's intriguing recollections we then move even further into the future, to what is left of Hawaii, as a "freakbirthed" Valleysman watches the last of humanity fight for survival. Each story represents a different style or genre of writing (for example, Rey's tale is a crime thriller), and Mitchell does a fine job of writing each style.
One of the interesting things about the structure of the novel is that each story (with the exception of the last) is being read or watched by the next. Frobisher finds Ewing's journal and comments on it in his letters; Rey reads Frobisher's letters; Cavendish is sent Rey's story as a manuscript; Sonmi-451 watches a movie version of Cavendish's ordeal; and Zachry (the Valleysman) views Sonmi's interview through a futuristic device that projects a hologram.
There is another way the author connects his stories. He mentions a comet-shaped birthmark that is shared by main protagonists of the story (save for the last - it's not the narrator but another character who bears the mark). The obvious interpretation of the mark here is reincarnation - that it's the same soul traveling through the ages. And just like how there's a sense of progression as you head deeper into the novel (or up the mountain, as I think of it), there's a progression of the soul from one lifetime to another - it evolves. It starts out as Ewing, a very proper man who sees how horribly humans treat one another (races enslaving others, for example) and chooses not to act; to Frobisher, who is driven by his own selfish impulses but strives to create something lasting through his music; to Rey, who sees an impending catastrophe and fights to prevent it; to Cavendish, who fights for his freedom; to Sonmi, who fights for the freedom of others, namely, her fellow clone slaves; and finally, to the character of Meronym, who fights with Zachry to prevent the loss of all humanity has achieved in the face of its most primal, base nature. The soul evolves from idle witness to proactive fighter - in every time period, the same problems are presented (the struggle for power and/or dominance between men, between races, between countries) and as the stories advance, the soul reaches its apex in the unbroken sixth story, and the ramifications are felt as the other stories come to their conclusions.
The more I reflect on the book, the more I find threads between the stories. And I wish that Mitchell would turn the chapter on Sonmi into a full novel; that story in particular is a very well fleshed out world that I would love to explore. The novel has been optioned by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame), and it's interesting to ponder how they would take such a sprawling vision and turn it into a movie. But personally, I'd rather not see it get the Hollywood chop treatment.
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