I read the first few pages of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas while I was sitting in the Theatre Building on Belmont, helping my friend Elle out with the box office for the evening's show. It was a leisurely paced 19th century diary of a morally upright San Franciscan, Adam Ewing, who was travelling in the South Pacific. His first entry recorded a meeting with a British doctor, frantically digging for cannibal's teeth in the dirt. He was going to form a set of dentures when he had unearthed enough of them, he said, and give them to his greatest enemy, Marchiness Grace of Mayfair.
"Next Yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & delare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers!"
Gently, carefully throughout the next 42 pages, Mitchell cradles absurd happening after absurd happening in such soft, laconic language that you must strain to see the picture he creates, as if looking through a spyglass. The effort is entirely worth it, because once the image of a slightly mad British doctor trying to ruin a woman at a dinner party by exposing her as one whose teeth, if not she herself, have tasted the Soylent Green, well, it's in there for good.
I was just getting my sea legs in this quiet tale when it ends mid-sentence on page 42, replaced by a completely different story of disgraced musician Robert Forbisher, writing letters in 1931 to the man who loves him, which also ends abruptly and is replaced by plucky feminist cub reporter Luisa Rey, in a Big Blockbuster Thriller about her adventures going up against the local nuclear plant. And on and on these stories unfold, each going further into the future, each told as if someone else had written them entirely, very much like, as Michael Chabon said, "a novel as series of nesting dolls." Each story is loosely entwined with each other, showing how people's histories pass gently by one another, like clouds, shifting and shaping each other, ever changing but still clouds, always.
The last story, taking place on the Big Island of Hawaii after the decline of civilization, continues uninterrupted, and after that each story picks up where it left off, including the tale of Adam Ewing, the end of the sentence realized at last.
Mitchell has a striking ability to adopt completely different voices in completely different genres, making the book zip by in some places (like the easy Rita Mae Brown/Sneaky Pie Brown-esque Luisa Rey as well as the futuristic, corporate controlled future of the Korean Clone Sonmi-451) and walk more slowly in others, like the Journal of Adam Ewing.
Mitchell's masterpiece within a novel that is almost uniformly brilliant is "Letters from Zedelghem," the tale of the scurrilous Robert Forbisher. Disowned by his family, completely broke, unemployed, and given one last chance to succeed, Mitchell paints such a pure picture of a man who on the surface is satisfied with his amoral character, delighting in shocking the bourgeoise, content in his self-centeredness, that I was surprised to find myself getting sucked so strongly into the tragedy that his life had become, and by the end of the story he had managed to make me hope as desperately as Forbisher himself that everything would work out for him.
Also amazing is Mitchell's attention to detail, especially in "An Orison of Sonmi-451," where he takes policies in today's administration and draws aspects of them out to an extreme conclusion. (My favorite was the word "democrat" had become a swear word interchangeable with "fuck").
I have about 10 pages left to go in the book, and I'm hoping it doesn't become utterly lame right at the end, like Philip Roth's Plot Against America (quick book review of P.A.A: first 3/4s of the novel: Best. Book. Ever. Last 1/4th of the novel: Oh, my God. When did I start the reading Reader's Digest condensed version of this book?)
I don't think that's going to happen with this one, though, so I feel pretty safe in concluding that Cloud Atlas made me very happy to be a reader.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2005