Jan 22 2008
A cloud atlas is a book that catalogs different types of clouds, with photographs or drawings. Typically they are of a particular geographical area. They are old fashioned books in this day of ubiquitous satellite imagery, with their folio sizing and large, heavy photographic plates; and they are rather magical: how can you build an atlas of something as transitory and ephemeral as clouds? The whole premise is that something so unique as the patterns in the sky at any given moment, something we accept as ever-changing, even more than snowflakes or water patterns, can actually be typecast and fixed — this cloud that you see, this elephant or profile in your mind’s eye, unique to a moment (so you thought) is but one instance of a whole, a point on the map: this is the way things happen.
David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas takes up this theme, but for people. The novel contains six stories, five of them split into two parts, centering around a central story set in the far future. The stories, about six people who may be connected, move forward in time: we start with Dr. Ewing’s journey through the South Pacific in the 1800s; move to a disaffected composer in the 1930s in Europe; jump to the 1970s and a journalist and activist in California; then a grim and grisly humorous elegy on age in modern Britain; lastly an odd, dark, science-fiction future in Korea. Centering the whole is a story without a future or a past, a young man in Hawai’i at the end of days. Genders switch, as do tones; after the center tale the stories finish, spiraling back into the past.
The layout is a conceit that works — that in fact makes the book arresting, worth reading. The cutoff after the first story is masterly. But the stories are on their own compelling, the characters vivid, stories that will linger in my mind’s eye for a long time. Mitchell falls down the most when he draws the comparisons too strongly, tries to make his ideas about reincarnation too obvious; but these are only a few slips, and don’t detract from a hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking construction of a work.
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