BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Why You Should Read Cloud Atlas: Because it is your destiny. And because it’s a lot more interesting and less hippy-dippy than you think.
Book Size: Medium, with a variety of styles that makes it seem small. The book is divided into six concentric stories, each one (apart from the one in the middle) split in half and wrapped around the others, and each one taking on the language and tone of such drastically different genres that you might as well be reading six punchy little novellas.
The Book Report, and What I Learned:
The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:
What if you had the chance to choose the world you would be born into?
Cloud Atlas tells the story of six people — or, really, the same person six times — who get to do exactly that.
However, scattered throughout history, from 19th-century slave plantations to the last days of the human race, each lives and dies totally unaware of their past and future selves’ existence…
And each one has his or her own story to tell: Adam Ewing helps a runaway slave while dying from a tropical illness in the British South Pacific, Robert Frobisher writes his life’s masterpiece in the shadow of World War II, Luisa Rey tries to stop a nuclear disaster in 1970’s San Francisco, Timothy Cavendish breaks out of a nursing home in 2012 England, Sonmi-451 battles for clone freedom in dystopian future Korea, a boy named Zachry wrestles with good and evil during humanity’s last days in far-future Hawai’i.
In short, they’ve all got their own shit going on; far too much of it to worry about things like destiny and reincarnation.
Regardless, whether they know it or not, these people, separated by decades and continents, are irrevocably connected. They’re connected by the comet-shaped birthmark that all of them share. They’re connected by relics and papers and faint dreams that give hints to each of the others’ existence.
Most of all, though, the thing that connects them is the world that all of them share:
Before the end of each story, every one of these characters will get the chance to change this world. They might start a war, or end one; they might save a life, or end one; they might do nothing more than write a song.
These characters might not understand the impact of their choices, they might not live to know whether or not they chose right, but knowing or not, right or not, each one will shape the world that the next self will be born into. Each one will have the chance to make that world, in some small way, a different place.
After all, doesn’t everybody?
Our hero. It’s hard to pin character traits to this person, since each incarnation is so drastically different in personality — wonderfully so, really, considering how easily this book could have degenerated into the same story repeated six pointless times. Still, a few traits stay constant across incarnations. In all forms, our hero is intelligent, stubborn as hell, and the kind of compulsive rock-turner-over who will not let things be. As you can guess, that’s a combination that invariably leads to trouble, and often death.
Our villain. We might have a Hero With a Thousand Faces (or, well, six faces), but our villain is a lot more concrete. The backdrop of our six individual stories is the grander story of humanity’s decline and fall; the path of war, greed, and destruction that leads us to the little island in the final story where the last scraps of humanity struggle and die young. Depending on the story, the forces pitted against our hero might take the form of slave traders, or totalitarian bureaucrats, or just greedy, shortsighted people making greedy, shortsighted decisions, but they all, in their own way, embody the things that brought us there – the forces of cruelty and convention that keep humanity driving at top speed toward extinction.
The Themes and Ideas:
“The weak are meat the strong do eat.”
This line is the mantra of one of the characters from the first story, and throughout the rest of the book (the rest of human history, really), we get to see it proved uncomfortably true over and over again. Three of the stories involve literal cannibalism, and there’s plenty of the metaphorical kind to go around, too — slavery, war, exploitation, and oppression of all kinds.
Because of the enormous scope of the book, we get the chance to watch these forces at work in all different incarnations, and it’s striking how similar they look from time to time and place to place. Whether we’re talking about slave traders or sweatshop owners or nursing home keepers or agents of Neo Seoul’s corporate elite, human beings never seem to have trouble coming up with elaborate theories and philosophies to put a nice face on what is, essentially, the law of the jungle, playing itself out in jungles across space and time.
On the bright side, you walk away from this book with an enormous sense that all of human history is connected and related. On the dark side, it turns out that it’s glued together with blood.
“What is the ocean but a multitude of drops?”
A lot of people walk away from Cloud Atlas thinking it’s a book about reincarnation, but, really, reincarnation is just a handy shorthand for being human. It’s hard to say whether any individual person will be reborn in another body, but as a species, that’s an easy one: we do it all the time. Humanity, as a whole, is constantly being reborn, and each new person is born into a new world that never quite existed before.
In other words, we’re all like the protagonist of Cloud Atlas: collectively, each one of us is shaping and building the world that the next version of humanity — the next version of ourselves — will have to live in. The shoddy nuclear power plant we save money on today will be the uninhabitable death zone the next generation will have to deal with. The land we pollute today will be the wasteland the next generation flees from. The cheap labor source we exploit today will be the rebellion that kills our descendants.
Doctor Manhattan was right; nothing ever ends.
But it works the other way, too: the love affair we have today might inspire our partner to do something incredible forty years down the line. The reactor we stop from melting down today might save our descendants. The clone rebellion we inspire today might create a religion that saves humanity’s last hope. (Okay, that last one is probably not going to come up for most of us in real life).
A few of the forms our hero takes turn out to be great historical figures, but most, honestly, are nothing too special. They’re a lawyer who joins the abolitionist movement, a composer who writes a beautiful song, a reporter who turns in a tabloid expose. Brave, sure. Talented, definitely. But ultimately, they’re footnotes: small stories in the big story of the human race.
That’s the point, though: individually, these people are ordinary, but all of history is made of ordinary people. Ordinary people have enormous power — and the things that ordinary people do matter, whether we like it or not.
Soylent Green is made of people, and that’s scary. But history is made of people, too, and that’s even scarier.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Side Effects of Reading Catch 22 May Include:
Eating soap, making soap, being made into soap, and a tendency to say things in a Tom Hanks voice.
If you liked…
…fictional grab bags of times and places, try Roberson Davies’ Murther and Walking Spirits, which tells the story of a murdered film critic trapped for eternity in an ethereal film festival showing movies from the lives of his ancestors. Like Cloud Atlas, it’s a great study in how many different stories can come together to form one person, and like everything Roberson Davies writes, it’s funny, fucked up, and told with the kind of sarcastic sang froid that I can only dream of possessing when I grow up.
…books about the way the past impacts the present and future, try Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the story of a man who has come unstuck in time and lives his life out of order. Like Cloud Atlas, it’s a book about patterns in history and human nature that will leave you both deeply sad and glad you read it.
…some real world background information on the forces of greed and corruption that shape history, try Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, try Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It’s a dense, small-print doorstopper, but it’s a great recipe for getting mad about the things you should be mad about.
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