I confess I feel a bit speechless as I contemplate communicating my thoughts and feelings about what is perhaps the most monumentally deep and imaginative book I have read in my entire life; and I have read a lot. Try combining the conviction (though not the ideas) of “Atlas Shrugged” with the imagination of “Harry Potter” with the transcendent themes, subtlety, and crafted prose of “East of Eden.”
A friend mentioned to me that they knew someone who had referred to this book as “anti-Communist”. I was amused by that description because that very day I was trying to figure out what the political point of view of the author was, I couldn’t do it, and I liked that. The theme of “Cloud Atlas” is certainly “anti-Big Brother,” but it is also “anti-Monopoly” and “anti-Consumerism” and very, very green (in the ecological sense). It searches for all that is universal in human nature. It questions our value systems and what lies at the heart of the truly civilized as opposed to savage man. Will the strong always consume the weak, or is there hope for compassion? It traces individual souls as they blow across time, and in the end, it gives hope and an answer to what one single human can do when confronted with the monumental arc of history. The meaning of the title is evoked in several spots but none so clearly as at the end of the sixth story (my excerpts will spoil nothing):
“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”
The novel is composed of six separate stories, all at a different time in history and with very different backdrops and characters. Yet each one is tangentially connected to the others as if to show the myriad ways that one life affects another. The author tells the first half of the first story, starting in 1850, and then proceeds to tell the first half of the next four stories, followed by the sixth story, 500 years in the future, which he tells in full. Each one has a different format: a journal, a series of letters, a non-fiction book, a memoir, an interview, and finally, an oral “yarn” a tribesman tells to the “young-uns”. The second half of each story is then finished so that you end up where you started. The main character (the letter writer) of the second story (Belgium, 1931) tells about a musical piece he is writing entitled “Cloud Atlas Sextet:”
“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished…”
For those readers who enjoy metaphor and symbolism, they will find that it abounds here. To illustrate the question of what it means to be civilized (man’s rise from the savage), the theme of ascent and descent occupies a place in each story: a man climbs a volcano and falls down into it; the musician jumps from a hotel window to escape and climbs a belltower in a town square; a car is forced off a cliff; a man is thrown off a building; two characters climb Mauna Kea to explore the buildings (the astronomical observatories) of the “Smart ‘uns” before the “Fall,” and while one recognizes it as amazing technology from the past, the other believes they are the Temples of the satanic “Old Georgie,” responsible for all the evil in the world. The author’s point, I think, is to show that the ascent of man is not just a straight line upward. Our technological prowess is no guarantor of the benevolent progress of our humanity. If we aren’t careful it may just provide us with more efficient ways of destroying our fellow man and the entire earth we reside on. Each generation has to relearn and guard our moral progress.
From a purely literary standpoint, the author accomplishes tricks that are beyond belief. What makes this a challenging read is not just it’s structure or depth. The journal, written in 1850 from a sailing ship, uses language that seems to come right out of that period with astute attention paid to nautical terminology. The interview with a fabricant (a genomed worker from a womb tank) in Korea 100 years from now uses words and concepts that would seem to come right from the mind of the most imaginative futurist. And the oral tale told in pidgin English, which seems could only be crafted from the mind of an expert language historian, while difficult to read at first, becomes so enthralling you may find yourself imitating it in real life.
As if you can’t tell, I heartily recommend this book! Reading what I have written above, it may seem I have overdone my praise; but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I have not seen the recently made movie, but I’m skeptical that the complexity in the book could be translated with all it’s depth without sounding trite and New-Agey (After I do see it I’ll write a comment below). This is a story worthy of slow and thoughtful attention. P.S. One hint: pay attention to which characters have the “comet shaped tattoo.”
Note to blog readers: You may have noticed that I have loved all the books I’ve reviewed here. That’s true! It doesn’t mean I’m an easy critic, however. It just means that only a good book makes me enthusiastic enough to share the book and write a review. If you read “Cloud Atlas” after reading this review, please comment below. Or even if you already have!