Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell ($15)(c2004)
This is a brilliantly unlikely book: six stories that build to a crescendo and then a revelatory diminuendo. The first half of five stories appear in the first half of the book. The first, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," ends mid-sentence. Only "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" in the middle remains whole. What is the purpose of all this, the reader wonders for half the book. There are hints, brief references in each story to the prior one, a shared mysterious comet-shaped birthmark, but it isn't until "Sloosha's" and the descending appearance of the second halves of each of the other stories that David Mitchell's thesis becomes clear.
Mitchell plays a writerly game that is both creative in its conception and astounding in its execution. He writes in various styles, including a journal by a lawyer from San Francisco on board a miserable schooner crossing the Pacific in 1850; a series of letters written by a self-indulgent, roguish, penniless composer in 1931 Belgium; a seemingly straightforward, third-person mystery, set in a 1970s coastal community in California; a memoir by a British conman, set in what may be the present; an interview of a soon-to-be-executed slave-clone in a Korean prison, set about 120 years in the future; and finally, a first-person, slang-laden narrative by a boy from a post-apocalyptic community, set a few generations after its preceding story. Whew!
I've watched some of the ads for the movie version which has just come out. It gives away too much. Silence the television, don't read the witty or gossipy interviews of any of the movie people. Read the book first. If you want to be truly surprised, don't read this review any further.
The true genius of this work is how each story is intriguing in its own right. Each voice is spot on. Each resolution touching and illuminating. Perhaps Mitchell intends this to be a cautionary tale. It is even hinted that perhaps the various futures are malleable, that each story may not necessarily cascade to produce or affect the next in line.
Here are some quite lovely quotes from the book.
From "Letters of Zedelghem," in which an older composer is interviewing a younger one, 1931 Belgium:
'I wished to prove I'm a serious applicant.'
'Serious applicant for what?'
'The post of your amanuensis.'
'Are you mad?'
Always a trickier question than it looks. 'I doubt it.'
One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.
From "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," 1970s California:
The editor-in-chief of Spyglass magazine declares the Monday A.M. features meeting open by stabbing a stubby digit at Roland Jakes, a grizzled, prunelike man in an aloha shirt, flared Wranglers, and dying sandals.
From "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," probably present time:
I got sloshed. Guy the Guy introduced me to a cocktail called 'Ground Control to Major Tom.' Time's Arrow became Time's Boomerang, and I lost count of all my majors. A jazz sextet kicked off a rumba.
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zoons round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
From "An Orison of Sonmi-451," about 120 years in the future:
If, by happiness, you mean the absence of adversity, I and all fabricants are the happiest stratum in corpocracy, as genomicists insist. However, if happiness means the conquest of adversity, or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one's will to power, then of all of Nea So Copros's slaves we surely are the most miserable.
From "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," generations after "Orison""
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.
(Count the number of time sthe number six or the word "sextet" comes up. Count how many times clouds roam throug hte picture. However, you probably should do this on your second or third reading of the book.)