Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
“The Cloud Atlas turns its pages over.” -- number9dream, written by David Mitchell, published in 2001 (three years before Cloud Atlas)
Some books haunt me.
I’m an avid and voracious reader, consuming books the way some people enjoy beer or pizza. Because I’m consistently in the middle of one or two books, it actually takes a lot for one to stick with me for a while, pondering its ideas, characters, symbolism and morals. In recent years, such novels have included David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, House of Grass by Mark Z. Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (even though I thought I didn’t like it much at the time), Enduring Love by Ian McEwan and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
These are the books where, as I approach the final pages, I feel sadness that the experience is about to end. They are the books that I want to immediately open back to page one and begin reading again. I always feel obligated to move on to the next book on my ever-growing book pile, though, never taking time to revisit those stories that impacted me so thoroughly.
With the theatrical adaptation of Cloud Atlas imminent, I finally found the perfect excuse to revisit one of those deeply impacting novels. I first read Mitchell’s ambitious book pretty shortly after its release, and pondered its ingenious design, its compelling characters and its wide-ranging themes. Much to my delight, a second, more detailed read has revealed even greater depths than I had remembered. I recall when I saw the announcement that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer would adapt the novel to film that I was beyond skeptical. I had no idea how it could work. In fact, I’m not sure it did.
But whether or not the movie is a masterpiece, I’ll always have an abiding affinity for the novel. In this column, I’m going to attempt to unravel some of its puzzles and ideas. Needless to say, there will be spoilers here. If you have not read Cloud Atlas (or, I suppose, seen the film), I recommend that you grab the book, along with a pen and a notebook, and get to work. Otherwise, read on. We have much to discover together.
Cloud Atlas is comprised of six interconnected novellas, essentially stacked together in the style of a Chinese box or Russian Matryoshka dolls. As the reader moves forward, we realize that we are essentially following along with the reading (or movie-viewing) of the narrator of the section that follows (I’ll explain in more detail later). It’s a clever structural trick, to be sure, but the truth of the matter is that Cloud Atlas has a complexity beyond that surface technique. Thus, I’m going to explore each distinct novella. The individual pieces all have their own central ideas, not to mention a set of richly drawn characters and detailed worlds. For someone who has never read the book (and has perhaps only seen trailers of the film), it’s easy to imagine that the novel is concerned only with “reincarnation” and that the stories might be at best tenuously connected. What we discover as we “unlock” each new chapter is that Cloud Atlas offers a culturally relevant examination of society – how it evolves, rises and falls, and how people live within its constraints.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
This journal sets us right in the middle of Adam Ewing’s story, and is a little confusing on first blush. Characters are introduced who feel like they should be familiar, yet if we page back through the story so far, that person has never been mentioned. Eventually, as we realize that we are reading along with Robert Frobisher (in the second novella), we understand that the portion of the journal he discovered in his host’s home actually began on page 30.