Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell
ISBN: 0676974945

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A Review of: Cloud Atlas
by Michael Greenstein

Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes offers a portrait of the accordion as protagonist; David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas structures itself in the shape of an accordion with the first and last sections as bookends squeezing the intervening musical narratives. Relying less on traditional subplot than on more experimental multiple plots, Cloud Atlas covers large tracts of time and space between Mitchell's own islands of England (his birthplace) and Japan (where he has taught for several years). He continues in the vein of his earlier novels, Ghostwritten and Number9Dream, shape-shifting the genre under the influence of A.S. Byatt, Nabokov, Calvino, and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. A ventriloquist and mime artist, Mitchell presses the keys of his polyphonic instrument, for the Cloud Atlas Sextet is a musical score composed by one of his characters in the second and penultimate sections of the novel, "Letter from Zedelghem."
In these sections, composer Robert Frobisher writes letters from Belgium in 1931 to his friend Sixsmith in England. Bisexual Frobisher comments on his sextet to Sixsmith: "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 solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" In this musical mise en abyme, Mitchell puts his finger on the key to Cloud Atlas.
The first and final sections of the novel are "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing". The events take place in 1850 during Ewing's sailing from New Zealand's Chatham Islands to his home in California. From the opening moment-"Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints"-Ewing is Crusoeing on a familiar exotic path where he meets Dr. Henry Goose. After they "yarn," Ewing listens to the cleric D'Arnoq, who offers a history of the Maori and Moriori tribes: "His spoken history, for my money, holds company with the pen of a Defoe or Melville." Hand in hand with this marine odyssey, wherein lawyer Ewing attempts to return to his wife and son, is a metaphysical journey of discovery: "As many truths as men. Occasionally I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it becomes itself and moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent." This statement of ambivalence points to the shifting structure of Cloud Atlas and the instability of Ewing's mind, a result of parasitic infection.
The last journal entry of this section is dated Sunday, 8th December, and breaks off in medias res. The reader may choose to continue with the next section, "Letter from Zedelghem", which begins "29th - VI - 1931," or skip toward the end of the novel to pick up the "Ewing" thread. The first part ends with Dr. Goose and Ewing engaged in Bible reading, "astraddle' the forenoon and morning watches so both starboard and port shifts might"
More than 400 pages later the sentence is completed: "join us." The straddled yarn is seamlessly joined, even as the ship crosses the equator and Ewing's mind hovers between madness and death. At once master narrative and postcolonial pastiche of smaller tales, Cloud Atlas ends with a question, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
A drop in the Pacific leads to the opening dream in "Zedelghem": "Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities." In Frobisher's dream these porcelain antiques fall and smash to bits, creating chords of music. From a multitude of ocean drops to bits of porcelain music, the clouds of this novel open in different directions.
Quite by chance, Frobisher comes across a "curious dismembered volume": "From what little I can glean, it's the edited journal of a voyage from Sydney to California by a notary of San Francisco named Adam Ewing." Frobisher senses something "shifty" about the journal's authenticity, and this shiftiness recurs in each section of Cloud Atlas. Frobisher compares a half-read book to a half-finished love affair, and in the second half of "Letter from Zedelghem" he comes across a ripped-in-two volume under one of the legs of his bed: "Sure enough- The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing'. From the interrupted page to the end of the first volume." Mitchell's postmodern narrative interruptus foregrounds the materiality of the text-a book props up a bed, a structure its subject, and an accordion its musical interludes.
Frobisher addresses his letters to Sixsmith in Cambridge. The next section of the novel, "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery", begins in California with Rufus Sixsmith contemplating suicide. Cloud Atlas consists of several "half-lives," each on the threshold of suicide, each nudging the next in a domino's ripple. The "Luisa Rey Mystery" is a fast-paced Hollywood thriller involving corrupt corporations and a hit man, Bill Smoke, who chases reporter Luisa Rey because she has access to Sixsmith's scientific report that points out the dangers of a power plant. Before leaving California for England, Sixsmith phones the Lost Chord Music Store to inquire after a rare recording of Frobisher's Cloud Atlas Sextet. Mitchell sets up the artifice of coincidence in this music shop: "A Sephardic romance, composed before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, fills the Lost Chord Music Store on the northwest corner of Spinoza Square and Sixth Avenue."
Wandering Jews, narrative, and music overlap in Mitchell's inquisition into America's corporate wrongdoings. Luisa comments, "It's a small world. It keeps recrossing itself."
Cloud Atlas's cat's cradle next switches to "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" where violence and hiding recur in contemporary England. Leafing through the pages of "Half-Lives" when his train breaks down in Essex, Cavendish reflects: "we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters." He is Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek mouthpiece: "As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory." He wishes to possess "an atlas of clouds"-the paradox of ephemeral permanence, a fixed illusion that slips through the fingers. The clouds that float above each page are markers of sorts, like the crescent scars that so many of the characters have in common.
The middle sections of the novel, "An Orison of Somni-451" and "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After" are more difficult to follow in their dialects, and the reader's mind tends to drift in these sections-sour notes in an otherwise tour de force with overkill.

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