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Shelf Life – Jan. 10

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
@SPL: FIC Mitch

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, released in 2004, fits the definition of a sleeper hit. Ridiculously well reviewed, its unconventional composition threw many early readers. It took time for word of mouth to spread from those tenacious readers who made it far enough into the book to make sense of Mitchell’s ambitious project.
Eventually, even Hollywood caught on, so those of you who’re interested in the premise but frustrated by the execution can go take it all in on the silver screen right now. You could. But I really think you should read the book first, and not just because I’m a librarian.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six separate stories fit together like matroishka dolls. It begins with the epistolary narrative of a man at sea in the South Pacific in the 1860s, witnessing the last gasps of the slave trade and the messy, colonial birth of global capitalism and industrialism.

The flowery writing perfectly suits a 19th-century adventure tale full of pirates, sailing, exploring and riches. However, just as the action begins to really pick up, the narrative ends mid-sentence.

Another – seemingly unrelated – narrative begins. It follows the couch-surfing adventures of a brilliant composer named Robert Frobisher through 1930s Europe. Full of witty, Wildean dialogue, this narrative is more than entertaining enough to carry the reader through to Frobisher’s discovery of a book sharing the title of Cloud Atlas’s interrupted opening narrative in the South Pacific.

Having just gotten readers comfortable, Mitchell again shifts focus; this time, we land in a 1970s-era spy thriller that references Frobisher. Why? No explanation’s given, and the narrative breaks again. Now we follow the head of a vanity publishing house through a comedy of errors leaving him imprisoned in a nursing home in our current time.

Then we jump to the testimony of a human clone genetically optimized for food service, testifying her experience living in a hyper-commercialized dystopian version of future-Korea to a corporate archivist.

Then we land in post-apocalyptic Hawai’i, where an elder tells his life story in orature. This narrative is the deepest in the layered intertextuality of Cloud Atlas – after hearing Zachary Bailey’s life story we move in reverse order back through the other half of the nesting narratives begun earlier in the novel.

Technically composed of six well-crafted novellas interlaced in unexpected ways, the weighty consequence of each narrative relies on all the others to be fully realized.
Cloud Atlas could alternatively have been titled Frankfurt School’s Instrumental Reason: The Novel, but those with no background in Continental philosophy will still find much to love here, if they take the time. Cloud Atlas is highly recommended to fans of Margaret Atwood, Ursula K Le Guin or any literary science fiction. It is also recommended to any readers of literary fiction who don’t mind some serious experimentation, and who love beautifully crafted language.

– Shauna Thomas, librarian

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