Cloud Atlas: Six stories in search of Ovaltine

A book review:

Spoiler Alert

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Book cover for "Cloud Atlas"

“Cloud Atlas” book coverThe movie, Cloud Atlas is due to be in theaters on October 26, and the trailer looked very interesting, so I decided to read the book and compare it with the movie. The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting. Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century, his inventiveness in terms of language, and detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive. Five stories are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories. After story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order, with story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resuming after six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written ala Herman Melville (the story takes place around 1850) by a thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing. We are introduced to Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. There’s been a shipwreck and along with Ewing, we meet his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). All of this is revealed as Ewing witnesses a Moriori being flogged. When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces. Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium. A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work. Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions. There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one. Three is the only one of the six written in third person. It’s the 1970″s and we know this because Disco music plays. Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable talking. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant–an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island. And so the killing begins. First, Sixsmith, and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her, and we leave the story as her car is plunging off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with a murder. A reviewer who panned a book is thrown off a balcony by the author. Oops, better be careful. Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and when the story breaks, Cavendish, courtesy of his sneaky brother, is trapped in an old folks’ home with a Nurse Ratched running things. This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey, randy reminisces of past romances and Mitchell’s use of a florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world. The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves her on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha and we encounter the first “author’s message,” when a nun explains the meaning of the symbol. Whenever I see an overt message in fiction I always think of Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas, or maybe it was Take the Money and Run, (I’m not sure but I do remember the joke ) where during dialogue the words “author’s message” keep flashing. This was the first story I actually enjoyed, but I noticed elements of other sci fi. The layered corruption and Asian setting evokes Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose brings to mind O’Brien’s speech in 1984. And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!” Before her execution, Somni asks to finish seeing a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a connection imposed on the story, rather than an outgrowth of plot or character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five. As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story and I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish story. The only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music, a device I believe could have been used in the other stories effectively and also, Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Frobisher’s suicide in story two made me shrug because he was so unlikeable. I read part two of story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with the expectation that Mitchell would lock in a piece that would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. I couldn’t find it. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

The last two pages were pure “author’s message” and I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story. It’s 1939’s Middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a b-bee-gun to be under the tree. Ralphie is also a fan of Little Orphan Annie, and he has sent in all the boxtops to get a decoder ring. When it finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message, only accessible to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Then, he locks himself in the bathroom, ignoring the wails of his younger brother who has “to go.” As he huddles in the bathroom, defiant and decoding, the secret message Ralphie discovers is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Disgusted, Ralphie feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.

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