Hi. I’m Elizabeth, the sub. I’m taking a break from all-night Doctor Who marathons to re-read Cloud Atlas, just so I can tell you all about it. The combined effect of all that timey-wimey might make me explode into a supernova . . . here we go!!
Edward Gorey said that any piece of art worth talking about should be indescribable. So by that logic, Cloud Atlas is amazing. Not perfect, and maybe not for everyone, but it’s the kind of a book that can alter how you perceive the world—or if you’re like me and your perception is a little altered to begin with, it makes you feel like you aren’t alone.
It’s a gigantic thinky fable about how every choice we make has a ripple effect through time and human experience. That may sound lofty and ethereal, but think about it: you’re reading this on a device that was made by a stranger on the other side of the world. Every choice you make in your life will determine the fates of people who won’t be born until after you die. We don’t really think about things like that because we’re all trapped in the same cycles, the same stories, that have been playing out since the beginning of time—breathe in, breathe out, birth, death, cause, effect—but those stories will continue long after you and everything you’ve ever known is gone. Does this fill you with hope or despair?
I saw Christopher Plummer perform his one-man show in Canada a few weeks ago, which means that I’ve exchanged oxygen molecules with Ewan McGregor, so I’m in the “hope” category.
Cloud Atlas is a nested novel, composed of six individual stories—we’ve got six characters in six different times and vastly different places, all making choices that will ripple forward through time. Each protagonist experiences the life of the character preceding them via letters, a novel, or holographic record, and foretells the characters that will follow through dreams and visions of the future. The stories are fitted together in delightfully non-linear fashion, bounding from 1850 to the distant future and back again, but don’t get bogged down by all the nifty temporal devices, because it’s ultimately about humanity and the dilemma of being alive. Everyone is connected, for better or worse, but we journey through our tiny stretch of time alone . . . or do we?
I’m not allowed to give away any plot points, but if you’ve Googled Cloud Atlas by now, you’ll have garnered that the overarching story mighhhht have a little somethin’ somethin’ to do with reincarnation. If that’s something that floats your current incarnation’s boat, all the more reason to give Cloud Atlas a whirl. If not, enjoy it for David Mitchell’s dexterous juggling of wildly different voices, settings, and genres to create one cohesive narrative that manages to blend historical adventure, epistolary melodrama, capers comedic and thrilling, and dystopian science fiction into one big fuzzy orchestra of humanity.
My favorite character is Frobisher, and not just because he uses lots of baroque words and lives in the ‘30s. This is my favorite line of his—wish I’d had this in my pocket during any of our interminable writing discussions at school . . . “Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and buzzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
Even if historical fiction or science fiction isn’t in your wheelhouse, Cloud Atlas is ultimately about very small individuals and their choices and feelings, and how those relate to all of humanity’s choices and feelings. So if you’ve made any choices or felt any feelings lately, you’ll find something in the book that connects to you.
And if you have a comet-shaped birthmark on your shoulder . . . please let me know.
I love books that make you feel all the feelings. I need stories about connection to keep good ol’ fashioned alienation from bogging me down. Lately, it’s cheered me up to think that since I was within fifteen feet (only five meters!) of Christopher Plummer, I now have a tenuous connection to all seven Von Trapp kids and everyone who attended the Oscars this year, including the dog from The Artist.
Fair warning, this book throws a lot of things at you—there’s a great reading guide here that covers most of the historical/cultural/geographical references so you’re not constantly Googling things. I’m here to help!!
If you’re the kind of person who naturally sees a movie version as they read, like me, it will occur to you that such a high-concept, idea-riffic book is pretty much unfilmable.
NOT SO FAST.
Cloud Atlas: THE MOVIE is coming out on October 26th, co-directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, of Matrix and Run Lola Run fame, respectively. CUE THE MONTAGE!!
It’s safe to say that I’m excited. The last line of the *trailer* makes me cry. Ben Whishaw’s voice is the sound of an angel’s tears!
It’s obviously a marketing nightmare, but early screening buzz is really positive, and the studio is so pleased that they’re courting the Wachowskis to direct the Justice League movie. I would extrapolate on the implications of this (a Joss Whedon/Wachowskis box office battle? Who wins? EVERYONE) but Charlie might yell at me.
Tom Hanks is in it (Hollywood’s mayor!), it’s super ambitious and unlike anything else getting made these days, so that alone should deserve your hard-earned money. David Mitchell has a cameo. Spot him and feel superior to your friends!!
PS—because I was close enough to Christopher Plummer to make direct eye contact while he was speaking perfect French (swoon!), I am theoretically connected to everyone involved in making Cloud Atlas. Behold—Christopher Plummer was in the Last Station with Helen Mirren, who was in The Tempest with Ben Whishaw, who is in Cloud Atlas. BUT SOFT Christopher Plummer was in Nicholas Nickleby with Jim Broadbent, who is in Cloud Atlas. Two moves!!
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