Cloud Atlas spans time periods, covers genres as varied as science fiction, thriller and farce, and showcases a range of storytelling techniques including epistolary, diary and interview. There’s Adam Ewing’s nineteenth century diary of his sea voyage from the Pacific to the United States, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in the 1930s, 1970s journalist Luisa Rey uncovering a conspiracy, publisher Timothy Cavendish’s strange ordeal, the testimony of fabricant Sonmi ~ 451 set in a future Korea, and the post-apocalyptic tale of Zachry, a farmer living in a primitive society in Hawaii. Before reading it I found the novel’s unusual structure of tenuously linked sections a bit off-putting. I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories, which is what Cloud Atlas sounded like to me, but I ended up loving it despite my misgivings.

David Mitchell has a real talent for capturing characters’ voices and personalities. In each section the tone and style change completely. Sections shift from comical to dramatic and thrilling. Many parts are suffused with humour and wit. I found, given the staggering differences in style and content, my favourite parts of the novel were more pronounced. I wished some stories would last for longer. The futuristic settings were my personal favourites, but then, I’m a bit of nerd. It’s technically dazzling, accomplished and stylish writing. And through it all Mitchell gives a knowing nod to genre conventions he borrows from. In the thriller segment, ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, Rufus and Luisa are talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Charade:

Charade’s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?’

‘A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.’

The plotting is magnificent. Each story is complex, full of enough detail to fill six novels, and all are wildly different. Yet they each form a tapestry. A comet birthmark is a recurring detail, letters or diaries written in previous stories are read by later characters, characters reappear. And thematically the stories are connected. Mitchell deftly exposes humanity’s lust for power and greed throughout the ages, culminating in the central post-apocalyptic tale. Cloud Atlas’s various parts are further brought together by questions about reincarnation, religion and spirituality. I enjoyed pulling together the threads from each story, and noticing the little similarities.

For all the complexity of plot and experimentation with style and language Mitchell’s writing isn’t strained. I was worried it would be self-indulgent, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but thankfully it largely appears effortless. In the post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ Mitchell reinvents the English language for a new age, indulging in linguistic gymnastics, playing with words, spellings and punctuation.

I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ’bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah…an’ I dived.

The story is the richer for it, so inventive I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Mitchell does have a detached writing style. All but one story is a first person account but emotional resonance is often relegated to the background. But it’s so entertaining I’m willing to forgive him. The strength of Cloud Atlas lies in the exhilarating storytelling. In ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ Robert Frobisher writes of his daring new musical composition, ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ and I think Mitchell knows that is exactly the type of question that could be asked of Cloud Atlas’s format. Revolutionary is probably taking it a bit far, but it unquestionably surpasses gimmick. Cloud Atlas is ambitious and unique but not at the expense of its sense of adventure.

The film version of Cloud Atlas is out in Australia in February next year so I’ve only seen the trailer, but so far I’m not sure I like the look of it. Visually it looks stunning, but it seems like the directors are trying to beat us over the head with the idea of reincarnation, of souls meeting over and over across time, by using the same actors to play a variety of characters (with different genders, races and ages). I never pictured Mitchell’s concept taken so literally, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Especially since special effects makeup generally manages to make the wearer look strange and grotesque. Films have had amazing special effects makeup for decades for horror movies (look at movies like The Fly and The Thing) for this very reason, while old-age makeup that doesn’t completely distract remains an elusive proposition. And don’t even get me started on makeup changing gender and race. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait and see.

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