Cloud Atlas Review

By Claire Stringer

Last year, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas became the object of my bookish desires until the fortuitous day when we were united in a bookstore on Fourth Street. Once I procured it, after months of salivating over my oddly fantasized reading experience, I knew that we would form a special relationship. I was about to leave for a month of traveling through India, and I selected it as my VIP travel companion in my meagerly stocked backpack. I felt confident that I would return to Berkeley a new woman with multiple, shifting postmodernist perspectives, the wisdom of the world, and an attractively emaciated, dysentery-riddled figure.

The context in which I ended up reading the majority of Cloud Atlas—on a greasy, three-day-long train ride from Kerala to Delhi—enriched my love for every drop of it. The profundity of each story fragment resonated within me with the rhythmic persistence of the chai tea hucksters shuffling up and down the aisle yelling, “Chai-ya, chai-ya, chai-ya!” at every stop. I spoke less and less to my travel mate the more engrossed I became in the jumping, interweaving plots. I reread almost everything immediately after reading it, to savor the careful, tidy language that suited each era but unconditionally oozed with as much flavor as a fiery curry platter.

The book is composed of six yarns woven into one grand web, each plotline set in a different time period, all bound together by reappearing images and leitmotifs – namely, the drifting of similarly shaped clouds and a new manifestation of each partially finished story in the subsequent chapter. Timothy Cavendish, the subject of the fourth story, receives the mystery of Luisa Rey (the preceding section) in the form of a manuscript for a novel. Hurtling through time, from 1850 to a post-apocalyptic tribe, Cloud Atlas folds back on itself in the second half to resolve the frayed ends of each story in the first half.

This idea of surprising connections extending across scattered moments in time and place felt especially pertinent as I shared my firm bed briefly with our “train guru” companion, a middle-aged Indian man and womanizer who claimed that he had “cracked the code of life,” relating life to a train ride with many stops. When he left our stuffy berth, he winked, slipped on his sunglasses, and said, “The mafia is out!” That was partly an anecdote that I just wanted to share for context, but it also relates to Mitchell’s rendering of inevitable, almost magical connections. What if we hadn’t met the man who told us the answer to the train ride of life? We were bound together by the arbitrary assignment of a train ticket, just as the characters of the novel are linked by images and written records of their lives.

With this significance attached to the preservation and immortalization of stories, Mitchell toys with the idea of the valued individual fixed under the all-encompassing sky, beneath the same clouds as everyone else. He ends the book emphasizing the paradox of us each representing a drop in the ocean, pointing to the melding of our individuality to fill this crevasse of humanity, while also maintaining—given the length and structure of the book—that every story is worth telling. Each story comprises this infinite atlas of human experience, not in the least muted by the dwarfing numbers of population. I finished the novel radiant with my sense of self-importance, inextricably knit with the hundreds of people crammed into our fog-encased, broken-down train – even with the garrulous, self-aggrandizing train guru jabbering beside me. We were all on separate tracks of life, stopped at the same station in the same inert vehicle, contained within the same cloud of mist, hoping to lurch forward.

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