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Post Road Magazine #32

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Robert Burke Warren

All avid readers have a story wherein a book seeks them out. Over the course of, say, twenty-four hours, three unconnected people will mention the same book, saying, "You must read this." Then, and only then, you'll see a copy on an end table, and yet another person will say, "I just finished that. It's right up your alley. Take it." And/or you'll be strolling aimlessly through a bookstore or library, and after having discussed the book, its spine will pop into your field of vision. You succumb to a pleasant sense of inevitability. You read it, and it rearranges your molecular structure. This is how it is with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and me.

Cloud Atlas, however, is not my first David Mitchell. That distinction belongs to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, from 2010. I learn of this book from Mitchell himself. He is speaking on Fresh Air. I've never heard of him. His voice captivates me. Because he is an Irishman who overcame a stutter and married a Japanese woman, his delivery is distinctive, like he's from his own country, which he kind of is. Anyway, within a day or so of this radio spot, I stumble on a profile of him in the New York Times magazine. (Kudos to his publicist.) The profile mentions the real-life manmade island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki, where much of the novel's action transpires. There are photos of Mitchell with his wife and son, and a picture of the island. My fascination with Jacob de Zoet deepens. The next day, by chance, I see the gorgeous dust jacket on a bookseller's shelf. I've got a little time, so I stand there, reading the first chapter, to see if it grabs me. It does. I purchase and devour the book, a historical novel set in 1799, a love story between a red haired man from the Dutch East India Co., and a brilliant, beautiful, disfigured Japanese woman he can never possess. The sentences are lovely, the prose musical, the plot captivating. The history is a bonus. Multiple points of view motor it along. The soul of the book shimmers. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet makes me want to be a better writer.

Unbeknownst to me, I am entering Mitchell's "ur-novel." I.e., he has since acknowledged that all his meaty, ambitious books—produced with astonishing regularity—are connected. Although not immediately obvious, his oeuvre is a sprawling, storied multiverse of willpower, subtle magic, human monstrousness, science, and love. Even, perish the thought, romance. Characters from one book make cameos in others. The ur-novel spans eras. Yet, each individual book stands alone, too. I almost don't want to contemplate this. It's a bit much.

As I'm loaning Jacob de Zoet to a notoriously opinionated friend, he says, "Looking forward to this, but really, Cloud Atlas is Mitchell's magnum opus. You gotta read that." I vaguely recall the NYT piece mentioning Cloud Atlas as a book of interconnected stories in wildly different styles, spread over eras, a microcosm of the aforementioned ur-novel. It sounds complicated and arty, and I am hesitant. Jacob de Zoet isn't really that complex. It's an easy elevator pitch, eminently accessible.

No matter. Cloud Atlas has marked me, apparently. The next day, after I read somewhere about the Wachoskis' (Matrix creators) imminent Cloud Atlas movie, I see the book on a library shelf. It's a well-worn hardcover edition (it's been out for about six years), dog-eared, radiating lit love, traces of multiple readers' breath and sweat on the pages. Fine, I say, I will read two fat Mitchell books back-to-back. I vow to finish the novel before the movie version premieres. Deadlines are good. But this one is unnecessary. I finish it in a few days, screaming from my bed, "I love this book! This book is so great!"

Why the screaming? What is happening? At this point I must try to describe what it is about Cloud Atlas that put me in the position of saying, when asked what my favorite book is: "Cloud Atlas." I've tried several times to do this, voce a voce, and for the most part, my listeners' eyes glaze. Nevertheless:

You think you know how a story unfolds inside you. You've read a lot, and yes, authors employ myriad styles of revelation of character and plot, but the forms are somewhat predictable, and you feel them within you in a specific place. Not so with Cloud Atlas. It is a collection of "nested" stories. Although not immediately apparent, characters are reading or telling or writing or archiving the stories, each of which ends abruptly in the first half of the book, causing initial feelings of discomfort and confusion. But then, in reverse order, Mitchell finishes each story in the second half; that's when they connect, and confusion turns slowly, then increasingly, to revelation. The narratives unfold like rose petals. Mitchell reveals them as all part of one story of love and daring and courage across the ages, from the 19th century to a near, and then a far, dystopian future. The stakes go from personal to global. Each protagonist, it turns out, is a reincarnation of a specific soul, moving through time, tempted and touched by both destructive and productive forces. I do not know this as I read, but it doesn't matter. I intuit a connection across the narratives, and it pulls me through, and then the payoff is huge. My "intuition center," wherever that is, gets goosed.

Derring-do of form aside, the content of the stories is rich, filled with drama and believable, relatable characters you root for (or loathe). But you do not apprehend the connective tissue until about midway through, and you feel you're learning to read all over again. A sense of wonder blooms as a newly lit place within you appreciates story.

I do not expect to feel that while reading a book again. At least not in this life.

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