"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

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“Cloud Atlas” takes us, wide-eyed and agape, through a cautionary Matryoshka doll of a novel, where hero after hero vies with and suffers from the whims and prejudices of those in power. This book stands as a brilliant testimony and reinforcement of why we take up reading in the first place. Mr. Mitchell echoes the South Seas observations of Robert Louis Stevenson, the crime mysteries of John D. MacDonald, and the dystopian future of Margaret Atwood. In each vividly wrought milieu, the author draws out the plight of a person or group as it strains against the tyranny of the day.

This innovative structure arrests any reader who expects a continuous narrative. At the abrupt conclusion of the first section, set in the 19th Century in the South Pacific, we are thrust forward to Europe, between the World Wars. From the intrigue and exploitation of an amanuensis by a famous composer, we rush forward to the 1970s and a plot involving murder as a corporate strategy by a California nuclear utility. From whence we rush to the years at the turn of the 20th to the 21st Centuries, and the tribulations of a man whom relatives want to confine against his will simply because he turned 60. Then come the futuristic visions, which turn progressively uglier and end in a post-apocalyptic world where all society and technology and culture have vanished. The ultimate of these brings us back to sailing ships on the Pacific Ocean, but without any that the race has any civilizing features, or communal practices, or hopes, at all.

Mr. Mitchell then retraces his steps back through the narratives, providing some measure of resolution for each. Certain individuals bear the exact same birthmark, showing a further continuity for the story. As the narratives build up, the theme of the downtrodden vs. powerful repeats in ever-new and cruel ways. We sense early on that the effects: these clever reiterations will leave an indelible mark on our consciousness. We get what the author wants us to have, and we admire and thank him for the multiple insights. Repetition shows itself as patently the most effective way to focus on the theme: the powerful will wreak their predation and exploitation of weaker people and groups, with never an end in sight.

This is stunning: effective, awe-inspiring, memorable, reverberating. If you are serious about reading serious fiction, read this.
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