I was a third into this book and I could not care less about it. It didn't seem we were meant to be. Then suddenly my heart was aching for the characters and their stories, and it did catch me by surprise.
And now it's been a week since I finished it, and I still find myself thinking about it. 'Okay, you win, book!' I have to admit grudgingly. You've wormed your way into my heart and I'd better make my peace with it.
Why did I resist liking it so much? Why did this book and I have such a rocky start to our relationship? Sheesh, let me think about it as I lie here on the imaginary psychiatrist's couch in Freudian times.
You see, its 'revolutionary structure' and all - it is basically six stories, five of which are arranged like concentric rings around one central uninterrupted story, slowly moving from A to Z as the stories go along (from Adam to Zachry), - leads even the author to question,"Revolutionary or gimmicky?" And I say - gimmicky, my friend. Jarring, unnecessary, trying too hard and yet being needlessly distracting. (Hey, you can also compare this book to the rings a raindrop makes in still waters. See, I can be allegorically poetic when need arises).
Would I have been easier for me to love it had it come simply as a collection of six stories related by the larger overarching theme? Perhaps. But we cannot always chose what the things we love look like, can we? Sometimes they just have to have that incredibly annoying anvil-heavy comet-shaped birthmark, and I have to make my peace with it.
"Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be. War, Robert, is one of humanity's two eternal companions."
This book is a message, yes. About the never-ending power struggle that seems to be inherent to humanity, that drives it forward - until one day it perhaps drives it to the brink of demise. It's about the amazing resilience of humanity that bends but never breaks under the never-ending forward march of the power struggle. It is about our seemingly inevitable separation into the opposing camps - the oppressors and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots, justifying those sometimes murky and sometimes crisp division lines with the arbitrary but hard-to-overturn notions of superiority and entitlement. It is also about the never-ending human struggle against such division, in one form or another.
"But, Adam, the world is wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. The weak are meat, the strong do eat."
The first/last story of Adam and the central/middle story of Zachry (again, A to Z! See how smart I am? See? Can I please have a cookie now?) provide the real framework to this story, mirroring each other and reflecting off each other in the repeated motifs of tribal wars and slaughter and the meeting of 'developed' and 'primitive' nations, told from the viewpoints of members of first one and then another and underscoring essential humanity below all the superstitions and prejudices and mistrust. The revelations at which both Adam and Zachry arrive are simple and perhaps overly moralistic, but still relevant and humane. And despite the moralistic heavy-handedness, I loved them.
"Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction."
As for the rest of the stories, David Mitchell plays with every genre and style he can imagine, trying to fully immerse himself in the period, real or imaginary, that he chooses to describe - with mixed results, at least for me. I hate to say it, but Robert Frobisher's story (the composer of the titular Cloud Atlas musical piece) left me cold. Luisa Rey's pulpy cheap prose held my attention only for the first half of the story and Timothy Cavendish's flowery adventure - only for the second. Sonmi-451 for the first half of the story was delightfully reminding me of The Windup Girl that I loved, and fell flat in the rushed second part. It almost felt that some of these stories were too large for the limited amount of space Mitchell could give them, and they would have been benefited from expansion.
But the Sloosha Crossing story - Zachry's tale - won me over completely, once I got over the migraine induced by overabundance of apostrophes in this futuristic simplistic dialect. S'r's'l'y', Mr. Mitchell, there had to have been some perhaps less 'authentic' but also less headache-causing way to tell this story. But I got over the initial defensive response and allowed myself to enjoy this scary postapocalyptic setting which in so many ways reminded me of The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya. There is just something that I love about the postapocalyptic primitive society setup, something that speaks to me while terrifying me to death at the same time, and this story had plenty of that.
And now, apparently, there will be a movie, which explains why everyone and their grandma is reading this book now, getting me on the bandwagon as well. The movie, that from the trailer seems to be focusing on the part that made me eye-roll (just like it made Mr. Cavendish, editing Luisa Rey manuscript!) - that damn souls connectedness bit. I thought the hints at it were unnecessary dramatic; to me enough of a connection came from all of the characters belonging to our troubled and yet resilient human race. But to each their own.
"He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
4 stars is the final verdict. And maybe someday in the future I will reread it being prepared for the gimmicky structure, and I will not let it annoy me, and I will maybe give it five stars. I would love that!