'Cloud Atlas' a Series of Virtuosic, Soaring Stories

Book Cover: Cloud Atlas
Maile Meloy

Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter. She was born and raised in Montana and now lives in Los Angeles. She recently married her longtime boyfriend, in spite of his telling her that Cloud Atlas might not be her kind of novel. Photo Courtesy of Maile Meloy hide caption

itoggle caption Photo Courtesy of Maile Meloy

People started telling me to read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas three years ago and I told them I would, as I do when someone grabs my sleeve and says, "This book is really good." But I don't always believe them, and I don't always read it.

The writer Anthony Doerr laid out the math for me: If you read about a book a week, and you're lucky enough to have 50 good adult years of reading time, you'll read 2,500 books in your life. That's shockingly few. And there are so many books I know I want to read and only a few people I know I can trust. I don't have time to find out if the stranger at a party who's going on about some novel is wrong.

But Cloud Atlas kept coming up, so I started it. It begins with the 19th-century diary of an American notary in the Pacific, which I found hard to follow. A friend said, "That book seemed a little too brilliant for me." It seemed only baffling to me, and not what I expected. And I moved on to something that seemed more pressing.

After I put it aside, my boyfriend picked up Cloud Atlas. He loved it, but he said, "I don't know if it's your kind of novel," which I took as a direct challenge. Then a friend of his cornered me for a long, raving monologue. He was in the middle of the second installment of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," which wasn't his favorite section — his favorite section was the futuristic "An Orison of Sonmi~451" — but it didn't matter, he said, because it was all so good. What he was describing didn't sound like the book I had started and I decided just to get it over with.

It turned out that everyone was right, including my friend who suspected it was too brilliant. So brilliant. I didn't write for months after reading it. I was working on a novel and I just stopped. Why bother, because Mitchell's book seemed like everything I couldn't do. It's a nested box of stories, each one a virtuosic performance in an entirely different style from the last. The Pacific diaries end mid-sentence, and the book shifts to the letters of a dissipated, scheming young composer in 1931. In the course of his exploits, he finds the Pacific diary we've read and searches for the rest of it. "A half-read book," he says, "is a half-finished love affair."

But his letters are interrupted, too, and so is the '70s environmental mystery that follows. Civilization as we know it ends, in the novel, and the center section is a post-apocalyptic folktale in which only fragments of language and culture remain. Then Mitchell picks up his abandoned stories, one by one, and tells what happened.

I should say, too, that the book isn't a cold display of cleverness: It has a heart, and a fierce intelligence and a single, recurring soul.

It's been more than a year since I read the novel and I've gone back to the things I can write. And I can safely say that if Cloud Atlas isn't one of your 2,500, you're missing out.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Cloud Atlas'

Book Cover: Cloud Atlas

Thursday, 7th November —

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw.

Had the doctor misplaced anything on that dismal shore? Could I render assistance? Dr. Goose shook his head, knotted loose his 'kerchief & displayed its contents with clear pride. "Teeth, sir, are the enameled grails of the quest in hand. In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a cannibals' banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth, they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture sets for the nobility pays handsomely for human gnashers. Do you know the price a quarter pound will earn, sir?"

I confessed I did not.

"Nor shall I enlighten you, sir, for 'tis a professional secret!" He tapped his nose. "Mr. Ewing, are you acquainted with Marchioness Grace of Mayfair? No? The better for you, for she is a corpse in petticoats. Five years have passed since this harridan besmirched my name, yes, with imputations that resulted in my being blackballed from Society." Dr. Goose looked out to sea. "My peregrinations began in that dark hour."

I expressed sympathy with the doctor's plight.

"I thank you, sir, I thank you, but these ivories" — he shook his 'kerchief — "are my angels of redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental fixtures fashioned by the afore-mentioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers! Sir Hubert will challenge me, predictably, 'Furnish your evidence,' that boor shall roar, 'or grant me satisfaction!' I shall declare, 'Evidence, Sir Hubert? Why, I gathered your mother's teeth myself from the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir, here are some of their fellows!' & fling these very teeth into her tortoiseshell soup tureen & that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction! The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in their news sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a Poorhouse Ball!"

In haste, I bade Henry Goose a good day. I fancy he is a Bedlamite.

Friday, 8th November —

In the rude shipyard beneath my window, work progresses on the jibboom, under Mr. Sykes's directorship. Mr. Walker, Ocean Bay's sole taverner, is also its principal timber merchant & he brags of his years as a master shipbuilder in Liverpool. (I am now versed enough in Antipodese etiquette to let such unlikely truths lie.) Mr. Sykes told me an entire week is needed to render the Prophet- ess "Bristol fashion." Seven days holed up in the Musket seems a grim sentence, yet I recall the fangs of the banshee tempest & the mariners lost o'erboard & my present misfortune feels less acute.

I met Dr. Goose on the stairs this morning & we took breakfast together. He has lodged at the Musket since middle October after voyaging hither on a Brazilian merchantman, Namorados, from Feejee, where he practiced his arts in a mission. Now the doctor awaits a long-overdue Australian sealer, the Nellie, to convey him to Sydney. From the colony he will seek a position aboard a passenger ship for his native London.

My judgment of Dr. Goose was unjust & premature. One must be cynical as Diogenes to prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues. The doctor has his eccentricities & recounts them gladly for a dram of Portuguese pisco (never to excess), but I vouchsafe he is the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso. I may even compose for him a letter of introduction for the Partridges in Sydney, for Dr. Goose & dear Fred are of the same cloth.

Poor weather precluding my morning outing, we yarned by the peat fire & the hours sped by like minutes. I spoke at length of Tilda & Jackson & also my fears of "gold fever" in San Francisco. Our conversation then voyaged from my hometown to my recent notarial duties in New South Wales, thence to Gibbon, Malthus & Godwin via Leeches & Locomotives. Attentive conversation is an emollient I lack sorely aboard the Prophetess & the doctor is a veritable polymath. Moreover, he possesses a handsome army of scrimshandered chessmen whom we shall keep busy until either the Prophetess's departure or the Nellie's arrival.

Saturday, 9th November —

Sunrise bright as a silver dollar. Our schooner still looks a woeful picture out in the Bay. An Indian war canoe is being careened on the shore. Henry & I struck out for "Banqueter's Beach" in holy-day mood, blithely saluting the maid who labors for Mr. Walker. The sullen miss was hanging laundry on a shrub & ignored us. She has a tinge of black blood & I fancy her mother is not far removed from the jungle breed.

As we passed below the Indian hamlet, a "humming" aroused our curiosity & we resolved to locate its source. The settlement is circumvallated by a stake fence, so decayed that one may gain ingress at a dozen places. A hairless bitch raised her head, but she was toothless & dying & did not bark. An outer ring of ponga huts (fashioned from branches, earthen walls & matted ceilings) groveled in the lees of "grandee" dwellings, wooden structures with carved lintel pieces & rudimentary porches. In the hub of this village, a public flogging was under way. Henry & I were the only two Whites present, but three castes of spectating Indians were demarked. The chieftain occupied his throne, in a feathered cloak, while the tattooed gentry & their womenfolk & children stood in attendance, numbering some thirty in total. The slaves, duskier & sootier than their nut-brown masters & less than half their number, squatted in the mud. Such inbred, bovine torpor! Pockmarked & pustular with haki-haki, these wretches watched the punishment, making no response but that bizarre, beelike "hum." Empathy or condemnation, we knew not what the noise signified. The whip master was a Goliath whose physique would daunt any frontier prizefighter. Lizards mighty & small were tattooed over every inch of the savage's musculature: — his pelt would fetch a fine price, though I should not be the man assigned to relieve him of it for all the pearls of O-hawaii! The piteous prisoner, hoarfrosted with many harsh years, was bound naked to an A-frame. His body shuddered with each excoriating lash, his back was a vellum of bloody runes, but his insensible face bespoke the serenity of a martyr already in the care of the Lord.

I confess, I swooned under each fall of the lash. Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye & shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box and, undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition. A tattooed "blackfella" approached us & flicked his nephrite dagger to indicate that we were unwelcome. I inquired after the nature of the prisoner's crime. Henry put his arm around me. "Come, Adam, a wise man does not step betwixt the beast & his meat."

Sunday, 10th November —

Mr. Boerhaave sat amidst his cabal of trusted ruffians like Lord Anaconda & his garter snakes. Their Sabbath "celebrations" downstairs had begun ere I had risen. I went in search of shaving water & found the tavern swilling with Tars awaiting their turn with those poor Indian girls whom Walker has ensnared in an impromptu bordello. (Rafael was not in the debauchers' number.)

I do not break my Sabbath fast in a whorehouse. Henry's sense of repulsion equaled to my own, so we forfeited breakfast (the maid was doubtless being pressed into alternative service) & set out for the chapel to worship with our fasts unbroken.

We had not gone two hundred yards when, to my consternation, I remembered this journal, lying on the table in my room at the Musket, visible to any drunken sailor who might break in. Fearful for its safety (& my own, were Mr. Boerhaave to get his hands on it), I retraced my steps to conceal it more artfully. Broad smirks greeted my return & I assumed I was "the devil being spoken of," but I learned the true reason when I opened my door: — to wit, Mr. Boerhaave's ursine buttocks astraddle his Blackamoor Goldilocks in my bed in flagrante delicto! Did that devil Dutchman apologize? Far from it! He judged himself the injured party & roared, "Get ye hence, Mr. Quillcock! or by God's B—d, I shall snap your tricksy Yankee nib in two!"

I snatched my diary & clattered downstairs to a riotocracy of merriment & ridicule from the White savages there gathered. I remonstrated to Walker that I was paying for a private room & I expected it to remain private even during my absence, but that scoundrel merely offered a one-third discount on "a quarter-hour's gallop on the comeliest filly in my stable!" Disgusted, I retorted that I was a husband & a father! & that I should rather die than abase my dignity & decency with any of his poxed whores! Walker swore to "decorate my eyes" if I called his own dear daughters "whores" again. One toothless garter snake jeered that if possessing a wife & a child was a single virtue, "Why, Mr. Ewing, I be ten times more virtuous than you be!" & an unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person. I withdrew ere the liquid was swapped for a more obdurate missile.

The chapel bell was summoning the God-fearing of Ocean Bay & I hurried thitherwards, where Henry waited, trying to forget the recent foulnesses witnessed at my lodgings. The chapel creaked like an old tub & its congregation numbered little more than the digits of two hands, but no traveler ever quenched his thirst at a desert oasis more thankfully than Henry & I gave worship this morning. The Lutheran founder has lain at rest in his chapel's cemetery these ten winters past & no ordained successor has yet ventured to claim captaincy of the altar. Its denomination, therefore, is a "rattle bag" of Christian creeds. Biblical passages were read by that half of the congregation who know their let- ters & we joined in a hymn or two nominated by rota. The "steward" of this demotic flock, one Mr. D'Arnoq, stood beneath the modest cruciform & besought Henry & me to participate in likewise manner. Mindful of my own salvation from last week's tempest, I nominated Luke ch. 8, "And they came to him, & awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, & rebuked the wind & the raging of the water: & they ceased, & there was a calm."

Henry recited from Psalm the Eighth, in a voice as sonorous as any schooled dramatist: "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep & oxen, yea & the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air & the fish of the sea & whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas."

No organist played a Magnificat but the wind in the flue chimney, no choir sang a Nunc Dimittis but the wuthering gulls, yet I fancy the Creator was not displeazed. We resembled more the Early Christians of Rome than any later Church encrusted with arcana & gemstones. Communal prayer followed. Parishioners prayed ad lib for the eradication of potato blight, mercy on a dead infant's soul, blessing upon a new fishing boat, &c. Henry gave thanks for the hospitality shown us visitors by the Christians of Chatham Isle. I echoed these sentiments & sent a prayer for Tilda, Jackson & my father-in-law during my extended absence.

Excerpted from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Copyright © 2004 by David Mitchell [quote] —Michael Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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