Thin Air

‘Cloud Atlas’

David Mitchell’s virtuosic novel Cloud Atlas enfolds six plots into one theme: No man is an island but neither is any era. In all times, in all places, as one of the book’s less savory characters would have it, “the weak are meat the strong do eat”; and, as the more sympathetic characters learn, the weak must rebel, occasionally aided by those who are both strong and compassionate. There is a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain running through the book, suggesting that the souls of predators, victims, rescuers, and self-rescuers reappear in different bodies throughout history.

Six stories, six genres. In the tradition of nineteenth-century travel narratives (e.g., Melville’s Typee), a naïve young American lawyer of the 1840s recounts a voyage home from the South Seas during which he is murderously preyed upon by a con man but rescued by an island native he befriended before the voyage. Next, an epistolary narrative tells how a young British musician of the 1930s helped an elderly composer recover his creative powers. But the young man is then destroyed by the old man’s predations and his own riven nature. In a tale emulating pulp fiction, a California journalist of the 1970s, who has uncovered a corporate plot to make...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.