“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

June 30, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Posted in Book review, Reflections | 4 Comments

It’s time for a book review!! This is not a book about food, but it has one of the most compelling stories that relates to the vegan philosophy, of any book I’ve read. The book is “Cloud Atlas,” a novel by David Mitchell. This is a wonderful book, a really brilliant, original novel; the book was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2004. I read it about a year ago, so my exact recollection of the details may be fuzzy, but I will attempt to describe how I remember it.

Roughly, the book is a series of inter-related stories, with characters and plots that connect to each other (although the connections are not clear until the end). I love the structure of the book; it has an intricate structure and complex stories. Some of the sections are structured as a diary, some as an interview, some as a mystery-suspense novel. The different parts of this book deal with different characters and settings, but roughly it is the story of one soul that keeps getting reincarnated through different lives and keeps dealing with themes of tyranny, control, and fights for independence. There are several contrasting settings and characters: a 19th-century quack doctor who travels the Pacific, a missionary on a Pacific island who exploits and converts the natives, a composer who tries to escape the tyranny of the mentor who steals his melodies, a journalist in the 1970’s who gets threatened with organized violence when she tries to expose a corporate plot, and a futuristic island where people have reverted to uncontrolled violence and warfare in an attempt to survive. David Mitchell’s writing style is so unique, so vivid– it is a really compelling book.

The story that sticks in my mind the most is called “An Orison of Sonmi~451” (divided into two sections in the book). When I first read this book, this section really shocked me, and I really strongly disliked it (it has very graphic descriptions of violence in it, quite shocking), but after a year, I find that I keep thinking about it, and I really appreciate it now. The story is structured as the transcript of an interview with a prisoner, before her death sentence is carried out. The setting is a futuristic Earth, in which a large corporation has come up with a brilliant method of providing food for a large population. The corporation uses human clones, bred for servitude and loyalty. The clones live their lives in the fast-food restaurants, serving food and repeating 1984-like chants of loyalty to “Papa.” The clones are fed rosy stories of how, after they have payed back their debt (for their creation) by years of loyal service, they will be taken to a wonderful resort island to live out the rest of their lives in luxury. One particular clone becomes enlightened when she starts to find out small details about the outside world, and wants to escape and live her own life. The most chilling, terrifying scene in the book is how she witnesses the retired clones being taken, not to a paradise island, but to a meat processing plant, where they are processed to become the food that they have served their whole lives.

When I first read this book, I found this part of the novel to be very shocking, violent, and disturbing. I was very upset by it, and I almost didn’t finish reading the book because of it. But after thinking about it for a year, (and now after becoming vegan), I realize that this story is a wonderful metaphor for the current state of our mass food supply (specifically fast-food restaurants). Also a wonderful metaphor for how “we are what we eat.” Our society relies on cruelty and exploitation of animals and people in order to supply the food we eat. In the story, the violent descriptions were necessary in order to create the effect of shock and disbelief, similar to how PETA uses videos of animal cruelty to expose what happens in meat processing plants. Mitchell’s intent was to be shocking. It is easy to remain complacent and to keep believing a rosy picture of how our food gets to our plate (I think most people picture happy cows and happy chickens on an idyllic country farm), when the reality is much more disturbing and cruel. “An Orison of Sonmi~451” (in “Cloud Atlas”) is a very stark, shocking, but brilliant picture of ourselves, cloaked as a picture of a fantastical, futuristic setting. It is an exaggerated story, a fantastical, unrealistic story, but it represents the vast corporate meat industry that markets “happy meals” and erects huge “golden arches” all over the world. I would highly recommend this book!



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  1. I am a David Mitchell fan, and I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, as well as Black Swan Green. I also tried – unsuccessfully – to become vegan last year, with help from The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook and Vegan With a Vengeance. It lasted about 4 months. I may try again someday, but I don’t know that I could make it long-term. Anyway, I look forward to checking out your blog a bit more and seeing what tips you have for vegans.

  2. Thanks for looking at my blog! I haven’t read Black Swan Green yet, but I also really liked Number 9 Dream.

    Becoming vegan is definitely a big lifestyle change– I think it was a harder change for me to become vegan, than to become vegetarian (I was vegetarian for about a year before I became vegan). But it’s been worth it in the end; I really feel comfortable with it now (although it did take a while to get used to it). Good luck to you with possibly trying to be vegan again! I think I will try to do a series of posts sometime soon, about “intro to veganism” or “a week in the life of a vegan,” for people who aren’t familiar with being vegan or are just trying to become vegan. Anyways, thanks for looking at my blog, and I will check out your blog for some book recommendations!

  3. Nice review! I think you should do more book reviews on this blog.

  4. Thanks!! 🙂 I’m thinking of starting another blog to talk about books, actually!

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