Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
by Robert A. Parker
This 2005 novel is remarkable. But, half-way into it, I was puzzled by the book’s purpose. I was prepared to experience different stories at various time levels, but was not prepared to experience its various genre styles. At one point, I wondered if these different writing styles merely reflected the author showing off.
The story begins with Adam Ewing recording a sea adventure from the 19th century. Then it moves to an introspective study of a composer and his innocent student, Robert Frobisher, suggesting a similar account about a young man and Frederic Delius. Next, we move to a somewhat sinister tale of a reporter, Luisa Rey, who is tracking down a scientist fleeing a powerful energy company, which resorts to violence when the scientist claims its new atomic plant is unsafe. The fourth tale introduces Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who ends up fleeing London, only to find himself locked up as crazy in a rest home.
It is with the fifth tale, however, that Mitchell really suggests showing off. Set up as an interview with Somi-451, an android type, this is a science fiction tale set in a world the reader finds difficult to grasp as it begins underground in a controlled society, a society from which the android heroine attempts to escape to become a human. An entirely new vocabulary (and references) are introduced for the first time.
A new vocabulary continues in the sixth tale, set in a Hawaii of the distant future after a world calamity, for here the narrator uses a blend of slang and a Western cowboy accent to tell of a violent war between two tribes, plus a mysterious woman who may be ready to help the narrator’s side. This is the only tale which is told completely in one take. After one gets past the idiomatic narrative, however, it ends with an exciting attempt to escape across the Big Island to safety.
The other five tales have stopped abruptly, and now they resume, each reaching an exiting climax. As the Times review notes, the narrative sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which underlines the deliberate structure of this work.
We return to Somni-451’s search to be human and the adventurous finish— except hers turns out to be a shaggy dog tale, as the author pulls the run from under our feet. Next to reappear is publisher Cavendish, whose fast-paced adventure rises to a climax with his escape from the home, except it then winds down gently.
By now the reader is wondering where Mitchell is going with these tales with the suggestion of a link between them. One link, a comet-shaped birthmark, suggests reincarnation. Another link occurs when, somehow, a book, a film, or letters fortuitously appear that refer back to a previous tale and enable the characters (and the author) to connect the various stories.
The most exciting return is to Luisa Rey, and the reader wonders what has happened to her after she has been run off the road and presumably killed. This return to Luisa Ray demonstrates how well Mitchell can write a clever suspense novel if he wishes. Luisa’s adventures keep moving as she escapes peril after peril, with surprising deaths hindering her along the way. Until, as in most mysteries, the corporate skullduggery is revealed and justice is served. Except, before we leave her Luisa receives a mysterious package with letters Frobisher wrote back in 1931 during his life with the composer.
These letters reveal Frobisher’s frustration both in love and in composing. His tale also reaches a definite, unexpected conclusion, as he culminates his short career with the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Except…he himself has discovered an old book in his room, propping up a bed leg. The book contains the second half of the Adam Ewing tale that began this novel.
Ewing’s tale returns us to his harrowing adventure on the high seas and a threat to his life. It also climaxes with an unexpected surprise, before offering a 19th century conclusion that says life is a struggle, often against evil, but that men must dedicate themselves to doing good and enjoying the fruits of that effort.
So what is Mitchell trying to achieve here? It appears to be a summary of human experience. Through six tales of adventure, he ranges from the 1800s to an unknown distant future. And in each adventure, his heroes and heroines confront evil, sometimes triumphing, sometimes not. Which, of course, is the human experience.
At the same time, Mitchell also decided to challenge himself. He will use different writing styles to relate different stories with different outcomes. The artist in him also suggests those links between the stories—either a comet tattoo, or the letters, manuscript, or film that advances the narrative to the succeeding tale. Except, I think that these links are decoration, an author’s maneuver to justify his six tales being brought together. It has nothing to do with the novel’s meaning.
What makes this book work is its cleverness: its fascinating adventures, its frequent surprises, its believable characters in every era, its shifting styles, its solid reality both in the past and in its world of fantasy. One review sums it up: “Cloud Atlas is a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of story telling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood.” Or another: “It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance.”
The one area that did not persuade me was the suggestion of a kind of simultaneousness to these stories, a suggestion that they exist outside of time and will repeat over and over. This is most obvious in a scene in which a bomb blows up an airplane, and a suggestion that the characters will return and meet again. This thought does blend with the idea of six separate time frames joined together in one book. But surely it is much less effective in raising a philosophical point than it is in being a technique to join these stories. Indeed. Mitchell seems aware of this, as publisher Frobisher rejects the mere idea of reincarnation in a manuscript about Luisa Rey
To sum up, I felt it was unnecessary to link these tales through letters, manuscripts, and film. The work does not need this. It is the range of the tales and their similarities that justify bringing them together. One similarity, for example, comes from each character striving against all odds to reach a goal, mostly succeeding, sometimes not. Still another is the narrator always trying to escape pursuers to achieve this. Finally, there is also a similarity, paradoxically, in each tale being related in a different literary style.
And yet the imagination behind this work is truly impressive. Indeed, while Mitchell had to receive pleasure in answering the challenge behind his structure, I cannot help but think that he also sought, through the narrative within each tale, to create maximum pleasure for his readers.
Is there another book like this one? Can there be? It would certainly seem that only this author could top this book. Which makes me truly interested in his future works, even as I suspect that the literary risk that he takes will not always work. Yet I cannot help but salute him for trying. (August, 2013)