A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization – the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.
Love it or hate it, you have to credit David Mitchell for his ambition. Cloud Atlas may not be for everyone, but it’s hard not to appreciate just how large his novel is in terms of narrative scope. Consisting of six stories, each containing a unique plot and cast of characters, the novel almost feels like an anthology. Yet, while the time and place of each is drastically different from the others, all tie together in subtle ways to create a grand narrative that is global, and near-timeless, in scale. How does the author go about this? Allow me to explain.
Cloud Atlas’ structure is cyclical in nature. The first half of the novel tells the first five stories in chronological order, with each appearing within the next in some kind of physical format. (One, for instance, is arranged as a series of letters. These letters, subsequently, are found and read by the protagonist of the following story.) This initial sequence tells only the first half of each story, oftentimes ending abruptly. The sixth tale encompasses the core of the novel, and is told in its entirety. Once completed, the first five pieces are revisited, and finished, in reverse order, with one introducing the next by ending with a character resuming their reading of what follows.
Unconventional? Certainly. Pretentious and gimmicky? Depends on how you look at it. Personally, I find Mitchell’s storytelling architecture cleverly conceived and effectively implemented. While the splitting of the majority of the narratives can be frustrating at times, it keeps the thread of the narrative moving briskly. Some sections are more interesting than others, but the dividing of the novel into small vignettes ensures that, if a particular portion begins to drag, it’s more than likely to pick up within a few dozen pages or so.
What most impresses about the novel is how well Mitchell ties everything together. In addition to the aforementioned “stacking” of the six accounts, the author creates a satisfying sense of cohesiveness through the repetition of certain elements in each, ranging from the overall plot structure to the actions of the protagonist in a particular scene. One small detail in particular appears in all but one of the stories, and introduces an interesting theory that may further explain the connection between the pieces. This, however, has been much debated by those who have read the book, and I will therefore not spoil anything else in order to preserve the reading experience and allow those who have yet to give it a try the pleasure of discovering it for themselves.
The author simultaneously displays so much diversity as he skips from one locale to another that each portion is definitively unique. The formatting ranges from a manuscript divided by chapters and told via omniscient narrator to an interview consisting of a series of questions and answers. The writing style significantly changes as each protagonist comes and goes, ensuring that no two blur together by sounding too similar in manner. Mitchell gives his diverse cast a genuine air, which keeps the reader absorbed even when the plot hits a snag or two.
Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing finds the titular character sailing across the Pacific Ocean in 1850. Ewing skips from one island to another aboard a ship filled with its share of dramatics and problems, and fairs no better on each remote locale that he visits. From a personal standpoint, this tale is the weakest of the bunch, thanks to its reliance on complicated wordplay and a rather uninteresting narrative. Progress through this portion is frustratingly slow, thanks to the narrator’s need to speak in archaic terms that usually need to be looked up. The word choice is sensible when considering the time period in which the story is set, but the ending of Ewing’s tale couldn’t come soon enough, nonetheless.
Letters from Zedelghem focuses upon one penniless Robert Frobisher in 1931 Belgium, who takes up work as an assistant (of sorts) for a renowned, and retired, composer. Attempting to reverse his fortunes in both his reputation and pocketbook, Frobisher’s piece is similarly difficult to lose oneself in, due mainly to its narrator’s tendency to fill his pages with lengthy descriptions and terms concerning musical composition. Many lines of dialogue are presented in French and given no translation, which is likewise frustrating for those not fluent in the tongue. The effect as a whole is one of pretension. This, however, actually works in the piece’s favor, as it suits Frobisher’s character well and lends his story an effect of authenticity. Such an aura helps keep the narrative interesting when it occasionally lags.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery presents said character as a young journalist investigating a corporate cover-up in California during the 1970s. At the core of the mystery lies a nuclear power plant of potentially fatal design, and the power struggle that arises from this fact. Unlike the first two pieces, Rey’s is refreshing in its simple wording, making it a relatively easy portion to get through. While the storyline’s political angle is rather interesting, its flaw lies in its second half, which becomes so convoluted and twisted that it’s near impossible to follow without multiple re-readings. While things manage to wrap up in a relatively neat way, I’m still unsure if I understood everything leading up to the conclusion.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a bizarre, and rather short, piece that roots itself in the United Kingdom during the early 21st century (the precise date is never made known). Our story here ties to Cavendish, who works as a vanity press publisher and flees town after encountering unexpected financial issues involved with his latest release. His escape leads to his imprisonment in an unlikely institution, and the majority of the story deals with his attempts to escape. The strangest tale of the lot, Cavendish’s adventure is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and provides numerous laughs, thanks to a sarcastic and eccentric narrator. The unfolding events sometimes threaten to become too ridiculous and over-the-top, but Mitchell manages to keep things from spinning out of control by only flirting with the line of implausibility, rather than crossing it.
An Orison of Sonmi-451 is the most fantastical story, taking place in a dystopian Korea known as Nea So Copros. In this future, clones are used to perform grunge work for the rest of humanity, who are ruled by a totalitarian society of corporations concerned only with consumerist living and materialistic ideals. Somni is one such fabricant, but ultimately manages to rebel against her overseers and seek equality for her kind. While perhaps an unrealistic vision, the setting is an interesting creation that effectively satirizes contemporary American living. It may not be wholly believable, but the worldbuilding is undeniably interesting and well-realized. The narrative is probably the darkest of the six, and likely the most memorable. Somni is a complex protagonist is who easy to root for, her experience unsettling and surprisingly powerful.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an Ev’rythin’ After is an odd piece, especially when compared to the story immediately preceding it. In a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, a teenage tribesman named Zachry lives a primitive life that is upset when a member of more technically-advanced race comes to stay on the island. The writing style here is near-impossible to read initially, thanks to the narrator’s accented pronunciation and use of a radically changed vocabulary. Readers of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy will have some idea of what this portion of the novel is like. Reading becomes significantly easier over time, and the story is a meandering one that manages to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Mitchell manages to tell a complex story rather quickly, yet it never feels hurried, and the characters involved feel real and relatable despite their alien qualities.
That rare book that deserves the titling of “novel,” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an ambitious piece of literature that manages to tell a wide-reaching story without once losing its focus. It is diverse, yet unified, ably presenting six radically different narratives as a cohesive whole. Lengthy but satisfying, this is a book that is worth the time and effort it requires of you.