David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a complex and thought-provoking meditation on the nature of individuality, the nature of humanity and the nature of stories.
Even if Mitchell did not have intense, complex characters and sharply grounded descriptions, and even if he didn’t have intriguing stories and imaginative worlds, the structure of Cloud Atlas alone would make it worth reading. Cloud Atlas tells us six stories. The first five follow each other sequentially, each one ending at a dramatic point. (One ends abruptly!) The sixth section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ a’Ev’rythin’ After” is a complete tale. Then the five others complete in reverse order, so that “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” begins and ends the book. It’s like a palindrome, with “Sloosha’s Crossin’” the fulcrum, or vertical beam on a balance-scale. “Sloosha’s Crossin’” functions as the fulcrum not only structurally, but narratively as well, letting the reader understand the effects of the some of the earlier sections.
Mitchell addresses various eras: the mid-1800s, the 1930s, the 1970s, our present, and two time periods in the future. In each section he tells a different type of story using a different style. There is an old-style travel journal; an epistolary section; one part is written in the tone of a 1970s murder mystery; there is a transcription of an interrogation and an oral history. The sections move through time linearly, but impulses and dreams seems to move in both directions; shifting among characters who seem to be in no way related except for an odd birthmark.
In terms of the shifting styles, which Mitchell executes flawlessly, this book reminded me a little bit of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but Cloud Atlas is infused with literary influences and references. Fahrenheit 451 gets a nod, and so does Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, as well as Moby Dick and others. I’m going to indulge in a moment of cynicism here and say that while this is excellent science fiction, the literary crowd probably couldn’t wait to appropriate it because it’s so darn good.
I’ve gone this far without discussing characters. The character who travels the farthest in terms of growth is Sonmi, a convincing folk hero in a future corporatist state. Because they are adjacent in the book, the character of Adam Ewing, a naive but well-meaning man, capable of change yet completely a product of his time, is affected, if only in contrast, by Robert Frobisher, a composer, grafter and cad who says of himself, with some accuracy, “… now I’m a spent firework, but as least I’ve been a firework.” Frobisher writes letters to a man named Sixsmith who will become a nuclear physicist, but Luisa Rey, a young journalist, will find herself captivated by Frobisher’s music, as if she has heard it before, though she has not. Is it only through Frobisher’s letters that she develops this sense of familiarity, or is something else at work? When Frobisher stands over his sleeping employer, staring at his throat, in the grip of a powerful and strange influence, is there something else at work? Something from a time that should be Frobisher’s future? These kinds of questions keep bubbling up for me, quite apart from the serious philosophical questions posed by the book. A book that makes you question philosophy, physics and the art of story-telling is a treasure, so seek out Cloud Atlas.