Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: 2004
Number of Pages: 509
Genre: Metafiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy
A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
The first time encountered David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, I thought it was a literal book about clouds. On second serving, I thought it was a short story collection which is something that I am averse to because of my need for a more solid storytelling. It was because of these impressions that I kept away from the book event though I kept encountering it in numerous must-read lists. Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to do some further research on the book. That was when I realized how foolish I have been thinking that it was anything other than it actually was.
The moment I realized how different my impression of Cloud Atlas was, I immediately listed it on my must-read books. I then tried on looking for a copy of the book which I was successfully able to do so. I have a funny anecdote about the book. While reading the first copy of the book I bought, I unfortunately left it in a fast food restaurant we ate in before traveling (it was before my first airplane ride so I guess my nerves got me). Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to find another copy of the book. Here are my thoughts.
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
In a true genre-bending fashion, Mitchell, through Cloud Atlas, exhibited his literary prowess. Not only did he weave one amazing story but he did it while creating six stories that on the surface seem independent of each other but are all connected by one invisible thread and moving around a centrifugal theme. It is a book that is very difficult to explain or expound because of its sheer complexity. One must delve into the labyrinth in order for him/her to appreciate the story/stories.
In my appreciation of the novel, I found two elements which must be observed in order to fully appreciate the novel. The first pivotal element is the manner in which the narrative was crafted. Unlike most linear stories, Mitchell created a loop, welding six different stories and connecting them all into one fantastic and complex work. The first five stories were each read by a main character in the succeeding story. Taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the first five stories were interrupted at a crucial moment. It is only after the central sixth story that these five stories closed in a reverse chronological order.
The six parts are namely:
- Part I: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Set in Chatham Islands in the mid-nineteenth century. Related by Adam Ewing, it recounts Ewing’s encounter of the Maoris.
- Part II: Letters from Zedelghem – Related by Robert Frobisher, it is set in Zedelghem, near Bruges, Belgium in 1931. It recounts Frobisher’s life when he was taken in as an amanuensis by the once-great composer Vyvyan Ayrs.
- Part III: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – In 1975, Luisa Rey, a young journalist, is on the verse of exposing the corrupt practices of a famous company located in Buenas Yerbas, California.
- Part IV: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – The most contemporary of the six parts, it is the story of Timothy Cavendish. Cavendish fled from the brothers of his gangster client and was booked into a nursing home.
- Part V: An Orison of Sonmi~451 – Sonmi~451 is a fabricant waitress and is living in Nea So Copros, a state in futuristic Korea. She was undergoing trial after being caught with a group of antigovernment rebel movement.
- Part VI: Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ E’rythin’ After – The only uninterrupted part of the novel, it is related by Zachry who lives in a post-apocalyptic society on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
The story was built like a Russian Matryoshka doll and as you open each doll, you discover a new and unique storyline. But it isn’t the only thing unique about the stories as each one was related in forms distinct from each other. Mitchell used different forms such as diaries, letters and interviews to convey the stories. Moreover, with each story is the shift in voice, tone and language, giving each story a more authentic complexion. I also commend Mitchell for fearlessly sacrificing the common grammatical tenets in order give the story more vividness.
Cloud Atlas reeked of Mitchell’s genre-bending prowess (which I have encountered again in The Bone Clocks). He doesn’t let his works be bounded by a single working genre and it can be plainly seen in this novel where he used an array of genres such as historical, meta, detective and scientific fiction. To a casual observer, it may seem an exercise in futility but for those who have taken an intimate peek into the story and his other stories would realize that it is genre-bending scheme that sets apart his works from those of his contemporaries. Certainly, it made the story a little more challenging but, on the other hand, it is this single element that gave the novel an entirely different texture.
The second important element that must be underlined is the novel’s theme which largely plays around people’s obsession with power, both within and without. Through thought-provoking passages and scenarios, the struggle for power is portrayed. Humanity’s inclination towards subjugation is widely depicted in the lines of the novel as well and can be surmised from Dr. Goose’ summation that “the weak are meat the strong to eat” The will to power was depicted in various forms such as colonialism, corporate corruption, personal sexual power and local power struggles.
“I believe death is only a door. One closes, and another opens. If I were to imagine heaven, I would imagine a door opening. And he would be waiting for me there.” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
In delving in both the past and the present, Mitchell is giving a perspective on the willful pursuit for power. The novel showed how its consequences resonated over years. Through his novel, Mitchell offers a cynical prognosis on the future of humanity. However, Mitchell also gave a ray of hope, or at least shared his hopes that we can still reverse our hunger for power. There are still people who are trying to make a different. Luisa Rey’s exposé and Sonmi~451’s sacrifice gave slivers of hope for humanity. The novel aptly ended where it started, with Adam Ewing, an obscure allusion to how we can still change the bleak future that is ahead of us.
The two puzzle pieces, and some other smaller pieces, were retrofitted into a whole grand scheme, weaved by a master tailor into one fine tapestry that goes beyond the definitions of established literature. Indeed, it is a complex and difficult read filled with elucidations and curveballs. But within its confines, its perplexing narrative, is the voice of a father (David Mitchell) who worries about his child’s future, as every parent does. The magnitude of the message encapsulated within Cloud Atlas is something that will resonate way beyond its time.
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a challenging book, with its genre-bending and mind-boggling themes, which can easily make casual readers close it within its first few pages. Don’t despair as it is one that is always worth one’s time. For all the challenges it presents, it is brimming with majestic storytelling that one rarely encounters. It is, for me, a testament to the power of writing to influence and entertain. It showed that storytelling must not necessarily conform to the norms; there is more than one way to make one’s voice be heard through the tumult. The novel’s profound message is fundamental to our pursuit for a better future. If only one is willing to let the narrative unravel before one’s very eyes.
Recommended for readers who want to read out-of-this world stories and out-of-the box concepts, readers who like exploring different genres, readers who are always up to challenging books, and readers who like books filled with different genres (dystopian, metafiction, crime, and apocalyptic fiction to name a few).
Not recommended for readers who prefer simpler writing structures, and readers who are looing for a quick read.
About the Author
To learn more about David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, click here.