Cloud Atlas: a novel, by David Mitchell (2004)
Cloud Atlas must have been a hell of a book to market. It’s usually classified as a sci-fi, I’m assuming because it’s considered the lowest common denominator of genre, but there is no such thing as sci-fi elements in it until the fifth of its six stories. I guess those people who believe sci-fi should have never crawled out from between the covers of greasy pulps and don’t want any in their literature needed to be warned. But those who get bored if there are no robots in the plot and nothing goes pew pew are going to be very disappointed in the first four stories.
Cloud Atlas is also one of those wonderful books, like those written by Vonnegut or García Márquez, where you get carried away by the colours in the narrator’s words. Where the form is so exquisite that you feel like a tourist in the minds and lives of the characters. The plot is not the only driving experience, but the tone and style are. Cloud Atlas is composed of six short stories that are related to each other. Each of them gets interrupted halfway through to give way to the next one, until the sixth, which is reproduced fully, and then the rest close in reverse order, the last chapter being the second half of the first story.
You don’t want to know the details of the plots. You will have a great time finding out what the stories are about, but I will tell you it starts in the South Pacific around 1850 and ends in a far-distant future. All the stories are related to each other and something I love is that all the stories are actual pieces of writing in-universe, i.e. diaries, correspondence, interviews or novel manuscripts. And each of them appears in the chronologically next one in one way or another.
All these formats and styles allow Mitchell to show off his chameleon-like stylistic abilities. Each of the chapters reads different and in a way that is completely suitable for each character and wildly different from each other. Some writers, like me, would love to master only one of these styles. Imagine mastering all seven of them. From Adam Ewing’s purple prose to Zachry’s deformed English, Mitchell takes every chance he has to play with language. He makes some very bold and convincing creative decisions about how future English could have evolved in Sonmi’s and Zachry’s stories. His mastery of characterization and first-person narrative makes both Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish deeply endearing and fleshed-out. Such simple stories wouldn’t have worked half as well if they weren’t told by such extravagant narrators. I love “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, not only for its mastery of dystopia and cyberpunk tropes, but as a satire of corporatism, social class struggle, political corruption and basically everything under the sun. (And I have to say I gasped when I found that half-hidden reference to Borges’ “Funes the Memorious”. 451 can’t be an accident either.) The parallels between the Moriori in Ewing’s story and Zachry’s Valleymen are quite clever and give some sense of closure and circularity of time. Mitchell even does a great job at writing a formulaic and exciting thriller with Luisa Rey’s story, is there something this man can’t write well?
Last but not least, the way Mitchell closes the stories in reverse order not only provides the final bits of information but keeps having the stories throwing shoutouts to each other in unexpected ways. Some stories throw their endings at you like gravestones, while some others leave you forever with a smile on your face. Frobisher writes to Sixsmith: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I awake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep”. It’s hard not to sympathise with Mitchell letting himself be seen this way.
The few hundred words I’ve written about it don’t really do it any justice: do yourself a favour and pick up this book.