I’ve been sitting here trying to think of smart things to say about David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas. It’s not that I can’t think of things to say, but it’s that I can’t narrow it down to one pithy comment that sums up exactly what I want to communicate. Instead, I’ll say, Cloud Atlas is:
- Constructive postmodern
- Science Fiction
- Genre crossing
That works better than a blurb. It’s a messy novel and deserves a messy description. And yes, I mean that in the best way possible. If Cloud Atlas is all of these things, then what is Cloud Atlas?
The novel is made of six narratives and begins in the 1860’s near New Zealand. Each narrative moves through time and is linked to the preceding narrative through some object of record. The narratives break in places that are cliffhangers to both the reader and the present-time character who is reading the preceding text. Thankfully, these breaks are resolved, but it may take a while due to the structure. From the 1860’s, where the narrator is writing in his journal, the novel jumps to 1930’s Europe. In this narrative, we follow a young musical genius who is also a scoundrel. This character writes letters to his lover and comes across the journal from the first section.
The structure begins to take shape and the next section is set in the United States during the 1970’s. The man to whom the letters were written in the 1930’s is now a respected scientist in the energy industry. He is also a whistleblower in hiding. The main character in this section though is a young reporter looking for a big story despite her beat as a gossip writer. The section reads like a mystery/suspense novel as a conspiracy takes shape. She comes across the letters from the previous section and they are interwoven in her story.
In what may be a heavy-handed move, Mitchell has the same birthmark or tattoo of a comet appear on character’s shoulders from different sections. This detail provides more of an obvious link, though Mitchell never explicitly says one character is reincarnated from the previous character. For me, it detracted somewhat, but wasn’t that big of an issue. Put a different way, I chose to happily ignore it.
The 1970’s section explores this metaphysical connection the most and partially it works, because it’s from that character’s point of view. She is thinking of these possibilities as she reads the preceding texts and it comes through to the reader.
Skipping forward in time, the next section revolves around a publisher who gets tricked into admitting himself to a retirement home. There’s more to it than that, with a funny, exceedingly dark scene taking place at a rooftop literary event. Structurally though, the 1970’s section gets passed to the publisher as a mystery and it’s like he is reading that narrative as well.
The next section is set in the future, where people are able to create human derivatives in the lab. This group is raised to be a product and they perform tasks and duties the rest of humanity does not want to do. The publisher’s story gets retold here as a banned movie that the main character in this section watches. Her name is Somni and she’s one of the lab grown beings or replicants as they’re called in the novel.
From there, the novel jumps far into the future to a point where humanity has collapsed. It’s basically the dark ages and calls to mind the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. The preceding character, Somni, has now been transformed into a god and the last people who have technology share her interview with an archivist through an egg-shaped device that works like a futuristic iPhone.
After this section, the narrative moves backward through time and all of those unfinished storylines wrap up and tie together. Imagine the structure moving through time like a yoyo with the future being bottom of the string, before the narrative yanks back into the past and completes. With that in mind, the novel begins and ends in the 1860’s. We see the main character’s, Adam Ewing’s, effect on the future before his story ends. It’s almost like all these moments are frozen in time.
Moving beyond structure and genre, Cloud Atlas explores how humanity develops, the importance of life, how we treat one another, and the path toward which our world is heading. Can you change the present or even the future? For that matter, can you change the past? Put another way, is the past still alive and if so, how? These are all questions Mitchell asks and the circular nature of the novel may lead the reader to some answers. If not, at the very least the reader will have taken a journey through genre and structure in the company of a wonderful writer. Cloud Atlas is one of those books that will stay with you as your own narrative unfolds.