I haven’t read a novel this good in a while. Cloud Atlas is audacious in scope, and it succeeds. This is a spellbinding symphony that weaves 6 separate novellas, each told from a different style and in a different era of time, into a cohesive narrative that blends memoir with science fiction, a crime thriller with a tale of apocalyptic tribalism, and a dark comedy with a high-seas adventure.
Each of the novel’s vignettes are separate stories that are later revealed to be read, or viewed (as a movie), or told by one of the characters in the subsequent stories. The transitions in narrative voice are striking and David Mitchell demonstrates the aptitude of a gifted writer, capable of challenging his ability to write across genres. Cloud Atlas transcends the limitations that distinguish fiction and reality as each story coalesces with each other, impacting the outcome of both the prior and subsequent story. This narrative device is best explained in the following passage voiced by Robert Frobisher, a penniless musician who is composing a “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that he has written by “…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…” (445) The novel is the written form of that sextet, and from this reader’s perspective the novel succeeds delightfully in answering that question asked by the character Robert Frobisher.
Frobisher is the main character in the second story and we meet him only after the novel begins with a diary written by one Andrew Ewing traveling the Pacific sometime around 1850. Ewing’s diary catalogs his travels from the Polynesian islands to Hawaii and his encounter with a stow-away and self-freed slave begins the cycle of Cloud Atlas’s many overlapping themes of freedom and power, retribution and strife, victim and hero. Throughout the novel we see that in weaving these themes across time and narrative genre, Cloud Atlas is the story of the cycle of the human condition and the atlas encompasses all of humanity’s hope and failings, generosity and greed.
From Ewing’s diary we flow into Frobisher’s letters from Belgium of 1931 written to his English friend, Sixsmith. In the late 1970’s Dr. Sixsmith is a nuclear physicist caught up in a trap of corporate espionage that we learn is a mystery thriller novel being reviewed by an editor, Timothy Cavendish of present day. The elderly Cavendish’s story is a sort of Hitchcock-esque dark comedy ordeal in which he finds himself trapped in a nursing home against his will. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a movie viewed by Sonmi-451, a fabricant clone that has obtained sentience, realizing that the dystopian corporatocracy has been using clones such as herself to serve as slaves to the consumer culture of the future. And finally, in a post-apocalyptic future, Zachary is a tribesman living a primitive life on Hawaii, worshiping the goddess Sonmi, who protects the civilized lineage of his tribe from the barbarism of neighboring island tribes. In Zachary’s story (told to a younger generation we never meet) we learn that Zachary’s world is turned upside down after he is visited by Meronymn, one of the last survivors of a long-lost society of technological advancement, and with the revelation of Meronymn’s historical knowledge Zachary learns that the cycle of human kind is one of growth and destruction beyond his control.
Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a mirror to the novel’s form, and the intentions of Mitchell as a novelist are revealed as Luisa Rey, the main protagonist in the Sixsmith crime-thriller listens to a recording of the sextet. To Luisa “the sound is pristine, river-like, spectral, hypnotic … intimately familiar. Luisa stands, entranced, as if living in a stream of time. “I know this music,” she tells the store clerk, who eventually asks if she’s okay. “What the hell is it?”” (408). The impact that the music has upon Luisa is indicative of the main them of Cloud Atlas, the novel. Ultimately, this is a novel about the power of narrative to transcend time, to affect the consumer of the narrative to shape the reader/listener/viewer’s beliefs and become more than simply a story. The human act of telling stories isn’t purely an act of entertainment or means of passing the time, the act of telling stories defines who we are and shapes who we will become as a human race. This concept is best revealed through the voice of Adam Ewing, who ponders as the novel closes:
“He who would do battle with the many headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean! Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of limitless drops?” (508)
This fantastic novel is very soon going to be released as an epic movie with a screen adaptation written by the Wachowskis, the same Wachowskis of The Matrix fame. I was actually drawn to this book by the film trailer, but now having read it I am both excited and hesitant about the film adaptation. This is such a wonderful book that I realize with hesitancy that so much could be lost in the adaptation. From the trailer, it appears that the main themes are reincarnation and the power of love, which are high ideals in themselves, but not as powerful as the theme of the power of story that I have described above. The film could be a masterpiece or a total flop, or to quote Frobisher, “revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.”