Every so often you read a novel that is absolutely thrilling because of the way it breaks convention, causes you to see things afresh, makes you think harder. Such a novel was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and this review was first published in Vector 238, November-December 2004.
We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our experiences turn into tales which in turn become myths. And it is only our common humanity which holds it all together and makes these many and diverse stories intelligible across the centuries. Such, at least, is the story that David Mitchell tells in Cloud Atlas; or rather, the stories. For this is a multivalent novel, a novel in which we observe the atoms of story from different perspectives and thus see their direction and velocity anew each time. Another way of looking at it – and there are always other ways of looking at this richly diverse work – is in musical rather than chemical terms. When the composer, Robert Frobisher, describes his ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ as a piece ‘for overlapping soloists … each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued’ he is describing the structure and scope of this novel as precisely and as succinctly as it is possible to get.
We move, at least at first, chronologically. Adam Ewing is a young American lawyer returning from Australia in the middle years of the 19th century whose journal records his encounter with the discordant and at times threatening cultures of the ship upon which he travels and the islands at which they call. At the same time he recounts the onset of a mysterious disease which increasingly incapacitates him. Then, in mid-sentence, his solo is interrupted and Frobisher takes over. We have jumped forward to the early 1930s and, in a series of letters to his friend Sixsmith, Frobisher reveals himself to be a ne’er-do-well would-be composer fleeing from his creditors who finagles his way into the position of amanuensis to an aged but respected composer at his remote Belgian home. There he enters into an affair with the composer’s wife, and dreams of an affair with his daughter. There, also, he discovers a part of Ewing’s diary; a vital life or death tale has been transformed into light bedtime reading.
We jump again: it is California during the presidency of Richard Nixon, and journalist Luisa Rey’s chance encounter with a man named Sixsmith puts her on the trail of murder and corruption at a nuclear power plant. During her quest she also becomes enchanted by hearing a rare recording of Frobisher’s ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’. But at the moment that pursuers force her and her car off a causeway and into the ocean, her story is interrupted. We plunge instead into the ‘ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, in Mitchell’s pitch-perfect assumption of tones and voices a heady thriller is replaced by an outlandish farce. Cavendish is a vanity publisher who has, quite contrary to his own expectations, struck it rich with a low-life autobiography. Unfortunately the low-life concerned is now after his money, and in his flight Cavendish is tricked into consigning himself to a prison-like old-people’s home. There, in the midst of planning a geriatric break-out, Cavendish reads the manuscript of the first Luisa Rey mystery. The postmodern breakdown between fiction and reality is here translated into a consistent movement in which what is first real (and to some extent must remain real because of the overt links between each story) becomes, upon revisiting, fiction.
Here, as Cavendish is forced to contemplate his own mortality, we jump directly into science fiction. To an extent this is one more genre that Mitchell is weaving into his sextet, but it is also the inevitable direction in which the whole novel has been moving. We are (we will eventually discover) in a futuristic Korea where Sonmi-451 is an artificial person, carefully constructed to serve uncomplainingly in a communal dining hall. But Sonmi is somewhat different from her compatriots, and eventually escapes the drugged tedium of the dining hall for a university where, intended to be the experimental subject of a lazy student she actually becomes an able student in her own right. It is at university that she watches the rare, carefully preserved film from olden days which tells the famous story of Timothy Cavendish. Sonmi’s tale is in the form of an interrogation or confession on the eve of her execution, but we don’t quite grasp the nature of her crime before we shift one last time. This time we move further into the future, but also in a sense back into the past. It is an end time, a post-apocalyptic world in which a fragment of humanity clings to life on an isolated Pacific island, their primitive society much like those Adam Ewing encountered in the same region all those centuries before. ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, written in a debased demotic reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, is the only story presented whole, a tale of understated heroism and the infinite capacity of the human race to destroy itself. During the course of the story Sloosha discovers the recording of Sonmi’s confession, and what was for us a dystopian horror becomes for him a glimpse of a brighter time when the human race was more perfect. Such shifts of perception are one of the most thrilling aspects of this novel.
And from this point on the novel shifts direction, we travel backwards, revisiting each story in turn. We learn the nature of Sonmi’s rebellion; we witness Cavendish’s escape; Luisa Rey solves her mystery; Frobisher completes his Sextet but makes a mess of his sex life; Ewing discovers the cause of his illness. But this is not just a tidying up of unresolved plot lines. Instead, as we retrace our journey, we begin to see further resonances that link the stories unexpectedly: Luisa Rey seems to recall an incident from Sonmi’s life, for instance. The distinctions between past and future, reality and fiction, are subtly disturbed. There is no lumbering crashing down of boundaries here, but all our assumptions about the nature of things are questioned, and that leads us to question yet more.
Each tale would make a satisfying short novel in its own right. Each voice, each style of storytelling, is captured with such distinction, such absolute assurance, that we can and should applaud each and every constituent part of this novel. But together, linked as they are across time, across fictional boundaries, they create something greater than the sum of their parts. Allusive and haunting, Cloud Atlas is one of the most powerful and energising novels of recent years.