“Cloud Atlas,” the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, is a daring book. And, more than three-quarters of the way through its pages, Mitchell includes a daring passage.
One of his many (or is it few?) characters, Robert Frobisher, is writing a letter in 1931 to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith and describing “a sextet for overlapping soloists” that he is composing and that, the reader knows, will be called the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
It is a work, he writes, for “piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, 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, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?”
That final sentence is the daring part.
Like Frobisher’s musical composition, Mitchell has created a highly and unusually structured work. The novel is, in fact, six novellas, each of a different form and told in a different voice.
There is (1) the sea journal of Adam Ewing, a rather stuffy, naïve 19th century American , (2) Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, a fellow Englishman, (3) a 1970s murder novel titled “Half Lives — The First Luisa Rey Mystery, (4) a memoir by an early 21st century vanity book publisher named Timothy Cavendish, (5) the transcript of an interrogation of Sonmi-451, a rebel in some future Korea, and (6) a long yarn told to family members by Zachary in an even more future Hawaii.
Each is about 90 pages long, but only Zachary’s is told in a single go. As with the Sextet, each of the other novellas in Mitchell’s book is interrupted — at a moment of high tension — by the next one so that, by the time Zachary is telling his tale, the reader is already carrying five truncated stories in his or her head.
After Zachary’s story, the other novellas are completed, each in turn — Sonmi, then Cavendish, then Luisa, then Frobisher and finishing finally with Ewing.
So, as Frobisher asks of his sextet, is Mitchell’s novel “revolutionary or gimmicky”?
My verdict is: Gimmicky.
A tour-de-force and page-turner
There’s no question that “Cloud Atlas” is a tour-de-force in the writing of various forms of popular literature. And no question that this is a daring experiment that Mitchell pulls off with high skill and great creativity.
It’s a page-turner that keeps the reader going with cliff-hangers on top of cliff-hangers on top of cliff-hangers.
And Mitchell’s form does fit its function.
The human existence he describes is one that, in his book, encompasses several centuries back and forth across the face of the earth. And so do the lives. Hence, my earlier question about his many or few characters.
Each novella contains references to people and places in one or more of the other novellas.
So, for instance, Sixsmith is not only the recipient of Frobisher’s letters, but also a character in the Luisa Rey novel. Luisa herself reads those letters and tracks down a rare recording of the Cloud Atlas Sextet — and, when she hears it (before knowing what it is), the music is deeply familiar to her in an unexplainable way.
Each novella contains similar scenes of powerful people enslaving weaker ones — whites enslaving Polynesians in the 19th century, for instance, are echoed by the race of slaves created as manual laborers in Sonmi’s era. Each novella contains references to death and rebirth, to reincarnation.
Indeed, at least four of the main characters of the novellas — Frobisher, Luisa, Cavendish and Sonmi — have a birthmark on their backs in the shape of a comet. (Maybe Ewing and Zachary do as well. If so, I missed those references.)
So Mitchell is telling, in a new way, the story of history repeating itself. He’s also attempting to try to capture the experience of reincarnation.
He is smart enough to avoid making a straight line of one life — or, perhaps better, one soul — through the six stories. It’s not clear to me if Luisa is supposed to be the reincarnated Frobisher, say, and Sonmi a reincarnated Cavendish.
I think this ambiguity feeds the function — which is to describe, on many levels, almost simultaneously, the living of deeply connected (and maybe commonly lived) lives.
If all that sounds like gobbledygook, it pretty much is. After all, Mitchell is trying to create, as his title suggests, an atlas of constantly changing, constantly evolving clouds.
Still, it is a measure of Mitchell’s talent that he’s able to make it all seem like sense.
But it just seems like sense.
The sheer complexity of the effort promises some sort of grand vision, and entices the reader into trying to figure out patterns and understand relationships from one novella to the next. This is good up to a point, but, since this is such an unusual work of fiction, the reader doesn’t know when such speculations are going to be beneficial and when they’ll be frustrating.
For instance, does it mean anything that Luisa — she of the birthmark — is a fictional character in a novel written by Hilary V. Hush and sent on spec to the birthmarked Timothy Cavendish? Is Mitchell suggesting that real world souls migrate into literature and back to real life? (Souls, by the way, are what the people in Sonmi’s time call their credit card-identification card implants.)
I don’t know, and I think Mitchell wants it to be unclear.
The book’s architecture
Yet, the sheer in-your-face inventiveness of the book’s architecture seems to indicate that, somehow, in some way, things will fit together.
They never do.
In the end, “Cloud Atlas” is a fun, fast read. Essentially, it’s a science fiction tale which, like many of that genre, is peppered with little sermons here and there throughout its many pages.
Greed is bad. Oppression is bad. The powerful prey on the weak. The rich on the poor.
These homilies aren’t as clunky as they usually are in sci-fi novels, but the preaching is there nonetheless.
And, if literature is a mirror of humanity, “Cloud Atlas” fails in one very odd way.
This is a novel with much life and vibrancy. Characters are all striving, fighting, struggling to survive and, even, ascend in some way to some better sort of life.
It is also a novel with the underlying moral — clearly stated in the final two pages — that, if people were nicer to each other, the world would be a better place.
Yet — here’s the odd thing — there is very little love in the book.
There are a couple minor characters in the Cavendish novella, Ernie and Veronica, who have found each other and seem happy, but this is at the very end of their lives. Sixsmith and his niece seem to love each other, but at a far distance. The same with Ewing on the high seas and his wife and son back in San Francisco. Frobisher loves Sixsmith, but writes to his former bedmate about his present long-running affair (which he enjoys only for the sex).
Ewing saves a slave, and is saved in turn. Luisa is saved by a man whose life was saved by her father. Zachary and a woman from another tribe become friends.
But such moments of love and friendship are generally fleeting or occur at the end of the novellas. Much more often, relationships in Mitchell’s book are poisoned by betrayal of one sort or another, and manipulation.
This is a book with suicide, murder, runaway science, rape, genocide, slavery, sadism, high-level government corruption, environmental savagery.
But there are almost no scenes of characters in the same location who love each other and make each other’s lives fuller for the long haul.
That’s a strange aspect of life to play so small a role in such a complex and detailed atlas of the clouds of humanity.
Patrick T. Reardon