Book Review: Cloud Atlas

February 04, 2011 

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was published during my first year of practice as a lawyer. Buried in legal documents but not yet aware of the quick demise of my habit for pleasure reading, I did not notice all the buzz about the book. Nor I had ever heard of its author until last year when, after leaving my law firm, I dedicated myself single-mindedly to the business of reclaiming my reading life.

Discovering the world of online literary magazines and book bloggers, I soon learned that a British author named David Mitchell had published a new book called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I read the book and enjoyed it very much. It had a sense of humor that one does not often see in historical fiction. This led me to Cloud Atlas, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and #3 on the literary website, The Millions, “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” (although by reading the comments, it seems as though the choice is not without its detractors).

I might not have read Cloud Atlas if I had not already liked The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The back cover describes the novel as “series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle book.” I am not one for puzzles; I like my novels to focus on story, not clever ploys. And I have always been suspicious of books that play with structure; it seems they often do so at the expense of fully realized characters or an interesting plot.

To be sure, the structure of the novel is clever—six narratives, occurring at disparate parts of the globe and of human history, all but one of which is interrupted in mid-plot and becomes a centerpiece in the subsequent narrative. Thus, (1) the nineteenth century journal of an American lawyer crossing the Pacific is (2) stolen and sold by a British composer hiding out from his debts in Belgium between the two world wars, whose lover (3) is a nuclear scientist who turns up murdered as the result of corporate intrigue in 1970s California, (4) the story of which is a manuscript submitted to a 1980s British vanity publisher imprisoned in an overzealous home for the elderly, (5) whose unlucky tale is the favorite movie of a genetically engineered slave awaiting execution in a near-future where corpocracy is the new religion, and (6) who herself becomes a deity of sorts to a young boy and his tribe struggling to survive in a lawless and violent world after the fall of civilization.

The novel itself posits several visions of its structure. In one, from which the book takes its title, the caddish British composer in the second tale composes a sextet of overlapping soloists: “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is re-continued, in order.” Another occurs in the 1970s detective story, in which a scientist sketches out a “model of time” just before the plane that he is riding in explodes: we exist within “an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments,” he writes, each present shell encased inside a nest of virtual pasts (the pasts we create from memories, hearsay, fiction), and likewise encasing a nest a virtual futures (the futures we construct from wishes, prophecies, daydreams).

I prefer, however, to think of the narratives as building upon one another like a mountain until their reach the apex—the tale of young Valleyman Zachry, who spins his futuristic yarn in a creepy Twain-like vernacular—before descending down the other side and ending where they started with the nineteenth century journal. The idea of a mountain is akin to my experience of reading the book: on the climb up, I worked hard to put together the structure of the narratives and the overall cohesion of the book; on the descent, I was dizzy, following each tale to its individual denouement in the context of the overall story whose ending—the end of the civilized world, no less—I already knew.

In addition to their innovative structure, Mitchell uses the different narratives to play with genre. The ocean journey recounted by Adam Ewing in his journal is reminiscent of Defoe or Melville, while the 1970s “Luisa Rey” murder mystery reads like an airport suspense novel, and the latter two dystopian worlds borrow from the likes of Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and (I am told though have not yet read) Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

This genre-jumping allows Mitchell to experiment with different rhythms and vernacular. My favorites are the corporate speak of the near-future slave narrative (where brands like a ford, a kodak, and a starbuck have replaced their generic counterparts a car, a photo, a cup of coffee), and the urban comedy of hapless British publisher Timothy Cavendish (in one particularly memorable scene Cavendish demands the unhelpful woman at the ticket counter “evolve problem-solving intelligence” and sell him a train ticket).

While Mitchell’s writing may at times border on the derivative, this seems precisely the point. Each story means much less in isolation; indeed, some would hardly qualify as literature. It is the context in which these narratives are placed that elevates their style and their meaning. (In any event, Mitchell’s borrowing can hardly be seen as objectionable in a literary climate in which Jonathan Safran Foer writes an entire book simply by cutting away words from another book, and French novelist Michel Houellebecq “recycles” whole passages from Wikipedia.)

The story line, “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” is a prime example of how Mitchell uses the structure of the novel to add depth to his chosen subject matter. The narrative is, on its surface, rife with cliché and convenient plot lines—the plucky female journalist who is killed multiple times but never dies, the dogged hit man, the shadowy corporation whose greed threatens to destroy the world. Its simple tale is, however, much more moving when placed within the overall context of the book, in which the machines of science, big business and human greed grind onward toward a pre-determined, post-apocalyptic world.

The story line is, as well, the only among the six acknowledged as wholly fictional—in the subsequent narrative we learn that “Half Lives” is a manuscript written by one Hilary V. Hush and submitted for publication to Timothy Cavendish. It is therefore the outlier among the continuum of narratives, all the rest of which are presented as first-person accounts of “actual” events, which allows us to see more clearly the Borges-like interplay between fact and fiction, or to use the novel’s terms, the “actual past” and “actual future” and the “virtual past” and “virtual future.”

Finishing Cloud Atlas, I was left wondering why its obvious cleverness did not bother me more. It has none of the attributes that usually make a novel great in my eyes—Toni Morrison’s lyricism, Jonathan Franzen’s fully human characters, Michael Chabon’s and Jeffrey Eugenides’ historically epic plots. But it is, as I have already described, a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.

As its core, I see the book as a reflection on the power of story and imagination. On the one hand, it is with stories that those who control the present rewrite the past and steer us toward the future they desire. Yet, even after science and technology have died, storytelling survives—in the form of the only remaining survivor of his tribe sitting around the campfire telling his progeny from whence they have come. As one character puts it, “Belief is both prize & battlefield.” Mitchell’s vision is both beautiful and frightening, and above all, absolutely vital.

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