Review of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult mistress. It straddles the line between novel and short story collection. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did. The structure is beautiful, though in the beginning it can feel harsh, coarse even, like sand in teeth. It is best to go into these things blind. Without preconceptions or expectations. If you have the chance to read this creation on its own, without the weight of other people’s words and ideas, then I highly recommend it.

I will delay no longer. I’m sure this isn’t a unique opinion, but when it comes to “Cloud Atlas,” it’s the structure that intoxicates me the most. It is the very thing that holds this piece, these pieces together. I have to study these bones. Some novels that shy away from traditional structures step towards the bizarre, and though that direction is fraught with peril, if it can be pulled off with the right amount of skill and talent, then more power to the author and their work. “Cloud Atlas” starts with a well-worn structure, but twists it slightly, only to dig that dagger in deep.

All drama aside, the novel starts out in a chronological fashion. Even the first story is a set of dated entries in the journal of Adam Ewing. This introduction is subtle yet bold, but it ends frayed and unfinished. Suddenly we are left to dive into the letters of one Robert Frobisher as he writes to his mysterious love, Sixsmith. We discover a little ways into the Frobisher tale that he has uncovered some, but not all, of the Adam Ewing Journal entries in the halls of his employer. Frobisher’s tale meets a similar fate to Ewing’s, as it ends abruptly and leads us into the Louisa Rey mystery. Guess who we find there? Why Sixsmith of all people. He is much older having played a part in the coming of the atomic age. Of course, our main character stumbles across the letters of Frobisher, but only the first few (the ones that the reader has seen). At some point her tale is written as a novel and passed along to a publisher who invariably only gets the first half of the manuscript. His life is transcribed and turned into a movie, and the “Cloud Atlas” version of a replicant sees said film. She leads a revolution, and her final thoughts are recorded. Her memory is turned into a god at least for some people living in Hawaii after the fall of mankind. Are you still with me here? I hope you are. This is where it gets interesting.

So far, we have been left with the shattered remnants of multiple stories, and the format of each story does play a role. First, we are subjected to journals, then letters, then a novel, then a movie, then holographic recordings. These five stories are all left unfinished. They build to major conflicts and potential resolutions, but we never see the fruits of each story’s labor until we progress to the top of this literary mountain. There are many ways to tell a story, and perhaps “Cloud Atlas” has hit on all the major ones by the time of Sonmi’s tale (with the advent of holographic recordings as a possible temporary exception). But one story telling device is absent, and it is perhaps the most important. For it is Zachary, long after the fall of civilization, who puts a cap on this literary mountain. He tells the yarn that holds all the frayed edges of the other stories together. He finally reveals that we are not looking at a traditional literary structure at all.

Zachary’s tale is the only story that continues through to the end without interruption. He is the one who lets us descend back down the rabbit hole. All these stories were built together. Not interwoven, but dependent. One could take the leap that without Adam Ewing we have no Zachary. When I wrote about “City” I wrote about creating a story with layers, and David Mitchell shows that having layers in a story can mean multiple things. Yes, there are multiple plot lines, all mostly separate, but what’s really interesting here is what ties these stories together.

The first thing that ties them together is almost silly to bring up, but still important. These stories are in the same book. Each story could stand alone, and in fact, if they came out as separate works, it may be difficult to even see how they would fit together. Sure we have the birthmarks, and the references to the other stories, but some of what each story means to the other stories is lost by separating them in that way. Instead allowing them to zipper into each other makes them more dependent on one another. We need Zachary, because he is the first to receive the rest of the tale. Chronologically that sounds broken, but in the telling of these characters’ lives, it makes sense. In other words, traditional chronology would show “Cloud Atlas” to be broken, but literary chronology, if there is such a thing, keeps the novel whole. In fact, it allows “Cloud Atlas” to be called a novel as opposed to a collection. Very rarely does the structure of a story bare this much significance on the final meaning and impact of the work. I would say that is a structure worth aspiring to.

What is “Cloud Atlas” really? In some regards, it is a story about stories. In others, maybe it’s about fate. Many conclusions can be drawn from these pages, and perhaps that is why it’s such a strong story. It sticks with you long after the final page. I will not try to decipher the deeper meaning to the overall story here. That is a matter for interpretation, and interpretation should be left to each reader. If you finished the novel feeling confused or disoriented, then let it rest with you. Every novel will find its own meaning in the heart of the reader, and the perspectives of others may only muddy that.

Next up, our little book club will take a turn for the bizarre, I guess it has always been on the bizarre side, but now we are descending into the mind of Phillip K. Dick. His writing is often strange, always genuine, and guaranteed to be profoundly unique. We will tackle a work that has been called autobiographical, that has been written and published twice, and is part one of an unfinished trilogy. Much can be said about the enigma that is “Valis,” and if all goes well, some things will be said very soon. Catch you next time, and as always, happy reading.

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