Review of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Two facts must preface this review for the reader to take into consideration: I have not seen the film based on this book (it was only released two days ago) and I rarely enjoy contemporary novels. What drew me to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was indeed a trailer advertising the aforesaid movie; I was intrigued by the premise, but I also have a deep-seated compulsion to read a piece of literature in its “pure” state so that my mental images of the settings, characters, and events are solely influenced by the author.
My dislike of the majority of contemporary literature usually causes me to approach a recently-publish novel with an eye of critical scrutiny. I did that with Cloud Atlas almost unconsciously, and to my surprise, the beginning of the book read very much like something written in the mid 1800s. Certainly fitting, since this part is a nineteenth-century thirty-something’s diary. True to the diction and cultural underpinnings of language at the time, Mitchell produces a rather believable voice for the main character within this particular story. But he does not stop there.
Framed within each story is another story. Mitchell actually describes the structure of the novel within the book itself, through the perspective of a character from the 1970s named Isaac Sachs. “One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents)…. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be…” The entire novel consists of six separate stories, each nested within the last both figuratively (using Sachs’ metaphor for time) and literally (each story is split in half, and all stories that happen after it chronologically take place in full between these halves). But the stylistic creativity does not end there.
Despite the fact that five of the six narratives are in first person, each story is told differently. One is a journal, one is a set of letters, one is a novella (this is the one in limited third person), one is a memoir, one is an interview, and one is a spoken story. Mitchell’s command of voice is significant within this piece because he reproduces as best he can the language and culture of the voice’s temporal context. Additionally, each has a specific audience interior to the novel, each has a separate locale, conflict, time period, etc. In fact, the only immediate semblance of connectivity between the six is an occasional reference to a previous narrative: the letter writer says he is reading a journal, the story-teller watches a recording of the interview, or an item preserved by time will resurface, such as a music recording. Mitchell subtly includes deeper references between the narratives in a way that requires one to reread the book to catch all the contact points, for it is rich with them. Certainly, physical ones stand out, like the comet-shaped birthmark that is shared by a major character from each story. Beneath all that, though, are thematic and literary intertwining.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme across the novel is that the individual cannot pit himself against the whole of society and indeed the very core of human nature and hope to succeed.
“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family 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.”
This takes on various timbres throughout the different narratives, but therein lies the ingenuity: Mitchell backs this theme with a hefty claim that it is universal. Put it in the past or the present or any sort of Utopian or post-apocalyptic future, and it may adopt different textures according to its context yet still hold true. At the same time, Mitchell is intensely critical of the avarice and prejudice which characterize all societies, suggesting that these very attributes which allow a nation or people group to succeed will ultimately cause its downfall. But within the hopelessness of our individual efforts, Mitchell offers this question at the end of the book: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
As a student and researcher in astrophysics, I am deeply intrigued by the nature of time. Cosmology places us inside nested spheres of time extending back to the threshold of the origin of the universe, a literal extension of Sachs’ matryoshka doll metaphor. Special relativity allows someone traveling at the speed of light to see all events as simultaneous in the same way the reader sees all six narratives at once. The periodicity of motion, the recurrence of events and patterns, these are not just typical of physics: they are its very heart and soul. Mitchell gets at this through Timothy Cavendish, who says, “You would think a place the size of England could easily hold all the happening in one humble lifetime without much overlap…but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.”
But this piece is not simply a heady philosophical treatise; it’s also engrossing and suspenseful. The rich drama of a musician named Frobisher composing while cuckolding his employer’s wife and the intriguing insights into colonialism in the Pacific through the eyes of a notary, Adam Ewing, are slower plots, but the vividness and uncertainty make convincing worlds. On the other hand, the investigative reporter Luisa Rey researching corporate scandal while being shot at contains a lot of suspense. The runaway clone, Sonmi-451, who is wanted dead by a violent corpocratic government, also leads us through a thrilling action-filled plot, as does the goatherd Zachry as he is hunted by savages while protecting a scientifically advanced visitor from the last remnant of civilization. The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish trying to escape imprisonment in a nursing home falls in between the suspenseful and the more aesthetic.
While this is certainly not my favorite book of all time (Mitchell is no Margaret Atwood, believe me), I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. Mitchell demonstrates frequently that he is well-read, referencing authors like Emerson and Melville, and excellent in the crafts of voice and imagery, developing convincing characters and vivid worlds.