by David Mitchell
Random House, 2004
Paperback, 509 pages
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This story of humankind is told in six connected stories about the different manifestations of a single soul across time and place.
If that doesn’t sound weird enough for you, consider the structure of the novel; it is set up like a matryoshka doll, with each story told in halves. The novel begins with the first half of the first chronological story and ends with the second half of that story, and each story moves forward chronologically as you progress toward the center of the novel, where you find the complete sixth story. The structure looks like this: A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A.
What’s more, each story is literally contained in the story that follows it; Zachry hears the “orison” (interview recording) of Sonmi~451, who watches a movie in which Timothy Cavendish reads a book about Luisa Rey, who reads the letters of Robert Frobisher, who finds the diary of Adam Ewing. It’s all very strange and baffling, and it made me wonder whose story I’m in. SO META.
In each story, we are introduced to a different character and a different time in history, where we see various acts of human selfishness, intolerance, and dominion over the Other. In essence, Cloud Atlas is a warning against the human drive for power at all costs; we see white people dominating and enslaving black people around the world in the 1850s, women being subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace in the 1970s, a future Korean “corpocracy” where consumers reign and fabricants (clones) are slaughtered once they’ve outlived their usefulness as slaves, and a post-apocalyptic tribal society where people suffer from the effects of radiation brought about by the nuclear warfare that destroyed civilization.
Mitchell proposes the future as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which:
“Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being … if we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real.”
Although the book depicts the near extinction of humanity because we failed to learn this lesson, Cloud Atlas ends on a hopeful note. In response to his imagined father’s assertion that all of his efforts to counteract racial supremacy will amount “to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” Adam Ewing writes in his diary, “Yet what is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
I loved this book. I read it with Elena of Books and Reviews, and talking to her about each section helped me understand things and catch onto ideas that I might not have taken the time to think about had I read Cloud Atlas on my own. One thing I really liked about this book was that Mitchell doesn’t spell everything out for the reader. He leaves tantalizing clues but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to make connections and draw his/her own conclusions. Because he leaves some things unsaid, I got to feel really smart when I figured things out or when the lightbulb went off for me — and who doesn’t like a book that makes him/her feel smart?!
Mitchell is also a master at writing different voices and styles. Each story is written in a different format (diary, letters, book, movie, “orison,” oral tradition), and Mitchell does a fantastic job matching his writing not only to the different styles, but to the various personalities and historical eras. Each character has a distinct voice and way of communicating with his/her own linguistic quirks and speech patterns that perfectly reflect the times in which he/she lived/lives/will live. In the post-apocalyptic story, Mitchell goes so far as to invent a dialect of decaying English that is somewhat difficult to follow but impressive nonetheless.
Altogether, I was really impressed with Cloud Atlas. It is brilliant, unique, just the right amount of mind-boggling (there’s a passage about actual vs. virtual pasts and futures and how they fit together in a model of time that involves “an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” that made me feel wonderfully confused and slightly panicky), and I think the form fits the content really well.
Cloud Atlas also has some really fantastic quotes that I need to share!
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
“In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”
“Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. My fifth Declaration posits how, in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the clouds blowed from or who the soul’ll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”
Read my thoughts on the Cloud Atlas film adaptation here!
Have you read Cloud Atlas? What did you think of it?