Cloud Atlas, English novelist David Mitchell’s third novel, is a structural marvel. It is composed of six nested novellas that echo and connect to each other. The stories, each told in a distinct narrative voice and in a distinct narrative genre, span a period in human history from the 1850s to an indeterminate time in our distant, post-apocalyptic future.
The novel’s first section takes the form of a journal kept by an American notary and lawyer named Adam Ewing as he travels from New Zealand back home to San Francisco in the 1850s. Halfway through this narrative, the novel switches to a series of letters written by a frustrated composer in 1930s Belgium; then to a 1970s spy-thriller involving corruption, a nuclear power plant, and an assassin; then to a comedic piece about a vanity publisher who gets mistakenly imprisoned in a high-security nursing home; to an interview of an rebellious artificial human; finally to a far-future story told by one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic event known simply as The Fall. Following that story, the novel returns to the second half of each of the preceding stories in descending order—we end where we began, with Adam Ewing traveling across the Pacific Ocean.
If this sounds complicated, it is. We find out that there are significant connections between these stories, which play into the novel’s central themes of humanity and connectedness. Stylistically and structurally, the novel is kind of incredible. Mitchell slips between different narrative voices with such effectiveness that the book almost seems like the work different writers. Take these examples, taken from “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” respectively:
“Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ‘tis not down on any map I ever saw” (3).
“As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. I make no apology, however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair” (150).
These voices are distinctly different. Adam Ewing’s polite prose brings to mind adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe and characterizes him as a contemplative gentleman (although we see a hint of his oblique wit as well), whereas Cavendish’s blunt, intellectual narration gives us something tonally different—different characters writing at different times. Ewing’s diary entries are self-conscious, proper, and timid. Cavendish, on the other hand, is blunt, often crass, open in a way that Ewing is not.
The differences between the sections become even more pronounced as Mitchell moves foward in time. The only section that is not split in two is the novel’s long middle section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” In this section, language has been corrupted over the long years, devolving into a phonetic language with complex constructions. Look at this for comparison:
“Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early, so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, cos Waipio River was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide” (239).
While Ewing and Cavendish share certain grammatical conventions, the state of human language has changed dramatically in this section. The fact that all of these voices hold together in a single work is kind of incredible. The novel is constantly switching between these voices, forcing readers to readjust to not only to the story, but also the distinctive way in which the story is told.
It’s a neat technique, but one that doesn’t always pay off. I liked some of the sections more than others, and, in general, the back half of the book is stronger than the front. The dialect-heavy voice narrator in “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” grated on me after awhile, and I found myself skimming that section.
Each of the stories deals with characters fighting against oppression, seeking freedom from captivity or enslavement, and trying to form bonds with people dissimilar to themselves. This central core comes into focus fairly early in the novel, and I kept waiting for Mitchell to do something else with it. At times, the sections can feel less like effective individual stories and more like vessels to transport metaphorical meaning. And, in a sense, they certainly are, but a few of the stories fall flat as a result.
In the second half of the “Letters to Zedelghem” section, Robert Frobisher, the frustrated composer, is thinking about his new composition, which mirrors the structure of the book, what he calls a “sextet for overlapping soloists.” He notes that “ [i]n the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” (445). I ended up asking the same question of this novel as Frobisher asks of his in-progress sextet. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Does the unique structure of this novel lend meaning to the whole project? I’m not certain that it does.
I really admire Cloud Atlas. From a craft standpoint, it’s an amazing accomplishment. Mitchell manages almost every craft element that is so difficult to pull of in novels, and he does it six times in one book. The novel does a great job of riffing on its central question in different narrative modes, but by the end of the book I felt like I had been hit over the head with them. That said, Adam Ewing’s final pages encapsulate the core idea so perfectly, shedding light on the purpose of the preceding five hundred.
In the end, I was left with a book that I admired, but not a book that I loved.
That’s why I give Cloud Atlas three pieces of lasagna out of five.