“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 cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
The use of a musical motif in literature is not new. My favorite example is the Vinteuil Sonata in Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. There too, we experience multiple stories that overlap at times--although our journey begins and ends with one particular narrator. As in that example, David Mitchell's novel, Cloud Atlas, has a musical motif. It is Robert Frobisher's "Sextet for Overlapping Soloists". But this musical composition becomes more than a motif. In naming it "Cloud Atlas" it becomes a metaphor for the structure of the whole novel. When writing one of his letters to Rufus Sixsmith, Frobisher asks if his composition is "Revolutionary or gimmicky?" And we can ask the same question of Cloud Atlas; the answer, of course, is neither.
Cloud Atlas is a unique expression of post-modernism, but by using traditional styles for the stories that form the content of the novel the postmodern project is upset at least in part. The strength of the novel lies not in the pyrotechnics, but in the story-telling. The beauty of the whole project is that the style and content meld together in a way that allows the stories to transcend the structure of the novel. Mitchell's debut novel consists of six intertwining tales and the people who move within and among them. Spanning the globe—from teeming Tokyo to the isolated Holy Mountain, from the idyllic Clear Island to Old Man London—the characters also run the gamut: criminal, professional, genius, provincial, fanatic. The narratives are set in the historical and recent pasts and imagined futures, all interconnected as each narrator encounters and absorbs the story that preceded his own. The novel opens in 1850 and American lawyer-adventurer Adam Ewing is exploring endangered primitive Pacific cultures (specifically, the Chatham Islands’ native Moriori besieged by numerically superior Maori). In the second part, “The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing” falls (in 1931) into the hands of bisexual musician Robert Frobisher, who describes in letters to his collegiate lover Rufus Sixsmith his work as amanuensis to retired and blind Belgian composer Vivian Ayrs. Next, in 1975, sixtysomething Rufus is a nuclear scientist who opposes a powerful corporation’s cover-up of the existence of an unsafe nuclear reactor: a story investigated by crusading reporter Luisa Rey. The fourth story (set in the 1980s) is Luisa’s, told in a pulp potboiler submitted to vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, who soon finds himself effectively imprisoned in a sinister old age home. Next the novel travels in time to an indefinite future Korea, in which cloned “fabricants” serve as slaves to privileged “purebloods”—and fabricant Sonmi-451 enlists in a rebellion against her masters. The sixth story, told in its entirety before the novel reverses itself to complete the preceding five stories, occurs in a farther future time, when Sonmi is a deity worshiped by peaceful “Valleymen”—one of whom, goatherd Zachry Bailey, relates the epic tale of his people’s war with their oppressors, the murderous Kona tribe.. Each of the six stories invents a world, and virtually invents a language to describe it, none more stunningly and annoyingly (for this reader) than does Zachry’s narrative (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After”).
The novel employs an unorthodox structure to be sure, but that is what makes the book unique. It manages to bring the stories together in a way that I found myself as a reader enjoying before and after I had completed each story. What is the result of this masterly appropriation of genre? Is it the author's combination of forms: Historical sea journal, epistolary confession, thriller, dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fantasy, or his command of style?
I think the beauty is in the whole and that its variety within, once again not unlike Proust, is crucial to the success of the novel. I certainly appreciated the seamless incorporation of authorial erudition: Nietzsche, Emerson, Solzhenitsyn, Eastern philosophy, modern European history, musical impressionism and modern art ideas and references are spread throughout. It is all at once self-referential, slyly philosophical, and subtly postmodern. The novel evades the reader's aim to discern a moral, instead exploring the motions of consciousness through various lives in nine distinct and elegant voices. Although the numerous viewpoints can be distancing, the challenges of this intellectual puzzle propel the reader to the rather bizarre but compelling last two chapters. As Mitchell's Mr. Cavendish purports, "We all think we're in control of our own lives, but really they're pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." Mitchell’s novel is thus one of the most imaginative and rewarding novels in recent memory where the author unforgettably explores issues of exploitation, tyranny, slavery, and genocide. Sheer storytelling brilliance is Mitchell's ultimate forte.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Modern Library, 2012 (2004)