Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly written book, full of intelligence, but without emotional impact. David Mitchell has a structure like a stepladder of chapters from 1 to 6 and back down to 1. He makes reference to matryoshka dolls or Russian nesting dolls and that also is a structural model for the book with the stories fitting inside one another and referencing each other. There are a number of themes that link the chapters together such as betrayal, stereotyping whether racial, genomic or tribal, main characters who struggle with the use of violence as the end of their options, and definitions of society and civilization. The notion of an actual cloud atlas also inhabits the stories. Hawaii appears in most, but not all, of the stories.
Mitchell includes in his book a journal, a series of letters, an interview, a third-person narration, two first-person narrations, one oral and one written. Characters are writers, narrators, readers and audiences for each others stories. He begins with “The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” from the 1800s, which is not unlike Melville. The journal ends abruptly mid-sentence and we jump to 1931 and a very English style of prose, the era of Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh, though the style is breezier. Frobisher, the author of the letters contained in “Letters from Zedelghem” comments on Ewing’s journal, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t right quite true- but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The letters are addressed to Rufus Sixsmith who is featured in the next story, “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which is the most accessible of this stylistic feast. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” follows about the trials of a vanity publisher. I did not research it, but it would not surprise me if elements of “An Orison of Somni-451” mimic the structure of the Korean language, such is Mitchell’s command of language and linguistics. Here Mitchell has explored the evolution of words where films are disneys and coffee is a cup of starbuck. Orison is a synonym for prayer but in Somni’s story, set in future Korea, it is a recording device. 451 hearkens back to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian vision. The oral first person narration in “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,”is the most demanding chapter, written in post-apocalyptic Hawaiian patois. It is also the only story told without interruption. The word meronym is a linguistic term that means part of a whole; here, it is a character, one of the last of a technologically advanced remnant. Somni has transformed from an ascendant clone the goatherd’s deity: “Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi.”
Many of the characters are also linked with a comet marking on their skin. Comets pass over us often at regular intervals, like Halley’s, and that was my interpretation of this device. We all go through similar emotions and have difficulties although at different points in history, “souls cross the skies o’ time.” The stories have unusual words that link them such as “She slooshes her mouth out” in the Luisa Rey Mystery and the “Sloosha” in the title of the middle story. Mitchell uses this to illustrate that even over time, we are all connected by language, by habits, by biology.
Mitchell uses aphorism, ”Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman,” metaphor “black cobras o’ smoke” and just about every other literary tool imaginable with facility. It’s obvious that David Mitchell can do just about anything with words. It would be hard to give Cloud Atlas a serious read and not come away dazzled by his skill with words and structure. Mitchell could make the most dedicated of writers feel lazy and inadequate, with a handful of exceptions (Norman Rush comes to mind). His command of craft is breathtaking. However, the novel left me impressed but unmoved by the end. The patois in the middle chapter was a hard long slog. It was clever, and the author had clearly thought about what happens to language over time and in isolation, but I’m not sure it was much more than that.
My primary takeaway from the novel was the joy in the use of language, that words are amazing and often elastic containers. Mitchell raises the bar and makes me want to be a better writer. I think at some point I might want to try a similar experiment with structure to see if more emotional resonance could be achieved using centuries of time. Mitchell has opened up new areas to ponder in terms of what can be done in a novel, how words have or might change over time, and subtle and not-so-subtle ways of linking characters, chapters, stories, and other elements together to create new effects and resonance within text. If nothing else, Mitchell is an advertisement for authorial imagination.
As a whole, it is a marvelous innovation, but there is no emotional or moral equivalent to, say, Joyce’s Ulysses contained within it. What the reader is left with is something of the literary equivalent of a Faberge egg, dazzling workmanship on the outside, but essentially hollow. It will be interesting to see if other authors take up Mitchell’s inventiveness and achieve more emotional depth and moral reverberation.