annotation by Tina Rubin
David Mitchell has succeeded in fulfilling my goal in life: to bring a new way of thinking to a society that likes to hold on to tradition. Pretty big footsteps to follow in, I realize. I can’t claim to have Mitchell’s brilliance or talent, but I’ve gained immeasurably from reading this book: from its voice(s), humor, humanistic message, playfulness, and, most of all, its remarkable structure. If Mitchell is on the leading edge of a new wave of literature, I’m right there soaking up the surge.
I haven’t read anything, that I remember, in which the structure of the book is as integral to the theme as it is in Cloud Atlas. Each of the six novellas of the book (like the character Frobisher’s six nested sonnets) stands on its own when its two separated halves are put together, but a small part of each one is absorbed by the next. Not only does the novel move forward in time until the middle and then backward in time to the end, each page contains the whole—just as every moment of what we call “reality” contains past, present, and future. The mirror images Mitchell gives us with this structure are infinite.
Further, as the book goes on we discover that each “recorded” means of telling the story is not exactly the truth we think it is: Adam Ewing’s journal, we’re told, might not be authentic, Sixsmith’s letters are really part of a novel, the novel’s publisher is just a character in a movie, Sonmi ~ 451’s ordeal was scripted . . . until we return, far in the future, to oral tradition, perhaps the ultimate form of ghost writing. The character Isaac Sachs in the second half of the first Luisa Rey mystery is, I think, David Mitchell, literally stepping into the scene to explain himself. Sachs writes in his notebook about actual past and virtual past, symmetry, and actual and virtual future (and then gets splattered to bits as the plane he’s on explodes, which I see as a funny, self-deprecating gesture on Mitchell’s part.) My point here is that Mitchell shows us how memory is actually a figment of our imagination.
Through the different narrators and the tenses and forms of their stories, I learned to assess how much perspective each character has—something I hadn’t realized previously and can definitely use. When, for example, narrator Tim Cavendish relates his story of being trapped in an evil nursing home in past tense, even if I don’t know in the moment what’s going to happen, I do know he’ll be alive at the end, because he’s telling the story. Conversely, a story told in present tense gives less perspective; its temporality and causality are open and plot-based.
Another aspect of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s use of language, opened my eyes to how much fun an author can have with words while using them to convey deep meaning. In addition to his repetition of various phrases and images from one chapter to the next as emotional tags of a sort, his generonyms were cleverly done. Best of all, by naming the savior in Sloosha’s Crossing Meronym—“a word that names a part of a larger whole”—he ends the tale on an exceptionally upbeat note, speaking volumes about the civilized world ahead in just one word.