Cloud atlas is a mesmeric creation. I was tempted to say I’ve never read anything like it, before Calvino’s equally beguiling If on a winter’s night a traveller came to mind. It is made up of six interlocking, nested narratives, each written in a different style in different historical (or future) time periods. Mitchell’s core ethos as a writer is that everything is connected. This was beautifully rendered in his debut novel Ghostwritten (see my review), which also featured interlocking stories. His belief also manifests in the highly entertaining way in which he uses characters in multiple books; (for instance, an eighteenth century ship captain by the name of Molyneux, who appears in one of the six strands in Cloud Atlas also appears in his latest work, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (see my review); and there are others). What makes Cloud atlas different to Ghostwritten are the different narrative styles, the different time periods and the pyramidal structure, with each story read or viewed by the main character in the following story. We read the first half of the first story, (‘1a’), then the first half of the next (‘2a’), and so on until the middle story, after which we fall down the other side of the pyramid. The full structure is: 1a; 2a; 3a; 4a; 5a; 6; 5b; 4b; 3b; 2b; 1b.
We end where we started, reading the journal of a mid-eighteenth century clerk. Adam Ewing is an American sailing through the South Pacific on board Prophetess, heading for Hawaii and then his home in the gold-rush boom city of San Francisco. After observing the violent clashes between Moriori and Maori peoples in the Chatam islands, he is diagnosed with a brain parasite. He is treated by his friend, the ship’s surgeon Dr Goose, but there is a good chance the treatment will kill him.
The journal is cut-off mid-sentence and we are plunged into the second story, of impulsive, down-and out musician Robert Frobisher, who is writing letters to his friend ex-lover Sixsmith from Belgium in 1931. The caddish Frobisher finds work as an assistant to retired and ill composer Vyvyan Ayres. Frobisher is a wonderful character, passionate, wild, sniping. He beds Ayres’s wife. Meanwhile, he writes that he found and read the first half of Ewing’s journal. Like us, he’s frustrated that he’s only got the first half of Ewing’s story and pleads with Sixsmith to help him find the second half, writing, “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” (How true!) He is also tickled that poor Ewing doesn’t realise that he’s being poisoned by Dr Goose!
The third strand, set in mid-1970s California, features Sixsmith as one protagonist in the corporate crime thriller entitled ‘Half Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery’. The half-lives refers to the fact that Sixsmith is a nuclear scientist working on developing a new type of reactor for civilian power generation, but is also a playful nod to the fact we are getting these half-stories. Enter investigative reporter Lousia Rey, who is looking for her Watergate scoop and stumbles onto a design fault in the new reactors that could threaten catastrophic meltdown. Of course, the ‘powers that be’ so-to-speak will do anything to prevent this news leaking. We are led to a thrilling climax as Louisa escapes with Sixsmith’s report that shows the design fault, before we are again cut-off.
Timothy Cavendish is an unsuccessful publisher in modern-day London. His story, written as a highly entertaining comic farce, sees him publish a spectacular hit penned by a jailed hitman. All the profits have gone to pay off old debts. The hitman feels he’s getting a raw deal on royalties and sends his brothers to rough up Cavendish. There’s lots of fun had here, including a spectacular end for a literary critic (I better watch what I say!). When Cavendish’s brother refuses to help him with a loan to pay off the hitman, Cavendish says: ‘We’re brothers! Don’t you have a conscience?’, to which his brother replies: ‘I sat on the board of a merchant bank for thirty years.’ The farce escalates when the brother offers Cavendish asylum in a safe house up near Hull, which turns out to be more asylum than safe-house. Cavendish is trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, without hope of escape. Somewhere along the way Cavendish started to read the unpublished manuscript entitled ‘Half Lives: the First Louisa Mey Mystery’ by Hilary V Hush, which doesn’t particularly grab him.
Set in the future corpocracy of Neo So Copros in Korea after the ‘Skirmishes’, the fifth story, written as dystopian sci-fi, focusses on the fabricant (clone) restaurant server Sonmi~451. She is being interviewed by an ‘Archivist’ after committing some form of crime. The record of the interview is recorded by an orison and will be held in the Ministry of Testaments. Fabricants exist to serve ‘purebloods’. Sonmi~451 works as a slave in Papa Song’s fast-food dinery, a place where breaks are considered ‘time theft’. There’s lots of sci-fi inventiveness and wordplay here, with terms such as fabricant, doodlemoos, peakjammed, wombtank, upstrata and birth quotas all appearing in one sample half-page. There’s also intelligent changes in the spelling of words: our ‘explain’ becomes the future’s ‘xplain’, and so on. What sets Sonmi~451 apart is her ability to ‘ascend’, or become self-aware. Soon representatives from an underground rebel Union movement free her. Just as she is enjoying watching a movie entitled ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, the corpocracy cops find her. She attempts to flee but we are, again, cut off!
The sixth and middle story is set on the big island of Hawaii even further into the future, after the so-called ‘Fall’. It’s narrated in first person by an old man named Zachary, who looks back on tumultuous events from his childhood. Zachary lives in a primitive society of Valleysmen, for whom Sonmi is a God. Their enemy is the Kona, a blood-thirsty rival tribe. The big island is visited occasionally by people called ‘the Prescients’, who have advanced technology. Prescients live to be 60 or 70, a number which shocks the Valleysmen who struggle to live much beyond 40 because of ‘redsoak’ or ‘mukelung’. A Prescient woman, the aptly named Meronym, comes to live with Zachary and his family for a few months. After a time she reveals her purpose of the stay, she needs a guide to take her up the volcanic mountain Mauna Kea, a place the Valleysmen fear to go. Zachery is mistrustful of Meronym and goes through her possessions, finding the orison of Sonmi. Meronym explains to him that Sonmi is not a God, but a person who lived before the Fall. Zachery agrees to take Merynym up the mountain.
This is the most challenging story for readers because of its unique voice. Take this representative sample, where Zachary is recounting the visit of a Prescient woman, the aptly named Meronym, who stays with his family for a few months:
First, second, third days the Prescient woman was wormyin’ into my dwellin’. Got to ‘fess she din’t b’have like no queeny-bee, nay, she never lazed a beat. She helped Sussy with dairyin’ an’ Ma with twinnin’n’spinnin’ an’ Jonas took her bird-eggin’ an’ she list’ned to Catkin’s yippin’bout school’ry, an’ she fetched water’n’chopped wood an’ she was a quicksome learner.
It takes a little getting used to but you get the hang of it real quicksome. (I’m betting Mitchell wrote it with his spell-checker turned off, though!)
We then follow the second-halves of the first five stories.
What are we left with? As Zachary observes: ‘Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies.’ The stories are linked by the repeating soul, with several characters sharing the same comet-like birthmark. Other links come in the form of words: six is used repeatedly. There are six stories. There is Sixsmith, who is 66 years old. Cavendish is sixty-something. There is Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas sextet. Zachary is sixteen when Meronym visits. There are more examples besides.
The main thematic thrust exists in the numerous rises and falls of characters, peoples, societies. As readers, we rise and fall too, up the pyramid of stories and then down the other side. The aptly named Adam Ewing, our first man if you will, rises up a mountain in the Chatam Islands, then falls into it. Sixsmith lets himself out of an upper-storey hotel window to avoid paying the bill. Louisa Rey’s car is forced off a bridge and falls into the water below. The literary critic in Timothy Cavendish’s story is tossed off the roof of a building! Sonmi~451 ‘ascends’. Zachary (our ‘Z’ and final man) and Meronym climb and descend a mountain. Moreover, we have the ongoing struggles of one peoples over another. Ewing observes many instances of colonialism’s barbarity. Louisa is placed in peril at the hands of the powerful corporation, as is Sonmi~451. Cavendish is placed into an old people’s home at the hands of his brother, a place where the patients are treated appallingly. The rivalries in the post-apocalyptic world are clear-cut too. There is a chink of light in the final sentences, but overall it’s a bleak world view, something that was also apparent in Ghostwritten. When Zachary asks Meronym who triggered the Fall, she replies ‘[Humans] tripped their own Fall.’ And what of that chink of light at the end? Is it real, is it like the final note of Frobosher’s Cloud Atlas, in which a violin hits a perfectly discordant note?
There is plenty of playfulness (read: post-modernism), some of which critics have singled out as a little too clever. An example is Frobisher’s sextet, which he describes thus:
… a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…
The author writing to his audience about his own doubt about whether it will work. I love this sort of cleverness. There is more of it, but it’s never more obvious than this. When Frobisher writes to Sixsmith of how: “One may transcend any convention, of only one can first conceive of doing so”, we are mindful not only of Mitchell’s upending of the novel’s conventional structure but of a deeper desire: of upending human nature.
Cloud Atlas is an amazing read. How appropriate that Mitchell, a believer in interconnectedness, should connect disparate genres and periods in creating his masterwork.
In a word: exhilarating.
Cloud atlas was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The line of beauty. Mitchell considered it unfilmable but, not to be deterred, the makers of the Matrix trilogy have adapted it for the big screen, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving among others. It will be released in Australia in the new year. Click here for more.
Cloud atlas by David Mitchell
Source: the local municipal library