Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s 2004 Cloud Atlas is a novel in six stories: the journal of American traveler in the Pacific in 1850, the letters of a young Englishman working for a elderly composer in Belgium in 1931, a mystery story about an female investigative reporter in California in 1975, a film treatment about an aging English publisher in the present day, a Q and A with a cloned servant in dystopian Korean in 2144, and the experiences of a goatherd in post-apocalypse Hawaii in 2321. I found the book to be both less and more than I’d expected after hearing about it when the film version came out last year.
Many readers alluded to the difficulty of the puzzling narrative structure, which I found to be far less of a problem than described. Mitchell’s structure is actually pretty straightforward — the stories unfold in chronological order but each is interrupted at a cliffhanger moment, with only the Hawaii portion told from beginning to end at roughly the midpoint in the novel. Then the other stories resume and are completed in reverse-chronological order, ending where the novel began with the Pacific journal. Although readers might lose track of elements of the interrupted stories, the narrative is easy to follow. Another element highlighted by many readers that underwhelmed me was the theme of reincarnation, especially the motif of an unusual birthmark that traced the movement of a single soul through time. The birthmark seemed gimmicky to me, especially since Mitchell didn’t develop the idea beyond noting the presence of the birthmark on various characters.
More important were the ways in which the book offered more than I’d expected. In each of these very different stories, Mitchell evoked a vivid sense of place, wove a variety of conflicts into an engaging story, and created a memorable voice. I was interested in each story individually and intrigued by they way those stories combined into the larger novel. He is clearly a very talented writer who rose to the difficult challenge he’d posed for himself in creating this complex novel. In addition, I was intrigued by the his deft use of archetypes in these tales: the captive redeemed, the sinner on the run, the corruption of power, the endurance of compassion. Several of those archetypical motifs — and more — could be found in each of his stories, and one of the pleasures of this novel for me was discerning the recurrence of those arcehtypes as I was reading and since I finished the novel.
Finally, reading this book clarified for me something that I’d been mulling over for the past few months: Why do I read five or six books by novelists from Ireland or the UK for each novel I read by an American writer? American fiction is as polarized as American politics, with commercial fiction dominated by writers hoping to create a brand by devising a signature formula from a set of rigid expectations for each genre that they can repeat again and again, and literary fiction dominated by writers who pride themselves on creating unengaging characters to whom nothing much happens. Things seem to be very different across the pond where commercial writers, such as Ireland’s Tana French and England’s Nick Hornby, may work in identifiable genres but do not write endless iterations of the same formula. And many of the literary writers from across the sea, such as Ireland’s Colm Toibin and England’s Ian McEwan, deliver novels that can be enjoyed by those who read for entertainment and those who read for erudition. In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell has married both strands of fiction — genre and literary — in a single novel that is both entertaining and erudite.