“… and only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
“So who’s expired in an ending flat and inane quite beyond belief now?”
David Mitchells’s Cloud Atlas is an amazing reading experience. It isn’t just that Mitchell creates interesting characters and addresses difficult themes, which he does. It isn’t just that he uses language in a deft and elegant way, which he also does. As a reader, the joy in reading Cloud Atlas comes from interacting with its unusual structure and from Mitchell’s virtuosity with various genres.
Cloud Atlas tells six stories. Five of them are broken into sections, each one ending at a dramatic point. (One ended so abruptly that I stopped and flipped pages back and forth, checking page numbers, exactly what Mitchell wanted me to do.) The sixth story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and’ Everythin’ After” completes in one section, and then the five others complete but in reverse order, so that “Adam Ewing’s Pacific Journal” begins and ends the book.
The characters in each section are not related by blood or history. They are separated by society, continent and era, yet they are connected, and not only by the strange birthmark each one has. Chronologically, the sections progress forward in time, beginning with Adam Ewing’s seafaring adventure in 1849, progressing to 1931, the 1970s, our present, a corporatic near-future and an undesignated future beyond that. Impulses, conceits and dreams, however, move back and forth through time. Robert Frobisher, the cad, grifter and brilliant musician from 1931, stands over a sleeping foe while holding a gun, every atom in his body desiring to shoot, and experiences a sense that this has happened before. It is not déjà vu, he writes in his letter to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, but the opposite; jamais vu – an experience he knows he has never had before. The reader recognizes it, though, from a sequence we’ve read in “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” where Zachary stands over the body of a sleeping enemy.
When we think of art, particularly literature, we tend to see great works as isolated islands in an ocean of time. In fact, when we sink below the waves and look at those islands from beneath the surface, we see that they are tops of mountains, a range, each work of art connected by the influences around the artist. In Cloud Atlas, with the exception of Adam Ewing, each character interacts with the section that came before. Robert Frobisher finds a copy of “The Pacific Journal” in his room at the brooding Belgian castle he is visiting. To his dismay (as ours) the book ends in mid-sentence, because it’s been torn in half. In a brilliantly developed bit of meta-fiction, Mitchell makes the reader (us) do exactly what Frobisher did when he reached the final page.
Luisa Rey, the heroine of “Half-Lives; the First Luisa Rey Mystery”, finds the letters Frobisher wrote to his Cambridge room-mate, best friend and love of his life, Rufus Sixsmith. She orders a recording of Frobisher’s one work, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, and when she hears it, she is sure she has heard it before… somewhere. In “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” Cavendish, a vanity publisher who is on the run from a gangster (it is a dark and hugely funny story with the funniest line in the book) reads a few pages from “Half-Lives,” an unpublished novel that has been sent to him.
In a dystopian future combining the mind-control culture of North Korea with the relentless corporatism of the capitalist west, a clone named Sonmi 451 sees a bit of a “disney” (movie) called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Her curiosity about the outcome sustains her through imprisonment and the looming certainty of execution.
In Hawaii in some much farther future, Zachary and his clan worship a goddess named Sonmi, and when Merowyn, a visitor from Prescient (technologically advanced humans who come to the island once a year to trade) stays in his house, she brings a strange device that projects a picture of a woman speaking. It’s a language he can’t understand, but he finds out later that it is Sonmi.
Adam Ewing, a good and naïve young man sent to the south Pacific islands on a bit of business for his father-in-law, is befriended by a very strange English doctor. When their ship the Prophetess starts its return trip to Honolulu, Adam helps a runaway slave who has stowed away. Adam’s privileged, moneyed sensibilities lead him to decisions that are always well-meant and often catastrophic, for others but also for him. Ultimately, the two characters who grow the most in the book are Sonmi 451, who evolves from a slave to a leader, and Adam, who comes out of the cocoon of his sheltered existence to finally take a stand for something.
Much of the book is about cruelty, slavery, courage and freedom. Much is about literature, art, and the influences they have on people. The book is packed with literary references, some of which are obvious just from this review: Thorton Wilder, Herman Melville, Ray Bradbury. Mitchell also pays brilliant homage to the “pulp” fields; Timothy Cavendish’s “Ordeal” is a picaresque novel; Luisa Rey is a mystery thriller; “An Orison of Sonmi 451” pure science fiction. “Letters from Zedelghen” is a perfect pastiche of an epistolary novel, while Adam Ewing pens a conventional travel journal.
Does any individual matter? Can one person make a difference? E.M. Forester’s classic Howard’s End pleaded with the reader, ‘Only connect.” Cloud Atlas says, “This is how we connect.”