Rewind, book: 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell (2004)
by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas is that rare novel that balances seemingly incompatible opposites. The story is addictively readable - David Mitchell mixes adventure stories, thrillers, science fiction and the western - but also daringly challenging.
The six short stories are not only interlinked, but inventively spliced together and told in knowingly old-fashioned voices: Mitchell's narrators pastiche Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Daniel Defoe, Aldous Huxley, Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, while the entire enterprise resounds to the Arabian Nights or Voltaire. Yet, Cloud Atlas feels unmistakably new, and the recurring motifs, characters and plotlines feel like chaos theory turned into devilish narrative fiction.
The title suggests a form of imaginative mapping: we navigate Cloud Atlas in linear forms that are also endlessly scrambled. The first story, told by young American adventurer Adam Ewing on a 19th-century Pacific Island, is found, ripped in half, by the narrator of the second story, a desperate musician called Robert Frobisher, whose diaries are found by Luisa Rey, the heroine of the third story. And so on.
Mitchell has described the form as like a Russian nesting doll, with echoes containing more echoes. One could argue he is presenting existence as ever-regenerating acts of creation and recreation. There is nothing new under the sun (as the countless repetitions and elegant coincidences propose), but that doesn't mean those things don't feel new the first time we experience them. These cycles illuminate the first word of the title.
Clouds form through evaporation, diffuse via precipitation, and then reform when the ensuing moisture saturates the atmosphere. The novel represents this continual formation, dispersal and reformation as reincarnation, globalisation, technological advance, procreation, and good old-fashioned artistic influence.
Mitchell's most remote yet heartbreaking narrator is Somni-451, a man-made being identical to many others whose only desire is to live beyond the narrow confines of her predetermined purpose.
Cloud Atlas is literature that wonders aloud about the strength and limits of its own form. The novel seems conscious of the past, but alive to the ways in which it will be shaped by the exigencies of its own historical moment in much the same way that individuals are always a part of grander narratives.