Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of six interwoven novellas. The first one starts in 1850 in the Pacific and through the lives of six different people, embodying the same soul, we end up in a post-apocalyptic future. Each of the individual stories are linked, passing something on to the next generation. Along the way we visit 1931 Zedelghem in Belgium, the fictional Californian city of Buenas Yerbas in 1975, present day Britain, a futuristic Korea and a post apocalyptic Hawaii.
Mitchell does a lot of interesting things in this book with structure and prose. Five of the six novellas stop abruptly in the middle of the narrative. Sometimes with a clear cliffhanger, sometimes mid-sentence. The novella set in the post apocalyptic future, positioned at the centre of the book, is the only one that isn't broken up. Mitchell moves into the future and then turns around and starts working his way back to the first story again.
The author uses a lot of different techniques in the novel. The first story is written in the form of a diary. The second is half of an exchange of letters between two young men and former lovers. The third a multiple point of view, third person narrative. The fourth story is a first person narrative. The fifth takes the shape of an interview and the final novella is essentially a camp fire tale (I suppose you could call it a frame story). It's a way of structuring the novel that not everybody will like. The changes can be quite abrupt and the stories are only tenuously connected. The diary of the main character in the first novella is found by the main character in the second, whose letters end up in the hands of the third, whose life is turned into a novel that ends up in the hands of the fourth main character etcetera.
Not only does Mitchell use a lot of different techniques, he does a lot of interesting things with his prose as well. The diarist for instance, has a fondness for the semicolon and the & symbol. The letters are written in a lazy style, with the writer frequently omitting the first person pronoun or use 1/2 instead of half. in this way each of the novellas has its own peculiarities. The most challenging is probably the final novella, which is written in a vernacular that almost has to be read out loud to be understood. This book has been translated into several languages, I pity the translators of that particular section.
To a hardcore genre reader all these styles, changes and shifts in the prose might seem like showing off. The thought occurred to me once or twice while reading the novel any way. It has to be said that for people who enjoy creative and at times playful prose there is definitely a lot to be had in this novel. One reader might think of it as showing off, the other might feel it is a showcase of what a talented writer can do with language.
As I mentioned earlier, the novellas are linked but only minimally. There is no overarching plot but there are motifs. The most notable one is the birthmark that allows the reader to identify the reincarnated soul of the main character. Another thing they have in common is that each of the characters documents their story in some way, allowing it to be passed on to the next generation. If there is such a thing as a theme in this novel it is probably the predator/prey dynamic that each story incorporates. The main character is usually on the prey side of things and the predator can take very different shapes but it is always there. The one constant in this entire book and apparently something that Mitchell considers a universal property of mankind. Not a very cheering thought.
The science fiction element in the novel is mostly present in the fifth and sixth novella. The fifth in particular presents a very disturbing future. We get to visit a Korea where the North Korean Juche ideology (which in my opinion makes as much sense as Ghadaffi's Green Book, which is to say none) with a kind of hypercorporate economy. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that this economy in effect devouring its natural resources and the very society that supports it, so the sixth (post-apocalyptic) novella should not come as a surprise. The main character is a clone whose intellect rises beyond her usefulness with depressingly predictable consequences. The science fiction elements in the novel are clearly present but not anything that hasn't been done before. Mitchell is not trying to explore the consequences of advanced technology for society, how it will redefine or shape societies, human interactions or moral values, or any of the other things that good science fiction explores. He focusses on showing the fundamental hunter/prey dynamic. As such, I'm not terribly impressed by his future societies.
Cloud Atlas is a very difficult book to review. I'm very impressed by the way Mitchell ignores the usual genre/literature divide and uses elements from both to tell his story. I do not think that he manages to blend the best of both into this book however. It is very preoccupied with structure and technique, something a lot of readers will feel is pretentious. In fact, it hides so many literary tricks and techniques that I am pretty convinced I haven't even caught half of them. It is an ambitious book, fascinating in many ways, but also a book that I feel tries to do too much and as a result falls short in some aspects. It does show how rich literature could be if it would manage to break down the wall that in the mind of readers, writers and publishers still divides genres. As such Cloud Atlas is a very interesting novel. One of a growing number of books on both sides of the divide that is chipping away at the wall. I don't expect it to come down any time soon but it is starting to crumble in places. Hopefully books like Cloud Atlas will allow more of these genre-defying books to slip through.
Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
First published: 2005