David Mitchell is a wonder. I’m not even sure where to begin, except to say he is a wonder. Cloud Atlas is unlike any other book you are likely to read for some time. Rest assured, there will probably be others trying to pull it off. Duplicating the form of Mitchell’s novel is one thing, but replicating Cloud Atlas’s content is something else entirely. If the general reader goes to just a few of the reviews of Mitchell’s book, he/she might be intimidated, confused, enthused or ambivalent about actually reading it.
The difficulty in reviewing this particular book is to know from which place to begin: the story or the writing? Let’s start with the story, well let’s start with the stories, all six of them; except they really are chapters of the larger story, and as much as they might stand alone, they are connected, just as all of our own stories are connected. I will avoid any mention of post-modernism, it’s enough to say that without having read anything else Mitchell has written, the structure of this story is ground-breaking to me (although I was reminded more than once of Joyce’s Ulysses), but the content of the story moves backward in time, then forward and quite a bit in between.
The stories start and then stop, some abruptly some with a degree of settlement, but each tale does connect to another, sometimes more than one, with certain characters returning, but not always exactly the same. The time periods run from the middle of the 19th century, to post-World War I, then a trip to a future which is both disheartening and off-putting in its familiarity, then back to the 1970s, and then back again, story by story, to the very beginning, picking up the first chapter where it left off mid-sentence. Mitchell is a chameleon when it comes to genres and the characters that inhabit their stories. The book begins with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Ewing is sent to the Pacific islands as a notary for a San Francisco bank. His journal reflects the voice of a proper 1850s’ gentleman (with a nod to Melville) and is just as convincing as that of semi-literate Zachary, in a much later story, who speaks with a naturalness reminiscent of Faulkner’s characters, only a lot more fun to read aloud.
It’s not likely that any reviewer could actually write a spoiler review for Cloud Atlas, even telling you that the characters include husbands, wives, missionaries, charlatans, gods and goddesses, sailors, captains, composers, lovers, investigative journalists, politicians, gay and straight folk, futuristic not-quite-real human folk, Asians, Caucasians, Blacks and browns. There are cannibals and businessmen, fathers, sons, lovers – in short, Mitchell has written a novel about real life, sort of, – its past, its present and its future. The book includes a fair amount of philosophy: Darwinian, Christian and pseudo-spiritualism. A charlatan of the highest order explains the decimation of people of color by whites: “Why tinker with the plain truth that we hurry the darker races to their graves in order to take their land and their riches.” A charlatan succeeds best when his fakery is framed in truth, hard or otherwise. The reader only becomes aware of this character’s malevolent nature long after buying into his pragmatic altruism and reliability. It’s not the first instance in Cloud Atlas in which reality, or truth, if you will, is not what it seems. This is evident when Zachary, a young Valleysmen, asks Meronym, a visitor to his land: “Then the truth is diff’rent to the seemin’ true?” Meronym answers, “Yay, an’ it usually is.” Zachary recalls this conversation later: “I mem’ry Meronym sayin’ ‘an’ that’s why true true is presher’n’rarer’n diamonds.’”
Read this novel (yes, it is a novel) as an adventure. Its structure may be confusing at first, but hang in there, you’ll get used to it. It is a novel of the human family and the ideologies and economics of its successes and failures and exactly where it could be headed. We, the readers, fit smack-dab in the middle of this story and it’s scary as hell. I think David Mitchell has written a kind of novelization of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and into its possible next chapter. Cloud Atlas could be the best novel ever for a brave and ambitious book club. It’s a book that once closed, begs to be opened again by what would be a very lively discussion. -Sunny Solomon
Also available by David Mitchell: Ghostwritten 2001; Number9Dream 2003; Black Swan Green 2007; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 2011.