I can best sum up the brilliance of the novel Cloud Atlas
as: a self-contained meta-fictional, layered, narrative of ambitious and epic proportions.
I read that David Mitchell came up with his grandiose plot when thinking about designing a narrative along the lines of a Russian doll. And this is precisely the manner in which Cloud Atlas
has been constructed. The novel is constructed of six interlinking stories; each save the sixth is broken into two halves so that we end up with a narrative like this:1 The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 1)
2 Letters from Zedelghem (part 1)
3 Half Lives: The First Lousa Rey Mystery (part 1)
4 The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 1)
5 An Orison of Sonmi~451 (part 1)
6 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (complete story)
5An Orison of Sonmi~451 (part 2)
4The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 2)
3Half Lives: The First Lousa Rey Mystery (part 2)
2Letters from Zedelghem (part 2)
1The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 2)
This all seems impressive on paper, yet any skeptic would lack credibility if they did not question whether it truly works. And that is the truly impressive thing about this novel. The multi-layered narrative does work without seeming a clumsy plot device and every story flows together neatly. The second most impressive aspect is that David Mitchell can create a poignant and beautifully scripted tale without making it tedious to read. The book is entertaining, each story proving strong on its own and as part of a whole. Mitchell transcends ordinary conventions without seeming pretentious and rather than feeling jealous at his literary power I am held in awe.
Each story is set in a different genre so that rather than reading as belonging to one particular area Cloud Atlas
reads as part of a whole range of genres. The first tale is set in journal form and is a historical fiction for the reader, set in a distant past in the Pacific. The second tale takes the form of letters to a close acquaintance describing the moral failings of its protagonist. The third tale is part crime noir and part journalistic tale. The fourth story is a humorous first person narrative in the style of a memoir. The fifth tale is a sci-fi set in the future in the style of an interview (I found that this was my personal favourite narrative thread). The sixth and final tale was a post-apocalyptic tale that took elements of The Road and A Clockwork Orange, turning them into something different. This final tale was my personal least favourite to read but I can recognise how it fit into the novel as a whole.
The power of this novel is in how each of these incredibly strong stories fit together to create one whole narrative (you could almost say that this overall story was the seventh tale). The ways in which these stories link is why I call this a meta-fictional tale. Each story references past stories (whether they appear as novels in subsequent stories, or are referenced through character names and events). There is also the hint of a kind of character reincarnation across all these stories with the protagonists sharing a kind of birthmark and similar traits.
The underlying questions and challenges this book is concerned with did not slip past my attention either. This book challenges many, many concepts: it challenges our concern as readers with time, space and genre; it challenges how fiction and reality are intertwined; it challenges what it is to be human; it even challenges that literary fiction can be incredibly entertaining as well as informative and inspiring. But perhaps the overall challenge that Mitchell provides is how human greed and selfishness - the natural order of things, hamartia, sin - ultimately leads to destruction. He urges humanity to be better than our greedy impulses.
"Why? Because of this - one fine day, a purely predatory world shall
consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is
the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction."
The greatest compliment that I can give this book is that I would gladly read it again. I also now desire to read more of the brilliant combination of storytelling and writing that David Mitchell. I admit that many readers may find this challenging to grasp as a novel but once you push past the first areas of the novel it is incredibly fulfilling. Five well-earned stars for this novel and a definite feature on the 1001 books to read list.
"'...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?"