On one level this is a compelling book. But on another level, I’m just not sure whether David Mitchell isn’t being too clever by half.
The novel is made up of six separate stories. There are some links, which I’ll talk about later. There are eleven sections, with six consecutive stories, the first five of which come to an abrupt finish, one even ending mid-sentence. The sixth story is complete, and is then followed in reverse order by a further instalment of each the other five, more or less resolving them. Mitchell uses a musical example to describe this structure. One character is writing ‘‘a sextet for overlapping soloists’, piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.’ ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ he asks. And that’s a very good question. The name given to this piece of music is ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’.
The first of the six stories takes the form of diary entries by a young, God-fearing American sailing between Sydney and California around 1850. His ship puts in for repairs to the Chatham Islands, where he learns of the fate of the Moriori people who have, with the assistance of white ‘entrepreneurs’, been enslaved by the more war-like Maoris. The style writing in this section, and the views expressed by the characters are brilliantly authentic, reminding me of the writing of Joseph Conrad, though I gather that Herman Melville’s Typee and Moby Dick may also have been a models. The second story is about the sextet composer, and is set in 1931. It takes the form of letters he sends from Belgium, where he has fled from his creditors, to a lover in England. The style is quite different, but again I am reminded of the writing of that period: Evelyn Waugh, perhaps. The third story is an American style thriller set in 1975, about a young reporter who is chasing the story of a cover-up of faulty design of a nuclear plant – The China Syndrome, anyone? The fourth is a sort of Kingsley Amis style farce about an elderly publisher who finds himself imprisoned in an old folks’ home; it’s set at the time of writing. The fifth story is a piece of speculative fiction about a future where society is run by a corporation, with genetically engineered ‘fabricants’ doing all the labour; one of these recounts her story to an archivist. I use the term ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ in Margaret Atwood’s sense that the drivers which could produce such a future outcome for society are already in place. (Similarities between this section of Cloud Atlas (2004) and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) must surely be coincidence.) The sixth section is set even further into a dystopian future, after ‘the Fall’, and is an account of a visit of one of the few ‘Prescients’ left in the world to a Pacific island (Hawaii) inhabited by people living in conditions equivalent to the early mediaeval. So much of ‘civilisation’ has been lost that language itself is but a shattered remnant. I read these stories with a mixture of pleasure, amusement, interest, and horror. But also with an increasing sense of frustration. Is this anything more than mimicry? If it is convincing does this matter? Do the six pieces somehow make up a whole?
There are a number of superficial links. Luisa Rey, the reporter, reads the letters of Robert Frobisher, the composer. Omni, the fabricant, sees a film made of the story of the publisher, Timothy Cavendish, who in turn will publish the adventure of the reporter, now presented as a book, rather than as ‘reality’. Omni is considered a goddess in the final story. And so on. Some of the characters have a similar birth mark, and at times feel a strange sense of familiarity: Luisa, for example, stands ‘entranced, as if living in a stream of time’ when she hears the Cloud Atlas Sextet. And Omni, in the act of falling, has an earlier memory of falling, which is an experience of Luisa. But none of these links lead anywhere in narrative terms that I can see.
The search for unifying themes is perhaps more productive. Characters in the first – and therefore the last – story propose that progress and civilisation are the destiny of the white man, despite the terrible cost of colonialism on display. All of the other stories in their own way dispute the idea of progress, either personal or material, with accounts of exploitation and betrayal. They seem rather to endorse another view from the first story: that ‘The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat’. This nihilistic position is somewhat modified in the sixth and central story, where the Prescient character suggests that the difference between being civilised and uncivilised is that civilised people can see beyond their immediate desires. All people have both civilised and uncivilised impulses, but there is hope that the civilising ones may win out. There isn’t, however, much evidence for that in these stories.
Despite the cleverness of all this – or perhaps because of it – I can’t help feeling there is a whiff of the Creative Writing class about the book: Postmodernism 101. Produce a piece of writing that illustrates the principle of fractured narrative. Write a thriller that makes use of all the conventions of the genre. In a series of short pieces, show mastery of six different writing styles. ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ I think for once I agree with the judges of the 2004 Man Booker Prize. They short-listed Cloud Atlas, but the prize went to the conventionally structured The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I’m glad I read it, though.