A Narrative Symphony
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a masterfully interwoven novel that tells in many voices, six to be exact. Through a Russian doll construction, readers are exposed to six different narratives ranging across centuries from the travel diary of an American lawyer’s crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1850 to a distant post-apocalyptic world where man’s greed has destroyed most of civilization and the remaining humans have returned to a primitive tribal system. In between, the reader encounters an epistolary account of a young composer’s tenure as assistant to an older, more established composer, a pulp-fiction drama set in the 1970’s where the savvy reporter, Luisa Rey, takes on corporate in the form of Seaboard Power, Inc., the witty memoir of Timothy Cavendish, a book editor who is held in a nursing home against his will, and a science fiction-style interview with Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered human clone who has ascended from the role of illiterate slave to assert her own humanity.
Each of these narratives displays a distinct and powerful voice tailored to the time period, class and location of the narrator. The dissonance in the voices (so shockingly dissimilar) can be trying for the reader, who is asked not one or two, but six times, to adjust to a completely new landscape and dialect. Mitchell also alters form to explore diary, epistle, memoir, interview and oral history formats. Reader frustration is compounded by the fact that each narrative is split, meaning it lets off at a cliffhanger moment before launching into the new voice until each narrative has been introduced. After which, the reader descends the mountain and each story picks up where it left off and is brought to conclusion in descending order (1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1). The patient reader will invest in each tale (climb the mountain so to speak) for a huge payoff coming down.
One of the most engaging elements of Cloud Atlas is Mitchell’s ability to construct new and old worlds with extreme detail and precision. In his wordplay, Mitchell coins new terms (especially in his futuristic pieces) such as facescaping and fabricant. Also in future worlds, like that of Sonmi-451, words themselves have become more economical, for example, explain is now xplain and examine, xamine. Brand names replace item names; television, shoes, photo and watch become sony, nikes, kodak and rolex. Mitchell also relies on names and compound words to extend themes, for example, in the sixth narrative, the goat herder, Sloosha, is fleeing the Big I or self which relates to the themes of reincarnation and Buddhist teaching woven throughout all six narratives.
Cloud Atlas is a strenuous read, but not because of its obscurity. Each narrative is readable, cohesive and engaging at the surface level. However it is in the task of discovering the interplay between the narratives and excavating the nuanced details that the book yields the most satisfaction. While Mitchell propels the reader through time, allowing us to watch humanity self destruct, he is kind enough to bring us back again to end in the first narrative world, where change is still possible.