Interconnected Tales, Interconnected Lives:
A Literary Orchestra of Eternal Recurrence
( A Book Review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas )
Transcending genre, narrators, setting, language, and time, Cloud Atlas is David Mitchell’s symphony of storytelling dynamism seamlessly interlaced in an innovative structural bravura.
Composing of six stories nested within each succeeding one, the novel begins with The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing, a diary written by Adam Ewing, an American solicitor traveling aboard the schooner Prophetess set during the 1850s. His stopover on Chatham Islands gives him a first-hand experience and assessment of colonialism’s effects and hears of the brutal takeover of the Morioris, a minor tribe of non-violent natives, by the Maoris. Then in mid-sentence Ewing’s chronicle abruptly ends.
A new section, called Letters from Zedelghem, then crops up; a series of correspondences written in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a down and out English composer and musical prodigy, addressed to his confidante, Rufus Sixsmith; it relates his escape from London for Belguim in search for Vyvyan Arys, a legendary, blind musician whom Frobisher seeks for employment as an assistant and transcriber with an eventual hope to be educated under Arys’s wings.
Half Lives — The First Luisa Rey Mystery lurches forward in time in 1975 Buenas Yerbas, California where Luisa Rey, a reporter for a gossip magazine, suddenly finds herself involved in exposing a defective and unsafe nuclear power plant in the area of Swannekke Island as well as uncovering the murder of the scientist — who assessed and deemed in his report of the energy installation’s immediate shut down for its deficient safety standards — to whom she got acquainted with, Rufus Sixsmith, a renowned, sexagenarian physicist.
A few years into the 21st century London, The Ghastly Ordeals of Timothy Cavendish tells the unfortunate and comedic fate of the eponymous vanity publisher who hit it big when one of his books by a gangster-writer becomes an instant bestseller and the talk of the town as result of a scandal when the latter throws a critic who gave his book a bad review off the rooftop of a high rise building. Helpless to comply with the author’s ruffian brothers’ demands in their share of the profits, Cavendish escapes to the countryside and winds up in a high security nursing home where he is detained against his wishes.
An Orison of Somni~451 is set in the future on a dystopian Korea under a plutocratic government. Framed in a question and answer / interview format recorded in a futuristic device called an orison, it describes the life of the fabricant (clone) Somni~451 as an artificially-engineered server of a diner, her successful progression to sentience until becoming a major figure in the revolution to overthrow the purebloods’ oppressive regime.
The final story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, takes place eons further in time after a cataclysmic event almost obliterated humanity where on the island of Ha-why (Hawaii) a few managed to survived, but life degenerated to a tribal pre-civilization between warring clans. Told by a Valleysman named Zachary, he recounts a campfire yarn about his early years: the tragedies he has gone through; his adventures when his family was appointed host to Meronym, a member of a dark skinned race possessing advanced learning and technology living beyond the seas; and his test confronting the temptations of Old Georgie, the devil incarnate.
With its scope, breadth and length, Cloud Atlas sweep me off my feet page after page, at every progression of succeeding parts; its ambitious storytelling, such wide-range use, variation and contrast of literary styles in different respects, is enough to make my jaw drop on the floor; the book’s arrangement, a narrative arc interlinked, couched after one another like a Matryoshka dolls, is nothing I have ever encountered before. All these make for an interesting, at turns distinctive, and experimental reading; as it were, the book is one definite challenge from start to finish. Nonetheless, reading Cloud Atlas is itself an experience.
Nestling within the creative treatment of both narrative and form is the author’s display of virtuosity, if not outright audacity, on the meditation of language — either for its evolution or eventual degradation — as a reflection on and representation of the fabric of time where each of the characters exists: from the Old English form in Ewing’s maritime chronicle, in its recognizable face as presented by the persons living in the 21st century, to the lexical reform seen in the capitalistic world Sonmi~451inhabits where brand names become stand-in for everyday terms, until man’s downfall seems to truncate dialect as mere nasal neutralization (dropping of the “g”) and guttural utterances.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the tide of novelty, the stream of ideas, and even get impressed (or annoyed) as the book seems to be an on-going pedantic parade of the author’s pedagogy, one is hindered to discern the novel’s substantive message.
At its core, Cloud Atlas posits one of the basic lessons of human existence: the survival of the fittest — or as put forth as a “rule” by which the first story abides: “The weak are the meat the strong do eat.” Oppression, exploitation, and predation are the periodic themes that happen and unify the stories comprising the book, the forces the different characters have to confront and struggle with. As an off shoot, this clash instills in these individuals — to a great extent to humanity — to strive for the will to power, the will to prevail, the will to life.
Indeed, Mitchell paints a grim outlook; man’s history after all is never entirely moonlight and roses.
Explicit all throughout the novel is the theme of eternal recurrence, as if the characters are the same soul experiencing and waging the similar battle against its hunters and oppressors in different iterations amidst different settings happening throughout a seemingly endless cycle. It is at this instance that the author seems to hint at reincarnation, and it’s another sound literary device to point each of the stories’ interconnectivity and parallelisms forming it into one magnificent whole (if it is in any way a subtle suggestion of Mitchell’s religious belief and philosophy is another story altogether).
If anything, the idea of eternal recurrence manifests that one’s actions never exists or limited within itself, but is an echo, a reverberation felt that transcends beyond space-time. It’s a domino-effect that can be easily seen in the novel and an ancillary force that prefigures and shapes lives often times for the better, often times for the worse.
Daring, expansive, imaginative, Cloud Atlas challenges us to look outside our minute existence, showing us we are a significant part of the infinite whole. Life’s last gasp is but a beginning of another’s breath of being. The first breath of being is a cyclic journey towards life’s last gasp.