With David Mitchell’s wonderful novel The Bone Clocks winning the Best Novel award at last weekend’s World Fantasy Awards, I thought it might be time to revisit the book that put Mr. Mitchell on the literary map: 2004’s Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas is an absorbing book that entertains on many levels. At the upper layers it has intrigue, drama, romance, provincialism, action and more. If you want to dig deeper, you have commentary on human nature. And for those who love to obsess in the details, well, just try to keep count of how many times the number six is utilized throughout the book -go ahead, I dare you! Yet Cloud Atlas works on all these levels, although it is more satisfying to read it at with at least at its deepest.
This novel is made up of six different story lines, ranging from a personal journal from the mid-1800s to a transcript of testimony given by a condemned “fabricant” (clone) from sometime in the future, culminating in a story-telling session from an even further time after civilization has “fallen”. Each story line is written in a very different style with divergent voices and sensibilities, but each rings intrinsically true to its time.
The stories are nested together, like matryoshka dolls. Each one, up to the center story, is interrupted by the next (sometimes quite abruptly, even in mid-sentence), and then concludes in inverted order. Although for the most part each story is populated with unique characters, each references in some way the story that immediately preceded it: the author of a group of letters finds a traveler’s journal in his patron’s library; the aforementioned letters are found in the effects of a character in a different story; a vanity publisher is sent a manuscript of a mystery that actually becomes the action in a different segment; then a totally unrelated character in yet another segment watches part of a movie on her “sony” which dramatizes the ordeal of a that publisher; and the narrator of the final story views the image of a mysterious woman on an ancient artifact, who turns out to be the woman who had been watching the movie of the aforementioned publisher.
In each story, one of the characters carries a distinctive birthmark, inferring that s/he is a reincarnation from the prior story. This motif strengthens the sense of connection between the stories, a slender thread of awareness on the part of these individuals that their actions will be ones that in some way will impact their world, for better or worse. Some embrace this awareness, others run from it. None, however, can escape it.
Mitchell does an incredible job of mastering the dialects and nuances of voice that define the environment and mood of each segment. This also means that he doesn’t always write “easy” narrative – it can be difficult, at times, to embrace the full measure of what he is relating as the language and thought processes are very archaic to our “modern” sensibilities. But that actually enhances the sense that we are moving through time, and for those stories written in the “here and now”, there is an added energy to our being on familiar footing with them; we can ease into them directly rather than having to establish a historical foundation first.
If all you know of Cloud Atlas is the movie, please, do yourself a favor and read the book. The movie may have been beautifully filmed, but a visual medium simply cannot do justice to the beautiful expansion and contraction that Mitchell takes us through in the course of Cloud Atlas. The book is definitely a triumph on its own.