Cloud Atlas is a novel that feels like a turning point. I can imagine people reading it at the time of its publication, seeing its structure – six novellas, moving forward in time from the mid-1800s to a post-collapse future, each one (bar the sixth) split in half by the next as we approach it – and thinking: where can David Mitchell go from here? What structural theatrics could follow that? From the vantage point of eight years and two more novels, we know that Mitchell turned to ostensibly more conventional narratives; so his third novel still feels like a significant moment in his career even now.
In his World Book Night programme last year, John Mullan held up Cloud Atlasas an example of an unconventional novel which has nevertheless been immensely popular. It’s not hard to see why so many people have been taken with Mitchell’s book: it’s highly entertaining. Mitchell’s control of voice and tone in all the stories – be they pulp thriller, science fiction, or period journal – is superb. The author is also adept at bringing characters to life in relatively few words; such as Robert Frobisher, the composer who flees to Holland in 1931, and whose letters to a friend form the second novella:
When insolvent, pack minimally, with a valise tough enough to be thrown on to a London pavement from a 1st or 2nd-floor window. Insist on hotel rooms no higher. (pp. 43-4)
Just about the only segment of Cloud Atlas which doesn’t quite work for me is the present-day tale of Timothy Cavendish, an elderly publisher who gets inadvertently ‘checked into’ an old people’s home when he’s expecting a hotel. Whilst I’ll concede that Mitchell’s parody of contemporary literary fiction is on the button, this was the only narrative which annoyed rather than engaged me – because it’s the only one of the six to exaggerate the form it embodies.
The title of Cloud Atlas recurs in the novel several times, most literally as the name of a piece worked on by Robert Frobisher; but also in Timothy Cavendish’s wish, as he thinks back on happier times in his life and longs to find that place again, for ‘a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable’ (p. 389). From that point of view, Mitchell’s book is an aerial view of human history. It speaks to the existence of repeating patterns, reflected in the twist in each plot, and the ways in which groups and individuals prey on each other throughout the narratives.
But the structure of Cloud Atlas also speaks to the distinctiveness of times and experiences: the world of each novella is imagined so solidly that it emphasises the distance between them all, heightening the feeling of disconnection when the narrative we’ve just read is mentioned as a text in the following one. When a group of 19th-century characters discuss a future in which all peoples will know their place on the ‘ladder of civilization’ (p. 507), they have no notion of how different from that the reality will be – but we’ve seen it in the sixth novella, which returns to the same Pacific setting as the first, several centuries hence. The islanders of that latter time worship a goddess named Somni, whom we know as the artificial-human protagonist of the previous tale. Each story shapes its own world, even as we see the links between them.
One life may be a drop in the ocean, muses 19th-century notary Adam Ewing at novel’s end, ‘[y]et what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?’ (p. 529). The drops of story in Cloud Atlas coalesce into a majestic whole.