In David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, several generations search for truth, knowledge, and the means of survival. Mitchell captures the essence of each time period and builds on it like an orchestra building to a crescendo and then he takes it back down, level by level, until it comes to a quiet end. Mitchell also uses multiple genres to effectively tell the story. Cloud Atlas works because of the way the novel drifts through space and time like a cloud.
The first section of the book, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” starts the novel as a diary by Mr. Ewing. It begins: “Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints” (3). This is both an intriguing and bizarre way to begin a story, but it keeps the reader moving. As this line sets the tone for the novel, the reader also stumbles onto a trail of footprints and following them where Mitchell leads. In Ewing’s case it led to a conversation with Dr. Goose, but for me, it led to something larger, a delicious tangle of stories leading to the mashup of what does truth mean and what is life? This account is Ewing’s journal as he travels the West Indies on his way home. The account leaves off mid-sentence, leaving the reader wanting more (39).
The second section of the book is “Letters from Zedelghem” which consists of letters written by R. Frobisher, a musician, who travels to Zedelghem to work for Ayers, a world-class composer. Frobisher reads Ewing’s account and asks his friend Sixsmith for a complete copy because according to Frobisher, “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair” (64); how delicious is that line? It is so true. Several threads run through each of the sections, but the most interesting is a comet tattoo which shoots through the entire novel as a birthmark.
“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is an account of the journalist, Luisa Rey, as she meets Sixsmith and explores the truth of the “HYDRA-Zero reactor” (303). Sixsmith is the man the letters in the previous section were addressed to, but this part takes place when he is older and the letters link the second section to this section. Sixsmith is Rey’s informant, and both want the truth of the safety issues at his work to be uncovered—if the story isn’t shared, a nuclear power plant could fail and no one would know the truth. Rey ends up reading Frobisher’s letters after Sixsmith is killed, hoping it will give her a lead.
The next section is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Cavendish is a publisher who read “The First Luisa Rey Mystery” (162), which is a novel in his world. Cavendish was a moderate success, but, like Frobisher, Cavendish ran because of debt collectors (158). Cavendish’s brother seizes the opportunity to have him committed to a Retirement Home from which he cannot escape (175). In return, Cavendish “plotted vengeance, litigation, and torture” (178).
The most interesting section is “An Orison of Sonmi-451” because it is original and a potential future which could theoretically happen. Sonmi-451 is a clone who works in a Papa Song’s eatery in a futuristic Corpocracy Korea (185). This section is set up as an interview between an Archivist and Sonmi-451. It builds on the previous section because “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie she partially sees with her clone-friend at Papa Song’s, and later sees in its entirety. The most interesting part was where Sonmi-451 illustrates the difference between the classes: “He showed me its operation, then warned me never to let a pureblood catch me gathering knowledge, for the sight scares them, and there is nothing a scared pureblood will not do” (207). This book is about class struggle, and in this section, we come to the crux of the matter: what does it mean to be human? Sonmi-451 is “a stable, ascended fabricant” (220) who has “a Soul implanted in my collar so I could come and go on campus as I pleased” (220). The idea that clones would be a lesser status is not new, but the way Mitchell approached it is.
But Mitchell doesn’t stop there—he wants the wave of his saga to come to a crescendo, so he wrote “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”. This is the most puzzling section of the book because it comes from the point of view of Zachry, a far-future human, who worships Sonmi and has a futuristic language derived from current languages. Zachry and his people are visited by a Prescient, a visitor, who studies them like an anthropologist. She is on the trail of the ancients and hopefully a way to save her people.
After this section, the clouds slowly abate. The next section continues “An Orison of Sonmi-451” wherein we learn the Soap the fabricants eat is actually Soylent Green (people protein). I loved the link to Soylent Green the movie because the next section is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” which is the movie Sonmi-451 watches before she is captured. Then, after that, the “Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery” concludes, and leads back to the rest of the “Letters from Zedelghem” which in turn leads back to “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”.
Mitchell’s last line sums the novel more completely than anyone else can say: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops” (509). This book works because of the way the drops are connected. Reading this book makes me contemplate forms outside the narrative. Some stories are told in a linear fashion, but others are arranged in a way to increase tension and lead to an idea that is powerful—such as the fate of our descendants and what kind of future we leave them. Cloud Atlas makes me think we are all drops in the ocean—and what we do affects all the other drops. So by reading this book and absorbing the genres and format Mitchell uses—diary, letters, narrative, and interview, my ideas stretch. I am more willing to try other genres out and play with the structure of my novel to find out what works best. I am adding diary elements, texting, and interview to enrich the novel.
I enjoyed this book and rate it 4 stars.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.