Published in 2004, Cloud Atlas is strange, clever and original novel. It is made up of six separate but connected narratives, spanning continents and centuries, from the early 1800s into the distance and dystopian future.
I’ve been meaning to read this novel for ages, and finally got round to it a couple of weeks ago. Having had it recommended to me by several people, and given vague hints as to what it was about, and having had the structure explained to me several times before I read it, I came to the novel with certain expectations. The structure certainly met those exactly. I’ve always been really interested in form (in both my writing and reading) and love novels with unusual structures. I also love multiple narrators, because I find voices and what you can do with different voices one of the most interesting things in literature. We get six narrators/main characters: Adam Erwing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Somni, and Zachary. So as you can imagine the general set up of Cloud Atlas very much appeals to me.
The plot isn’t quite what I thought it would be. In fact, it’s better. Knowing the epic scope of the novel before I started it, I was expecting the plot to be epic as well. If you’ve read the book you’ll think this odd as, let’s be honest, it is pretty epic to write a novel in which the plot spans hundreds and hundreds of years. However, what I mean is that I was expecting a bigger grand narrative, a more interconnected plot. Basically, I was expected more world-saving. In my head for some reason I imagined there would be an actual book, the cloud atlas, that someone wrote in one century that affected people in the future. I thought the actions of one narrative would more fully and directly affect the characters in the next. In actuality, what connects the six narratives is far more subtle: a birth mark, a few similarities of life, and the happening upon documents or relics from the past. Apart from these connections, the novel is more like a collection of documents telling the stories of six individuals, sometimes extraordinary, sometimes fairly normal, spread across the centuries. It’s subtle, and it’s brilliant.
The voices are what I most impresses me. In every narrative Mitchell creates a distinct voice and characterisation. Admittedly I find the narrators Adam Erwig a little dull and Timothy Cavendish a little irritating, but every character is different to the next, and every voice is well-created and sustained. My favourite sections are those featuring Luisa Rey and Somni, but I’m also fond of Frobisher’s letters, especially of the way in which you get a sense of the character of the person they’re addressed to, of the silent reader.
Beyond each narrative section having its own distinct form and voice, the later ones also have their own language. This is done beautifully. You notice slight modifications, slight changes, in the spelling of some words when it comes to Somni’s narrative. I especially like how brand names become synonymous with the thing itself. A sony is a computer, for example. These are small details, but they really bring Mitchell’s future world to life. In Zachary’s narrative, there are entirely new expressions and words. A lot of words are spelt differently. However Mitchell does this very skilfully, because although the language used feels distinctly different to ours now, it is never alienating. The novel remains easy to read; words that are spelt differently remain clear, and when new expressions are used we can easily see where they might have come from in our language today.
Although Zachary isn’t my favourite character, I am probably most impressed by his section of the narrative. Here, as in the Somni chapters, Mitchell creates a believable and fascinating potential future for the human race. He creates this new world subtly and convincingly, never heavy-handedly, and it feels as real as the more familiar historical chapters.
What I also really liked is that each section not only has its own distinct voice and form, but that also at times each narrative seems to have its own distinct genre. I like that in one book we get a spy thriller, a sci-fic story, a quest narrative, a glimpse of history, and much much more. It makes for a fascinating, varied and enjoyable read.
The only criticism I have of the book is oddly enough also do with the form. As often with novels based on a brilliant premise (for example, I also found this with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson), I find the ending a little bit of a let-down. Because of the complex form of the novel you get several different climaxes, rather than one larger one, and as the novel ends on one of my least favourite narrators it did seem a slight anti-climax to me. Further to this, the cyclical nature of the novel means you end where you began, which I do like, but the length of the book means that by the time you actually reach the end, you’ve sort of forgotten where you began. What I mean by this is that when you eventually return to Adam Erwig, your narrative sympathies have moved elsewhere, and he seems of less interest than the other characters who you read about more recently. I thus ended up finding the novel’s closing passages less exciting than the rest of it.
This is, however, a minor point, and one I can’t think of a plausible way to remedy. Overall I greatly enjoyed Cloud Atlas. It is clever, interesting and brilliant novel. It is almost always engaged and it is unfailingly different. I strongly recommend it.
Greatest strength: For me, the distinct voices and structures of the different narrative sections.
Greatest weakness: Perhaps the ending.
Let’s finish on a quote: Then, as now, dystopia was a function of poverty, not state policy.
What a line.
Next week: The Book of Illusions, but Paul Auster