It’s been a while since I first set out to write about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. What to do with such a slippery, virtuoso performance/performer? How to decide what to take from the novel, or what to foreground, or what to praise? Not “meaning” surely, at least not in the traditional sense, since Mitchell’s tricky narrative mode denies straight-faced critique, but not just playfulness either. Although it’s clear that Mitchell loves to laugh at fictionality and poke fun at readers eager for philosophical revelation, he isn’t just telling us jokes about writers, narrators and the act of story-telling. These difficulties have been plaguing me for weeks – they seem to have been popping up all across my reading, taunting me – and so I’ve decided to post my original post, the one I wrote immediately after finishing and then some added thoughts below. A review of my review, inside a review, if you like (and if you’ve read Cloud Atlas you can marvel at my decidedly unimaginative structural conceit):
What do a 19th century American notary, a young English composer in 1931, an investigative journalist in 1970s California, a 1980s vanity publisher, a slave clone in an unspecified future and a goatherd in a post-“civilised” world have in common?
David Mitchell knows. They’re all potential storytellers; or, rather, they are all potential stories.
Surely the nature of the structure of his Cloud Atlas is too famous to describe at length, so: six narratives, nesting in and about each other. One begins, only to end half way through and be replaced with another entirely different, but connected, narrative; then, in the centre, an entire sequence of events, whole in itself; and finally the second halves of the begun stories in reverse order. Reading it is a little like being a woodworm, eating your way through the successive shells of a set of Russian dolls, meeting the whole one in the middle and then exiting out through the skins of the same dolls but on the opposite side. (It’s more difficult to describe than I imagined…)
We start with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, the diary of a notary returning to America from Australia on the Prophetess (note the prescient name), in the company of a decidedly unsavoury crew. His business in travelling is only ever hinted at – recovering the assets of a client? – but that hardly matters since it’s his journey that counts. (There are parallels to be made here with us as readers; where we're going with the story doesn't matter, it's all about how we get there. I'll come back to that later.) With pompous and entertaining verbosity, he relates his meetings with the Maori; his adventures on the Chatham Islands; his friendship with his fellow passenger, the shifty Dr. Goose; all the while suffering terribly from the progress of “a tropic parasite” through his gut. But most importantly, and within the first few pages, he experiences a moment of connection with the most unlikely of fellow men, an enslaved “Moriori” (once the free natives of the Chatham Islands):
“Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye and shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing. As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box and, undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition.”
Adam Ewing reworks his eerie moment of union with the slave into a familiar metaphor of inequality and theatricality that reassures him, but, nevertheless, Mitchell has made clear some of his own intentions. Recognitions and connections across the most unlikely of barriers, even those of time and space, are what Cloud Atlas is all about.
When Robert Frobisher, the delightfully feckless and extraordinarily gifted young composer of the next story, finds one half of Ewing’s journal (later printed, we assume, by his son) in the house of his dying employer, he experiences a moment of recognition which is not dissimilar:
“Poking through an alcove of books in my room I came across a curious dismembered volume, and I want you to track down a complete copy for me…A half read book is a half finished love affair.”
Indeed. Frobisher’s copy of the journal, we’re made to understand, cuts off mid-sentence just as ours did a few pages earlier. Still, there is enough content for our new protagonist to recognise two important things. First, that Dr. Goose is a “vampire, fuelling his [Ewing’s] hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money…” – this is Robert’s moment of recognition since he is acting similarly in taking advantage of Vyvyan Ayrs, the famous composer wasting away from syphilis - and second, that there is something:
“shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too genuinely structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true – but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?”
Why a novelist of course, so that you, Mr. Robert Frobisher could find it!
Mitchell plays this game of authenticity vs fictionalitiy throughout. When Luisa Rey, the protagonist in the next story, finds Frobisher’s missives in the possession of murdered nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith (once his lover?) they become part of her story. And her story, it turns out, is in fact a novel in the possession of Timothy Cavendish, a vanity publisher imprisoned in an old people’s home in Hull! So who is real? Is Luisa Rey is real? If she is, in fact, a character in a novel (ha ha!) then Rufus Sixsmith isn’t real and so never received any letters from Robert Frobisher, who, in turn, never found the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The consequences of such reasoning make me feel somehow dizzy. But, of course, that’s silly: we’re reading fiction and (hopefully) we knew that already.
Perhaps it’s the way that Mitchell plays his game: he couches his stories as the most genuine and direct forms of narrative – journals, letters, memoirs, testimonies and oral histories – thus denying his authorial intervention, only to then reveal them as the most circuitous of conceits. Each story is only a dream of a dream, or if we like, a prophecy (remember the name of the ship?) – Mitchell’s characters are actors in each other’s lives, round and round, absolutely dependent on one another, until the circle is full and we go on again. It denies that there is a reality at all and then further denies us the ordinary pleasure of pretending there is one. We have the satisfaction of chasing the interconnections in a clever and wonderful game instead. That initial association between Ewing and the slave happens again and again: moments of recognition and departure, moments of empathy and understanding.
But what is Cloud Atlas about, apart from being about itself?
Mitchell throws us some red herrings here (or I think they’re red herrings). All six protagonists share something tangible (as far as anything can be tangible in Cloud Atlas): a birthmark, shaped like a comet and beneath the right shoulder blade. Does this mean, as I’ve read in analyses, that they are all one soul, one essence? Or that they’re different but the same, made up of recycled molecules as we all are? Mitchell allows the “meaning” of all his signs to come together in the middle of the book, at the end of the sixth story (the one complete and of itself), which is really the gloss on all the others:
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be tomorrow. Only…the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas of clouds.”
This is hard-earned wisdom from Zachry, the goatherd who lives in a tribal community, probably on Hawaii, after the fall of the “civilised” (read: entirely uncivilised) world. I can’t quite swallow the surface implication though or commit to the possibility that Mitchell has squandered his delightful novel on pretty New Age platitudes: we’re all connected; it all makes sense; we never die, we just live differently.
What I’m left with instead are these hazy thoughts/ideas:
What is an atlas? A collection of maps. What is a map? A representative schema that offers guidance on how to get to places.
What is a cloud? An amorphous, ever changing coalescence of water particles.
Then they’re not compatible. An atlas of clouds would never take you anywhere; it would never be still, it would never be stolidly representative like maps are supposed to be.
Which makes it an oxymoron as far as reality goes, but a delightful metaphor for fiction.
What is fiction if not an amorphous, ever changing pattern of bits of things (molecules and particles) coming together; being recognised; being shaped; being disgarded; taking us somewhere (not that I know where, but somewhere). Sometimes fictions speak to each other, like Mitchell’s stories do; often
they change aspect, like clouds, depending on how you look at them.
I don’t know about you but it strikes me that this is quite a good thing to write a very good novel about.
Now I read back over it, I realise that my thinking on the major point hasn’t really changed. Instead, it has been glossed by other reading – L. Timmel Duchamp’s wonderful story “Dance at the Edge” only today, for example - which bears out my thesis in pertinent ways (I’m sure I’ll come back to this when I start writing about that collection). As I said in the beginning Mitchell isn’t only engaged in an elaborate game of ventriloquism (although it is a game). He has, quite deftly, made an old postmodernist conceit – that fiction is fiction – into something entirely more entertaining: telling the story of telling stories. He manages it with a deal of style and a lot of confidence; if a novel could wink at the end this one would, and we can take from that what we will.
It does strike me, however, that I rushed over the individual narratives and short-changed them of their themes and their power, but that’s inevitable I suppose in an analysis that foregrounds the untrustworthy nature of the whole. Still, it’s worth mentioning that Mitchell takes time to deal with some decidedly heavyweight issues in his mini-narratives: slavery – of the traditional kind and of the sf/clone sub-variety – colonialism, developmental intervention amongst tribal peoples, corporate corruption and nuclear waste-disposal. It’s one of his achievements that none of his musing along these lines feels meaningless in the light of his fictional play. Equally, there are moments of proper pathos and pointing out the manipulation of our emotions by these scenes doesn’t make those moments any less impactful. These are the ironies and fallacies of fiction after all and most serious readers embraced them long ago.