David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is insane. Insanely well-written, insanely intricate, and yes, just plain insane.
Much of this craziness stems from the way Mitchell arranged the novel’s six stories. The first is set in the mid-19th century and follows American notary Adam Ewing as he falls ill while traveling the South Pacific in search of a will’s beneficiary. The second story, set in 1930s Europe, centers around English music student Robert Frobisher and his scheme to resurrect his fortunes by becoming a musical aide to an ailing composer. The third story features Lisa Rey, a young journalist in 1970s America scrambling to expose a nuclear power plant’s dangerous cover-up. The fourth story sees present-day British publisher Timothy Cavendish wrongly confined to a nursing home. The fifth story recounts how Sonmi~451, a clone grown in a dystopian corpocracy in near-future Korea, ascended to human-level awareness. And in the sixth story, Zachry, a Hawaiian from a distant and even more dystopic future, is visited by a member of the technologically sophisticated people known as Prescients.
It would have been hard enough to thread all this together in a conventional format. But Mitchell ups the ante by adopting a different medium for each tale and then structuring the novel non-linearly.
The stories’ varying forms certainly demonstrate that Mitchell can write in a variety of styles: Ewing’s tale is related as a set of journal entries, Frobisher’s as a series of letters, Rey’s as a thriller novel, Cavendish’s as a memoir, Sonmi’s as an interrogation, and Zachry’s as a campfire tale. But the shifts are jarring. For me, whenever I start a new book, it takes me a while to adapt to the narrator’s voice and suspend my disbelief—in other words, to trust the author. With Cloud Atlas, its stories are so disparate that I had to do this six times.
The structure was equally frustrating (yet intriguing). Instead of interweaving his six stories, Mitchell tells half the first story, then half the second, then half the third, and so on, until he reaches the sixth story, tells it in its entirety, and works backward to finish the other stories. Think of it like crossing a giant spider web: you start on one side, examine a segment of the outer loop, cross to the next loop, investigate part of that one, cross the next few loops in similar fashion, wander around the center, and then make your way to the other side. This layered, circular sequence acts as a literary illustration for Mitchell’s many ruminations on the repetitious nature of history and how projections of the future can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
But while the approach works thematically, the sequence wasn’t as effective from a plot standpoint; for the most part, the connections between stories are teasingly thin. Many of the characters share a comet-shaped birthmark, a sign that they’re related or maybe even reincarnations of the same person. Each protagonist after Ewing also finds a representation of the previous character’s story. Frobisher, for example, comes across Ewing’s journal (and promptly tries to sell it), and Ley runs across Frobisher’s letters, creating the sensation that each character is looking at the previous character through a spyglass, while the next character is peering at them in turn. At one point, I even thought all the stories after the first might be an extended hallucination. So yes, it’s a trippy ride.
There are a few hard links, however. But they come mainly in the fifth and sixth stories, resulting in an odd dynamic where the highest stakes and the biggest payoff—when we realize how the dystopian futures came to be—take place in the middle of the book. After that, what comes next (before?) feels anti-climactic, a lengthy exercise in tying up loose ends. Mitchell even acknowledges the pitfalls of this strategy; in Frobisher’s second section, he wonders if the sextant he’s composing, which follows the same structure as the novel, will come to be seen as “revolutionary” or a “gimmick.” Unfortunately, it was closer to the latter for me.
And yet… Each story is interesting in its own right, and Mitchell deftly weaves in his additional themes of aging, racism, and the uses and abuses of power. I finished the book impressed with his skill and ambition, but wondering what Cloud Atlas could have been had it felt more like a novel and less like an anthology.
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