The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell


Where do I start?  An 18th Century lawyer, returning home to America having picked up a nasty tropical disease on Chatham Island?  An inter-war musician and scoundrel, down to trouser-change, prevailing upon an ailing Belgian composer in a desperate last bid to make his reputation?  A 1970’s junior hack, drawn into a political conspiracy following a chance meeting with a scientist in a broken-down elevator?  A failed contemporary publisher who strikes it lucky following the imprisonment for murder of one of his authors?  A sensually deprived worker-drone, bred for a human cloning program, in a near future dominated by mega corporations?  Or a Hawaiian tribesman from a post-apocalyptic far-future, visited by technologically advanced foreigners who harness the power of ‘smart’ that they themselves have inherited from an earlier age?

Although superficially Cloud Atlas – Mitchell’s third novel – starts chronologically with the first of these tales and works forward, we should really start with the last, which has all the other narratives nested in it, like Russian dolls.  The Hawaiian tribesman is shown a holographic recording of the testimony of the drone-worker, who watches a film about the failed publisher, who has been sent a draft novel about the junior hack, who finds the letters of the musician, who reads the diary of the lawyer.  The reader can only grasp this retrospectively though, as the book’s physical structure works the other way: the last post-apocalyptic story is told in full (the tiny whole doll at the centre), cushioned between two halves of the tale of the drone, which is itself nested in the two halves of the story of the publisher and so on.

This rather baroque structure serves as a showcase for Mitchell’s narrative skill as he draws us into one fully realised world and genre after another, leaving each abruptly; just as we’re hooked and don’t want to be dragged away.  The design also serves as a metaphor for one of the themes of the book itself: echoes in time; projected futures and historical facts, emenating outwards in virtual waves of ever-increasing speculation from the firm reality of the present-day.  The further we travel in either direction, the more that accepted ‘fact’ becomes the propoganda of those powerful enough to control the flow of information.  As one character postulates: ‘he who pays the historian calls the tune’ .  The book’s scaffolding allows the author to demonstrate this and other themes by having them recur, in mutated forms, across all the narratives and timescales.  It’s clever stuff.

At this point, I should declare an interest:  I read and enjoyed Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s debut) and, though it was a straight-up non-genre novel about life in a Worcestershire village in the 1980’s, Black Swan Green (the successor to Cloud Atlas) was one of my favourite reads of recent years.  Mitchell has a knack for imbuing a readable and engaging narrative, with insight and depth and his flair for inhabiting established genres with unique voices is in full-effect here.  Each story is intricately realised in a style appropriate to the timeline and, while the characters are not always sympathetic, their world-views, expressed in colourful phrases, rich similies and time-specific colloquialisms are convincing, always engrossing and occasionally very funny.  Confronted by a wilfully bureaucratic platform ticket-office, the failed publisher recounts: ‘Sometimes the fluffy bunny of credulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.’

Cloud Atlas itself is a musical score, written by the failed composer, to a structure which closely resembles the layout of the book.  In keeping with the metaphor of the book as a musical symphony, motifs and repeating refrains run throughout the individual narratives like clouds across the sky.  As we traverse time, sun-like, from a victorian past to the zenith of a post-apocalyptic future, before descending back through the years again, Mitchell covers some big themes: the human will to power, the exploitation of people and resources which has fuelled our technological advance and how our natural instincts, evolved to enable us to survive, lead to moral values which now trail hopelessly behind our god-like ability to shape the world in which we live.   This last point is particularly pertinent at a time when our rampant individualism threatens to deplete the planet and degrade the environment which sustains us.  But Mitchell does not preach to us, on the whole; he shows us lives lived centuries apart, throws in some common strands and allows us to join the dots.

I did not buy the idea of souls crossing generations ‘like clouds’ in a form of secular reincarnation and, Mitchell wisely steers clear of any overt exposition of this concept, despite the blurb on the back of my copy pushing this angle.  On the other hand, I really like the inherent contradiction contained in the idea of an atlas of clouds.  This plays a more personal role in characters’ lives, as, deprived of the long view granted the reader, they try to make sense of the random chaos of their own lives and times: ‘what wouldn’t I give now’ says one ‘for a never changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?’  It would be all too easy for this combination of short and long-term powerlessness to become overwhelming but Mitchell’s message is one of hope ultimately.  In the face of immutable laws, it turns out that life and human nature is our best chance; each story ends with an individual victory of one form or another: ‘courage grows anywhere, like weeds.’  Going against the grain of the rest of the book, the concluding pages are perhaps a little explicit in making the case for the real change, which can be achieved by large groups of individuals working, not out of short-term self-interest, but for the common good.  We must hope Mitchell is right though, and we need novels of this quality and writers with this vision and insight to continually remind us that though the obstacles may seem insurmountable, there are some things about humanity which are worth the effort to save.

September 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 3 Comments