Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
Cloud Atlas is an intricate series of somewhat connected stories that begins on a 17th-century ship and culminates in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
Cloud Atlas is a precisely crafted and challenging novel with a unique narrative structure consisting of six separate stories set at different times in history, each one a pastiche of a particular literary genre. Each story ends abruptly, wrenching into the next, moving forward in time like progressive notes on a scale, and then descending back to the beginning.
During the upward run, it’s difficult to grasp the connections between, say, the South Pacific schooner and a composer’s mansion in 1920s Germany, or between 1970s California and a near-future Japan where our clones are our servants. Although the physical connections are apparent — one character in each story experiences in some way the story that came before, such as through discovering and reading a lost manuscript or watching a computer-projected hologram. And it’s implied that one character in each story is the reincarnated version of someone who came before. But the theme that connects all the stories — of apocalypse and annihilation of the “other” — does not become clear until the reader is descending backward in time.
This novel is not for everyone, and some may become frustrated or impatient with the experimental structure. But for readers who enjoy observing writers play with their medium, Cloud Atlas is a rare treat. It is beautifully written, expertly crafted and totally absorbing.
Note: I haven’t seen the movie yet, although I am curious as to how this complex novel translated to the screen.
- The title was inspired by a piece of music of the same name by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband.
- The narrative style was inspired by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, which contains several interrupted narratives; in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell “mirrors” the narratives so that each one can be concluded.