Book Review: Cloud Atlas

By Ilana Fogelson

Cloud Atlas, a novel by David Mitchell, is a nesting doll of narratives. Each story overlaps with its predecessor—a story, within a story, within a story, within a— well, you get the idea. The book begins in the mid-1900s and spans across centuries into the far-off future. This story also covers a broad spectrum of themes. Themes include racial superiority, the expanding and detrimental nature of civilization, as well as the pros and cons of progress. However, the work’s most significant motif is that of recurrence and circularity. Here, Mitchell takes strong cues from Jorge Luis Borges, reveling in the puzzling mobea strip that is his narrative. Unlike Borges who has managed to beat the dead horse of circular storytelling into a gory mess, Mitchell gives his circularity a purpose beyond just the self-satisfying exploration of the existential and indeterminate spaces of surrealist fiction. In one narrative, Mitchell explores both reincarnation and the development of fabricated humans (prototypes reproduced en masse for the benefit of a highly corporatized society). In another, the protagonist, a self-interested and fickle composer, addresses this same circular theme through his own music. He records the sounds of his environment, turning the world’s clatter into cadenzas and resenting the well-accepted mantra that all works are derivative. Common threads run throughout— protagonists, centuries apart, share identical birthmarks; martyrs in one plot become deities in the next. To yet further emphasize the cyclical nature of Cloud Atlas, the book even ends right back where it begins: on a ship bound for Honolulu from New Zealand. While Mitchell has thought his story out to the last detail, the overly contrived nature of of the novel is evident even from the first narrative jump. The first transition is a jarring one, he cuts off mid-sentence to begin work on the next piece of the epic puzzle. With each new story, the reader is left hanging at the climax in a manner that becomes both repetitive and predictable. One spends the entirety of the piece bracing for the impact of an inevitable cut-off. That being said, I can’t help but wonder if this predictability is something of which Mitchell is all too aware. Take, for example, the story of Robert Frobisher (protagonist number two) and his description of his own musical composition. “[I] spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet of overlapping soloists,’” he wrote. “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: In the second, each interruption is reintroduced in order. Revolutionary or Gimmicky? Shan’t know until it is finished, and by then it’ll be too late.” This description, which perfectly describes Cloud Atlas as a whole, gives voices to what must be Mitchell’s own concerns about the risk of his novel coming across as contrived and obvious. Elsewhere, his characters make a note of the overly perfect construction of the stories preceding their own, or point out the all-too-convenient plot devices in their own. The question, then, is whether this acknowledgement on Mitchell’s part is enough to soften an overly-critical reader into forgiveness. Mitchell creates whole new worlds (pardon my Disney), painting each setting and its inhabitants brilliantly before moving on to the next. For this alone, I am willing to overlook the bits of scaffolding Mitchell has left bare and continue reading. Now all that’s left to find out is how did anybody manage to turn this spiraling story into a comprehensive screenplay (the movie’s coming out in a few weeks) and live to tell the tale. refresh –>