Opus for Eye and Ear
David Mitchell pulls off a sextet for soloists with no false notes
By Ronald Klein
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas strides like a colossus through past, present and future. Not only is it six books in one, but it takes place in six locations in six different time zones (including two in the future), with six voices telling six different stories.
Yet the stories are bound to each other by leitmotifs (comet-shaped birthmarks, near-drownings), intersecting relationships (Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith are read by Luisa Rey; Somni the Fabricant and chief god of Zachry’s tribe views a film of Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal) and themes (domination, treachery). And this is compounded even further by dividing five of the six stories into halves and set on either side of the middle section!
As in his debut novel Ghostwritten, Mitchell employs a host of voices to tell his stories and the reader must make the necessary adjustments in time and place as well as diction of the speaker. The narrations begin mid-situation and we must pick up the threads of the backstories to catch up with the present. But by that time the tracks have already been laid and the narrator speeds along on a frenetic journey. Then abruptly, the story ends—sometimes mid-sentence—to be continued later.
This kind of style may weary casual readers, who like their roller coaster rides to be sequential, but it is a kind of thrill to start on a rollercoaster and wind up on a ferris wheel which changes to the funhouse at the zenith of its orbit.
Mitchell’s style is pellucid, or as one reviewer put it, “a vocabulary that is like the Oxford English Dictionary, but with wings.” With the job of ventriloquising different voices, Mitchell manages to pull it off with no false notes or inappropriate tone. We hear the narrator telling his tale, feeling the breathlessness or ennui, terror or detachment, innocence or revelation. Words sing, voices emerge, characters are formed, plots careen and interweave, linked by treacheries galore and murders most foul.
Mitchell offers his six stories as separate and equal, creating a hybrid piece of fiction that exceeds the sum of its parts. While his style is more grounded than magical realism, paradoxically, it is more innovative, creating a deconstructed narrative that not only changes the time and place of its linear progression, but changes narrators and their stories altogether. This is quite a novel innovation.
Of particular interest are the varieties of narrative forms. We have Adam Ewing’s journal, Robert Frobisher’s letters, Luisa Rey’s mystery manuscript, Timothy Cavendish’s memoir, Omni’s archival testimony, Zachry’s storytelling. Mitchell is not the first to use the epistolary or the journal narrative form, the post-apocalyptic setting, the nuclear power plant whistle-blowing theme, the futuristic tyrannical brave new world cautionary tale. In fact, what makes this novel so readable is its familiarity, and it will be the job of some graduate student to find the intertextual literary references and connect the dots of linked images and themes.
Yet his familiarity is not only to draw on literary precedents, but also film. Indeed, much of the familiarity of setting, plot and multiple realities owe more to film than to literature, and the reader will have little problem following the plot twists and visualizing the chase scenes (almost every section has one). He has clearly done his homework and watched The X Files.
Some sections require more of the reader—the Sloopsie section and Somni’s testimony--where the language is reinvented or the story is steeped in such new world details. Other sections are white knuckle rides through shapeshifting, deceit and duplicity. Yet somehow it comes right at the end, for each section, as well as for the whole.
Upon finishing Cloud Atlas the reader will feel that he has woken from a dream, where people and images reappear in different contexts, where times shift but recur, where characters are deceived, drowned and chased and where nothing is as it seems, especially the six stories themselves, which are setups to the grander design.
In one of the stories, the composer Robert Frobisher refers to his ultimate work, “Cloud Atlas,” as “a sextet for overlapping soloists.” Self-referentially, Mitchell has written such a work, for the ear as much as for the eye, including bravura solos and overlapping voices and this opus will repay rereading for it is a very fine piece indeed.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005