My rating: 5 of 5 stars
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a novel made up of six interconnected stories that take us from the distant past to the distant future: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (c 1850), Letters from Zedelghem (1931), Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975), The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (21st century), An Orison of Sonmi~451 (near future), and Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (distant future).
Other books that remind me of Cloud Atlas include A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham. Both books, like Cloud Atlas, are made up of interconnected short stories, and experiment with language and genre, and explore the passage of time and its effect on faith and memory. But the stories in Egan’s and Cunningham’s novels end before the next one begins. Egan, in fact, has published some of the stories as stand-alone tales before the novel was completed.
Mitchell, on the other hand, truncates his stories at a crucial point, and continues them after all the halves of the five stories are presented (the sixth story, in the middle of the book, is presented as a whole). It makes for an interesting reading experience – a la Finnegan’s Wake, but more approachable. The structure also makes Cloud Atlas a genuine page-turner instead of simply a collection of stories that happened to feature the same characters and which (not to hit on Egan or Cunningham) you could set aside for a while and pick up later, as you would an anthology. How could you leave it behind, if you’re left with a cliffhanger five times?
I love this novel. It’s one of those novels that I love so much it makes me furious – because I wish I have written it, or at least have thought of the structure. If it sounds “gimmicky” to you, don’t worry: it’s not all gimmick. It’s a genuinely beautiful story about six lives that stand helpless against the passage of time.
If you find out the outcome of a certain action thousands of years into the future, and the outcome is not as rosy as you’d hoped, does it negate that action? Does it make that action, which turned out to be nothing but a small drop, worthless? But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops, says Adam Ewing, and maybe he’s right.