Most popular novels of today fall squarely into the category of “genre fiction.” romance, sci-fi, fantasy, historical – these and others are characterized by specific subsets of literary tropes, which often compromise innovation and artistry. I enjoy much genre fiction, but have often found it confining; the world of literature is perishing from a dearth of true visionaries.
Every so often, however, a truly majestic work of literary merit emerges. Award-winning author David Mitchell’s complex novel “Cloud Atlas” is one of these.
It is difficult to describe the sprawling plot of Mitchell’s opus. Six interconnected stories – each of which could’ve served as a full novel in its own right – form the canvas upon which Mitchell works. Each vignette is told through a different format, resulting in a vibrant and unpredictable tableau.
#1: Journal – late 1800s: Adam Ewing, a classical academic, explores the South Pacific islands aboard a merchant vessel. Along the way, he encounters Autua – the last surviving member of an aboriginal race, desperately fighting for his freedom.
#2: Epistolary – 1930s: Paul Frobisher, an aspiring musical virtuoso, becomes the apprentice of aging composer Vyvyan Ayres. Embarking on a passionate affair with Ayres’ wife, the amoral Frobisher soon finds himself drawn into a web of fear and despair.
#3: Novel, 3rd person present tense – 1970s: Bold tabloid reporter Luisa Rey uncovers a potential scandal at the Swannekke nuclear reactor. With help from Joe Napier – a Swannekke whistleblower with an old debt to Luisa’s father – Luisa delves ever deeper into a grand political conspiracy.
#4: Novel, 1st person past tense – 1990s: Literary agent Timothy Cavendish is imprisoned in a hostile retirement home against his will. With time running out, the elderly Cavendish must engineer a risky plan of escape.
#5: Interview – the future: In a corporatized dystopian Korea, genetically modified clone Sonmi-451 struggles to make sense of her chaotic world. She quickly learns that her sanitized environment conceals a host of terrifying secrets…secrets that will transform her understanding of reality.
#6: Oral history – the far future: Years after the apocalypse, the world is teetering on the edge of a new Dark Age. Pacific tribesman Zachry, when he encounters scholar-priestess Meronym, is propelled into a savage war with civilization itself hanging in the balance.
At first glance, these plotlines couldn’t be more divergent. Each is distinct, both structurally and tonally. From a thematic standpoint, however, the similarities immediately become apparent.
This is a novel about human nature. Its story necessarily stretches across centuries, so as to demonstrate the consequences of misunderstanding man’s true essence. Mitchell draws upon a host of literary forbears – Plato, Melville, Orwell, Nietzsche, and Golding, among others – in formulating his thesis: that man is invariably corrupt, and that utopian dreams are futile. A number of other concepts swirl around the edges of this core: man’s desperate need for spiritual fulfillment; the fluidity of history as written by the victors; the power of words and music; the intrinsic dignity and value of human beings; and the awful consequences of wrongdoing.
Mitchell’s book is impossibly ambitious, but somehow manages to cohere into a superlative whole. To affix it with a genre label, as some have attempted to do (calling it “science fiction” due to its portrayal of the future) is to cheapen the universality of its scope.
“Cloud Atlas” is not overtly religious, but contains some interesting ideas. It’s fair to say that Mitchell affirms some notion of the Divine or the Cosmic – ethics in Mitchell’s world are absolute and transcendent. Furthermore, his story decisively indicts optimistic humanism without lapsing into nihilistic ennui. Worldview-wise, it’s probably accurate to call “Cloud Atlas” a deistic vision of existence.
From a literary standpoint, “Cloud Atlas” is undoubtedly polarizing. Mitchell is a magnificent writer, but his prose consistently hovers at a postgraduate level. Readers put off by the casual use of terms like “amanuensis” will not enjoy this work – and it’s worth noting that a comprehensive knowledge of art and mythology is also required. Sometimes, this becomes excessive – Mitchell’s protagonists should probably be using more colloquial language – but it’s still a beautiful piece of fiction. It is absolutely not, however, light reading.
Objectionable content isn’t extreme. Violence and language are subdued, and sexual themes – occasionally integral to the plot – never manifest graphically. Thanks to the high-level writing, descriptions of vice sound more clinical than titillating…and, to be fair, immorality almost always results in grim consequences.
Is it worth your time?
At once an affirmation of Nietzschean cynicism and a rebuttal thereof, Mitchell’s novel is a thoughtful philosophical odyssey that will challenge the most erudite reader. Lovers of grand metaphysical epics (a la “The Tree of Life”) will find “Cloud Atlas” a work of inspired genius. It’s not easy, but it is immensely rewarding. Audiences looking for clear narratives and readily accessible motifs, however, will likely not enjoy this book.
Personally, I found “Cloud Atlas” a well-executed, profound exploration of the human experience. It’s well worth the investment of time and thought.
A sweeping, visionary study of human nature and existence, coupled with a sobering prophecy of future darkness. Highly recommended.