by David Mitchell
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Robert Frobisher, one of the characters in David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, describes his musical piece "Cloud Atlas Sextet" by writing "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued in order." This description also offers a map to Mitchell's own novel, which is a series of six stories, each begun in order and ended mid-tale, only to be picked up and finished in reverse order in the second half of the novel.
The novel opens with the journal of Adam Ewing, written the mid-nineteenth century. Mid-sentence, his journal stops and the reader is transported forward eighty years to the letters of Robert Frobisher, tied to Ewing by Frobisher's discover of the former's journal. Decades on, Frobisher's letters are found by Luisa Rey, a journalist looking into corporate corruption. When Rey's car plummets into the ocean, we learn that her story may only be a work of fiction being read by Timothy Cavendish, a suddenly successful British publisher. His tale continues until we learn that it is merely a film being watched by Somni-451, a clone in the future, whose interview we are presented. In the keystone section of the book, Somni has become a deity for the Valleymen of Big I and Zachry tells his tale, the first complete story in the book, which then reverses and finishes off all the previous stories.
Throughout, there are echoes of theme and character between one story and the next, not always explicit and certainly not always explained. A strange comet-shaped birthmark may indicate a reincarnation of the main character throughout, but it is hardly conclusive. While many of the characters appear to be merely fictional in subsequent sections, their "reality" is never really an issue and each is real for the purposes of their own narrative. At the same time, Mitchell raises, but again fails to answer, a question concerning the reality of historical figures as opposed to the perception of them by posterity.
Mitchell's characters span a broadness of time and character. Adam Ewing and Luisa Rey honestly appear to be caring people who strive to leave the world a better place than they see it. Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish both are a mixture of good and selfishness, allowing their own well-being dictate their actions to the detriment of others (as do many people). Somni-451 is a little more difficult to describe, while Zachry is attempting to deal with a post-civilization society brought into contact with a much more advanced society. His story, which takes place in Hawaii, mirrors the story of the Moriori told by Ewing, whose own story ends in Hawaii.
The individual tales are riddled with clichés of the various genres they mirror. However pedestrian the stories may appear, they are all told well and the links between them elevate Cloud Atlas as a complete work above the level of the pulp tales which provide a basis for the novel. Mitchell takes his material and presents it with an aura of literary acceptability, a goal he achieves without destroying the inherent approachability of the genres with which he is playing.
Cloud Atlas is a novel which benefits from multiple readings. Mitchell has interlaced his themes and characters between the stories in a manner which slowly becomes apparent, especially in the second half, but knowledge of them in the first half greatly deepens the work and adds the the readers understanding of Mitchell's story, both in its disparate parts and in its integral whole.
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