Most readers already know the basic structure of Cloud Atlas, which consists of six overlapping stories: a mid-nineteenth-century journal written by Adam Ewing, an American lawyer on his way home from business in Australia; a series of letters from an ambitious young composer, Robert Frobisher, to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, about how he has apprenticed himself to an ailing composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, shortly before the rise of the Nazis; a pastiche of a 1970s reporter/detective novel in which feisty journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant; a contemporary piece about a small-time publisher, Timothy Cavendish, whose brother tricks him into entering a nursing home; a post-apocalyptic interview with an android, Sonmi-451, who has transcended her programming to become fully human; and campfire account told by Zachry, who lives in a tribal world set even further in the future, and focuses on his encounters with a woman named Meronym, whose people still possess advanced technology. Only the last narrative is told in full: each of the other stories is told in part, with Mitchell returning to each narrative in reverse sequence until the book ends, once again, with Ewing’s account.
I have mixed feelings about this book that have mostly to do with its technical execution. The success of the different accounts, for instance, varies greatly: some of them are quite dull in the first half, but pick up measurably in the second, and it is for this reason that the first-time reader should be somewhat patient with this book. It does drag at first, but as more connections start to appear, it definitely gets more interesting. Two sections in particular stand out for me: the Luisa Rey section is hilarious if you are familiar with 1970s culture, especially because of the hyperbolic way in which Mitchell frames the narrative as a knee-jerk reaction to the times, from the Three-Mile Island accident to Watergate. But the best parts of the book belong to Sonmi, both because she is the most sympathetic character and because Mitchell’s technique seems at its smoothest here.
Mitchell is a very good writer, but he still has some polishing to do before he becomes truly great. Like many other readers, I did not appreciate the silly flourishes he gives to the English language of the future, and my reading speed noticeably slowed in that sixth story because of it. However, the greater technical flaws lay for me in two other areas. First, Mitchell’s characters are not always as interesting or developed as they might be, so that they sometimes seem to be ciphers for ideas rather than complex beings. Second, Mitchell’s use of literary allusions can sometimes be really clumsy. When Cavendish is waking up from his apparent stroke, for instance, he thinks the words “speak, memory” in a very unsubtle allusion to Nabokov’s autobiography. Similarly, there is Mitchell’s decision to call the faceshaper Madam Ovid after the Roman author of The Metamorphoses because, you know, she metamorphoses people. Such references are too unrealistically close to the surface of the text, and as such they are jarring. I really wish authors would trust the intelligence of their readers rather than using such clumsy devices.
Where Mitchell’s novel really hits home, though, lies not so much in the writing, but in the probing questions it asks about human existence. The shifting time periods of the narratives is a calculated tool designed to push readers outside the received political and philosophical assumptions of our time. When we strip these away, Mitchell shows, what remains are the ineradicable differences between weak and strong, which express themselves in different ways throughout human history. Through a logic that is explicitly informed by Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Mitchell argues for a qualified version of eternal recurrence: not that history repeats itself literally, but rather that it follows a cycle of birth, strength, decline, and fall in a way that applies equally to individuals, civilizations, and ideas. Mitchell aligns these ideas in the Timothy Cavendish story, which pointedly overlays Cavendish’s decrepitude, both in terms of his physical weakness and his out-dated ideas and slang, with quotes from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In terms of its ideas, Cloud Atlas delivers a brilliant, incisive blow to the modern reader’s assumptions, a potential for greatness that, unfortunately, is not quite matched by Mitchell’s technical skills as a writer.