I had not heard of Cloud Atlas until the trailer for the film. I immediately looked up the book and was interested. When a friend told me she had begun reading it, I quickly followed along.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is what some describe as a Russian doll of a novel, epic in scope and universal in theme. The story is broken into six different stories that weave together in connection. In terms of history, it’s a tale of “There and Back Again,” with fictional characters telling their story in layers unawares, from historical journal to epistolary romance to political thriller to farcical biopic pitch to digital recording to oral history.
We begin with images of colonial slavery in the 1850 Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, which is later found in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a poor, Bohemian musician working on his magnum opus Cloud Atlas Sextet and writing letters from Bruge, which are later found by Luisa Rey, an investigative reporter in 1975 whose experiences fighting unsafe nuclear power barons somehow end up in a mystery novel given to vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish in the present day, whose “ghastly ordeal” of being imprisoned in an asylum-like nursing home winds up as a dark comedy film observed in an archive by Somni-451, a clone created to be a waitress in a dystopian 2144 ruled by corporations, and Somni-451’s digital testimony is discovered in 2321 by Zachry, an inhabitant of a post-apocalyptic Hawaii who’s oral history, “Soosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everything’ After”, remains the pivotial, uninterrupted story in the center of the novel. From then on everything goes backwards in time as the previous story is wrapped up, and we end once again in Ewing’s Pacific journal.
The novel does start slow, and you wonder, “where is this going, and how much of this is important?” If you love epic adventures, artistic puzzles, and/or philosophical ponderables in fiction, I think you’ll be slowly captured by Cloud Atlas. As you read on, you begin to see the connections, which become more than just a LOST-style gimmick. As Zachry reflects in his story, “souls cross ages like clouds across skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.” In the novel, it is hinted that characters may or may not be reincarnations of each other, or maybe it’s just that history repeats itself, different players in the same role.
The main movement of the novel itself is the bond between souls across time who strive to endure the same oppressions that mankind puts upon us, time after time. Whether it be colonialism and slavery, the will to power of nations and the immorality of upper crust society, the espionage and greed of industrial barons, the brutality of gangs and the cruelty of institutions on the old and weak, the soullessness of materialism and maltreatment through fabrication, or the poisoning of the world and the barbaric warring of both “civil” and savage”, our heroes (or hero reincarnated) live through strife after strife, their spirit somehow surviving even beyond all the mess.
The interwoven stories influence one another, echo one another, and reflect one another. As one dastardly leech of a villain reveals, “The world is wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on dark-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. “The weak are meat, the strong do eat.”
But “what of it if our consciences itch?” asks another character. According to Mitchell, resilient musical number of hope plays itself through this despair, like clouds across an empty sky. Humanity, his narratives tell us, transcend all this “tooth and claw”.
Is it worth it to work against all this oppression and predation? Should we even bother composing if our work will only be stolen, lost, and unappreciated? “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” If none of us drop, there would be no ocean, and without a sky of clouds, no drops would fall in that ocean. That’s the idea. Yes, Mitchell may or may not be preaching reincarnation, but he’s not so much trying to prove a fundamentalist Buddhism so much as demonstrating that history reincarnates itself over and over again, and it’s worth it for us to “reincarnate” the beautiful core of humanity against all the darkness. In a way, all those who come before and after us are a “great cloud of witnesses”, to borrow the Gospels, who are yearning upward with us.
It’s a beautiful read, though it takes commitment and, in some places, a little patience for rambling narrative. I look forward to seeing the film, and I think it will do the novel justice, which is rare.