By Zig Marasigan
It is no great mystery that we are all simply fuel for the imaginations of the world’s writers. And though most of them work in the realm of fiction and “truthful embellishment”, the best written works are rooted in tales, ideas and people that are – in one way or another – undeniably real.
Fiction, in that regard, has as much at stake in the real world as we do. We influence these worlds and are influenced by them in return. How can one presume to exist without the other?
It is that very idea, among a multitude of others, that David Mitchell brings to life in Cloud Atlas. We are all interconnected in lives both fabricated and real, and the distinction between the two isn’t one that can be made arbitrarily.
To summarize Cloud Atlas in a traditional sense would be an exercise in futility. It is a story within other stories, spanning different timelines but happening within a single circular moment. It is a narrative that moves forward in time, but moves back in on itself. Though the cyclical nature of storytelling isn’t a remarkably original idea, few novels have attempted it at a scale as grand and as far reaching as Cloud Atlas.
But as an attempt at the impossible: Cloud Atlas is a series of six seemingly disparate storylines set in different periods of history, from the island colonies of the 19th century to the post-apocalyptic mountain ranges beyond recorded history. Each story ends abruptly until halfway into the book, when each of the stories are continued from where they are left of.
The first story, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, follows the voyage of a young notary travelling across the 19th century Pacific Ocean. The second story, Letters from Zedelgeim, puts readers in the shoes of a struggling musician working as a glorified scribe to a once famous composer. Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, follows the footsteps of a headstrong young journalist hot on the trail of a destructive corporate conspiracy. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish follows an aging publisher imprisoned in a nursing home against his will, while An Orison of Sonmi~451 tells a tale of a sentient clone in the distant dystopian future. Finally, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an Ev’rythin’ After regales the story of a primitive tribesman who meets one of the few remaining technological-advanced humans on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
It would be easy to write off Mitchell’s novel as simply “ambitious”. But to do so would lump it among the innumerable mountains of literature that have attempted to achieve the same lofty goals. Cloud Atlas, however, is in a league of its own. It is a story that has been described as both conceptual and experimental, while still delivering the same familiar tropes from a traditional story.
Though casual readers might find themselves lost in the structure of the narrative, audiences willing to challenge their own narrative sensibilities will be thrilled to experience what Mitchell had set out to do.
His style of writing is a feat well on its own. Each story is finely crafted with its own unique world, but also in its own unique voice. The book moves through a gamut of literary genres from story to story; whether it’s 19th century historical drama or Orwellian science fiction. Mitchell flexes his mastery of language as his writing techniques adapt to the set and story at hand. Some stories are easier to follow than others, but the favorites will most likely differ from reader to reader.
At first, the relation of the different stories feels novel at best. Each of the stories intersect tangentially through a number of clever devices. While one character reappears in another story, one tale may be a novel, movie or diary nested in another. It seems ingenious at best, but gimmicky at worst. But Mitchell isn’t content with a superficial charade of cameos and self-references.
Instead, Mitchell goes beyond that.
Cloud Atlas is a statement on the cyclical nature of our stories and of our humanity. Characters are inferred to be reborn in different storylines, or in different mediums (both fictional and factual). And in that way, Mitchell manages to bend the very fabric of the reality he managed to construct.
Cloud Atlas is a seemingly fitting title for a novel that attempts to explore – if not define – who we are as a species. For Mitchell, humanity – like clouds – shifts tirelessly throughout our brief existence. We are taken by the fate of the winds, but we struggle in the way we are formed and eventually die. But despite our malleability, or our inability to be defined, we fall under a predictable set of universals. It is in our nature to want, to fear, and to destroy. But it is also in our very nature to fight against that basic animalistic urge.
Cloud Atlas is a novel of great ambition that isn’t without its inherent flaws. It is a story that draws from us – our connectedness – and places it in the context of a history as far reaching as the earth itself.
In the end, we are all stories in the book of someone else’s life.
Zig Marasigan has written for a number of films for Star Cinema, and is a film critic on Kristn.com. He is also Creative Director of Pelicola.tv. His favorite book is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and you can follow his everyday stories on Twitter: @todayisallihave.