Thursday, 10 July 2014

A Writer On: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

What do an eighteenth-century Pacific explorer, a bisexual musician from the period between the World Wars, a vivacious female journalist from the 70s, an elderly publisher from current-day Britain, a serving-clone from futuristic Korea and a simple tribesman from the post-Apocalyptic future have in common?

This is question that all readers of David Mitchell's acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas must ask. Mitchell's narrative spans centuries, six stories in different genres with vastly different protagonists linked together by a common thread. The narrative builds on itself like a triangle, the first part the book moving forwards in time with the first half of the first five stories, is capped by the uninterrupted sixth story, then collapses backwards through history finishing the first five stories in reverse order. This structural experiment could very easily have failed by being too confusing or breaking the reader's emotional connection to the characters (which was the case with the novel's movie adaptation), but by subtly linking each story to the one that preceded or follows it Mitchell has crafted a masterpiece.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set out as its name suggests as a series of journal entries written by the story's protagonist Adam Ewing. An American from San Francisco, Ewing faces many trials and tribulations as he explores the 1800s Pacific aboard the ship Prophetess. When he saves the life of a native slave, Autua, he was no idea that by doing so he has also saved his own.

Letters from Zedelghem takes the form of a series of letters sent by the protagonist, Robert Frobisher, to his friend in London, Rufus Sixsmith, during the period between the two World Wars. Disowned by his family and fleeing debt, Frobisher makes his way to Belgium and talks his way into becoming assistant to Vyvyan Ayrs, an elderly composer whose blindness means he can no longer compose music until Frobisher offers to write it for him. Staying at Ayrs' luxurious home Zedelghem, Frobisher begins a dangerous game when he enters into an affair with Ayrs' younger wife.

Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is written like a spy novel. Set in America during the 70s, journalist Luisa Rey investigates rumours of corruption at a new nuclear power plant after a chance encounter in a broken down elevator with a now elderly Rufus Sixsmith, one of the scientists who worked on the plant's development. As Luisa's investigations unveil a web of corruption and murder she herself becomes a target for the power company's hired killers.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a comedy set in modern-day Britain. As in independent publisher Cavendish's books rarely sell, until a former thug and author of autobiography Knuckle Sandwich murders an arrogant critic at a public function. Cavendish begins raking in the royalties but is forced to go on the run when the author's brothers track him down and demand a huge sum. Sent by his long-suffering younger brother to what he believes is a countryside hotel, Cavendish finds himself trapped in an old-people's home with no way of escaping.

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is a science-fiction piece set in a futuristic world where corporations and consumerism have replaced democracy as the governing forces in human lives. A clone or 'fabricant' grown only to serve 'pureblood' customers at the diner where she lives and works, Sonmi~451 develops critical thinking and is rescued by an underground network of rebels who want to use her as a figurehead to incite a fabricant uprising. The entire story is narrated by Sonmi in an interview where she speaks into a recording device or 'orison'.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is the capstone story of the novel. Set in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii inhabited by several fairly primitive human clans who worship Sonmi as a deity, the protagonist Zachry and his family are forced to play host to Meronym, an exotic woman from a technologically advanced people. As Meronym slowly changes the way an initially suspicious and truculent Zachry thinks, he begins to break his people's taboos and eventually must fight for survival by her side when his clan is raided by a feared warrior tribe.

Though incredibly disparate, these six stories are linked in by minor occurrences and a larger common thread. Whilst exploring Zedelghem Robert Frobisher discovers the first half of Adam Ewing's journal in a library, the same first half readers first get to read, which breaks off in the middle of a sentence. After Rufus Sixsmith is assassinated, Luisa Rey discovers a bundle or letters among his possessions, the first half of his old friend and lover Robert's correspondence from Zedelghem which made up the first half of the Frobisher story. As a publisher, Timothy Cavendish receives a submission of the first half of the Half Lives manuscript that makes up the first part of Luisa's adventure. In the futuristic world Sonmi~451 watches the first part of Cavendish's ordeal as an ancient film, which freezes at the point his narrative cuts off. While suspiciously searching Meronym's possessions, Zachry discovers the Orison and views a hologram of Sonmi's interview but is caught at the point her story first stopped. After Sloosha's Crossin' the novel begins to move backwards, finishing the five un-ended stories. In its epilogue Zachry's son shows the Orison to his children and that leads into the last half of Sonmi's story, which ends with her final request being to watch the film about Timothy Cavendish. Cavendish's tale ends with him receiving the second half of the Half Lives manuscript and publishing it. After her investigation finishes, Luisa discovers the rest of Robert Frobisher's letters and buys a record of his music. Towards the end of Frobisher's narrative, he finds the last part of Adam Ewing's journal.

Apart from this genius interweaving of narratives, the characters themselves are connected. Robert Frobisher's musical piece, Cloud Atlas Sextet, is listened to by Luisa Rey and played in the diner where Sonmi works. Robert Frobisher has a comet-shaped birthmark, as does Luisa Rey, and inexplicably Sonmi~451 despite being a clone, and finally Meronym as well.  As Zachry philosophises lying on an escape raft leaving his island behind with Meronym's people:

"I watched the clouds awobbly from the floor o'that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross 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. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."

All the time I was reading Cloud Atlas I felt as if a tiny version of David Mitchell was standing on my shoulder, asking into my ear "do you get it yet?" I felt as is if there would be some point, some insanely clever twist at the end that snapped all the stories together as parts of a larger story. There's wasn't. Mitchell makes his point two-thirds of the way through the book, and the rest is only a clever tidying up of loose ends. Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas is a masterful narrative of unparalleled depth and variety. Anyone who wants to publish anything ever should read this book.    

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