‘Cloud Atlas’ comes garlanded with superlatives, being David Mitchell’s third novel, after ‘Ghostwritten’ and ‘number9dream’. It has an interesting structure: ABCDEFEDCBA: where each letter represents one strand of story. The tales are each slightly connected through allusions in the others.
A is “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. Adam is a Californian notary, travelling on a ship from New Zealand to California some time during the nineteenth century (mention of the California gold rush seems to date it to the early 1850s);
B is “Letters from Zedelghem”. This is a series of letters from a young musician and composer, Robert Frobisher, in the house of an eminent, though previously inactive (at least prior to Frobisher’s arrival) composer. The letters are written to his fellow Cambridge student and (one assumes) former lover, Sixsmith, during 1931;
C is “Half-Lives – the First Luisa Rey Mystery”. This is the story of Luisa Rey, a reporter working for a seond-rate gossip magazine in the 1970s, who suddenly finds herself in possession of a deadly secret about the safety of a nuclear power station, Swanneke C. Rufus Sixsmith, now a renowned Nobel laureate and physicist, starts her quest for answers, though he and several others are killed in the course of the investigation;
D is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” (a nod to ‘The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’, perhaps?). The tragicomic adventures of Timothy Cavendish, a middle-aged publisher (who seems to have Luisa Rey’s adventures in manuscript) who is inadvertently trapped in a prison of an old people’s home;
E is “An Orison of Sonmi-451”, the story of a fabricant in the distant future, Sonmi-451. She is a clone born and bred to be a server at a “dinery” called Papa Song’s, who found herself becoming more human, and was later tried for crimes which she did not commit; and
F is “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”: a rambling story, set in a primitive, post-apocalyptic future, on Hawaii, told by Zachry of Bailey’s Dwelling, who has interactions with a more advanced civilisation, the Prescients, and a savage fellow tribe (reminiscent of the Maori and Moriori conflict described by Adam in his journal – civilisation comes full circle?).
‘Cloud Atlas’ is itself named after one of Frobisher’s compositions, mentioned by him in a letter, and later purchased as a recording by Luisa. Adam’s story is read by Frobisher as a published book; Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith are read by Luisa; Luisa’s adventures appear to comprise a novel submitted to Timothy and read by him; Timothy’s misadventures have been made into a film which Sonmi watches; Sonmi becomes a god to Zachry’s people, and her archived conversations are preserved by the Prescients. These are only the obvious connections: there are more.
It’s a very cleverly put together book, if somewhat disconcerting at first. It’s very well written, certainly. Each of the stories in itself is affecting – particularly Sonmi’s and Frobisher’s – and the themes of the book are sometimes subtle and sometimes not. Greed and exploitation are bad, and unbridled capitalism will ruin the world; or simply stating man’s inhumanity to man (or clone). And yet I think it’s a little too clever. One is always aware, because of the narrative device, of the unreality of the stories presented. The author is consistently presenting each of the narrators as fictional creations. I think this is what is known as meta-fiction, and I’m not sure that I like it! I prefer fiction to have its own reality, and although I know it’s a constructed reality, I like to be able to enter into a world without being constantly aware that it’s all made up, and so be complicit in that deception.