When I say great, I’m not referring to something well written, humorous or insightful, something which touches a nerve or heartstrings, something everyone seems to like. Great refers to those precious works which change lives, transcend genres, unite readers of differing opinions and speak to us about the world we live in (and the people who live here with us). Hamlet is great. Crime and Punishment is great. The Trial is great. Is Cloud Atlas?
Cloud Atlas, for those among you who don’t know (and I would be surprised if there were any such people among the discerning readers of my little blog), is a mind-blowing novel written in six seemingly disparate stories. Each part is set not only in a different location and with a different cast, but also in a different time, ranging from a Pacific trading ship in the 1850s to a post-apocalyptic pastoral society in Hawaii sometime in the far future. Each section is related by the principal character in a different literary genre, and, with the exception of the central story, each is cut off half-way through, only to be completed later in the book in reverse order. The effect is a Russian-Doll structure, starting with the earliest story, gradually accelerating through time before coming to a halt and reversing back through time to finish (almost) back where we started (incidentally, a structure mirrored in Cloud Atlas Sextet, a composition by one of the characters). It’s certainly an interesting way of writing a book.
So how can this be called a novel? Believe it or not, David Mitchell (whose brilliance I have already expounded upon recently) manages to use this structure to transfer a message about life, the universe and just about bloody everything (to paraphrase Douglas Adams). The central theme is civilisation, progress and where it is taking us, and Mitchell skilfully convinces us that it is dragging us forward into a very nasty place indeed. He also shows us that this is not a recent phenomenon; the negative traits of human nature, greed and envy, exploitation and an unending desire for more, are repeated throughout the ages – with ever more serious consequences. As a certain Welsh diva once sang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”…
…literally, in some cases. As in Ghostwritten, Mitchell expertly inserts references forward and backward in time, between stories (and indeed books), but he also manages to create telling parallels between the sections here. When Luisa and Joe Napier are fleeing from thugs in the illegal sweatshop harbouring hundreds of low-paid foreign workers, we are reminded instantly of Sonmi’s illicit visit to the Ark taking hundreds of fabricants to their ‘salvation’. Likewise, Robert Frobisher’s last sight of the sleeping Vyvyan Ayres, as he appropriates his mentor’s Luger pistol, can be contrasted with Zach’ry, knife in hand, stumbling across the sleeping Kona warrior.
Not only are there parallels between the stories, there are also direct links between them. Robert Frobisher leafs through Adam Ewing’s journal in between composing and adultering; Luisa Rey reads Frobisher’s letters to Rufus Sixsmith, and her story is, in turn, read by Timothy Cavendish on his flight out of London; Sonmi sees Cavendish’s tale on the big screen, but Zach’ry experiences Sonmi in a slightly more technologically advanced format. While each of the stories seems vivid at the time, the next person down the chain experiences them as entertainment or amusement (at times, even as fictional). It’s a depressing thought that our present, real and urgent as we think it is, is just tomorrow’s stories and fantasies…
The use of different genres for each of the sections is almost Joycean in its daring, and Mitchell’s whole approach to language in Cloud Atlas can be best compared to Joyce’s work in Ulysses (if on a slightly more restrained scale). Writing in six different voices can’t be easy, especially when you are essentially inventing a couple of them, but Mitchell doesn’t put a foot wrong in his attempts to show variations in time, space and class through language. One of the best examples is the language used in Sonmi’s story where, in addition to the orthographical changes time has wrought (ph >f, ight > ite, ex >x), Mitchell has chosen brand names to become new concrete nouns. Consumers drive fords, work on sonys (call people on hand sonys) and capture images on kodaks. It’s a shame there’s no mention of Apple or the letter ‘i’, but even Mitchell can’t get it right all the time.
So what is Cloud Atlas actually about? Well, just about everything. It’s about humanity, our strengths and our weaknesses, our ingenuity and our greed. The reader may not pick everything up on first reading, but there are a myriad of references to the way we live our lives and the things we do to improve them. Technology can be a wonderful thing, and progress is not necessarily an evil if we tread carefully. The problem with a no-holds-barred thrust for progress though is that for every winner there is a loser. Whether it is the poor peaceful Moriori, routed by the Maori (who are looking to make up for the losses they suffered at the hands of the British) or the futuristic Valley people, trying to defend themselves against the warlike Kona, it seems as if those who seek merely to exist peacefully will inevitably go under. As Adam Ewing reflects, if we persist with a devil-take-the-hindmost approach, one day there will be no more hindmost to be taken; survival of the fittest, taken to its extreme, leads to the destruction of us all.
Towards the middle of the book, we look on in horror as the future societies Mitchell has sketched out take advantage of weaker beings in ruthless fashion. Yet as we start to move back in time again, we realise that these nightmarish visions of the future are merely mirror images of the present and past. The treatment of the fabricants in Nea So Copros is no different to that of the sweatshop workers in Buenas Yerbas or the aboriginal Polynesians on the island visited by The Prophetess. Even the chemical soap the fabricants require to survive has its equivalent in the tobacco the colonists attempt to teach the islanders to crave (or the opium which the Western powers introduced to China in order to make its people interested in what they had to offer…).
Some would argue that it is religion which we should turn to in order to stave off this kind of savagery. However, religion does not come off too well in the few instances it is alluded to in Cloud Atlas. The above-mentioned tobacco lessons are actually held by the south-sea missionaries hoping to convert the locals; unless the indigenous people develop needs, the churchmen will have no bait with which to reel them in. The missionaries, as well as trying to create a generation of addicts, separate the locals from their own religion by forbidding them to set foot in their sacred place, or ‘marae’. This works so well that after a few years the younger members of the community have forgotten what it was actually for. However, the established religions do not get the last laugh; the later stories show us forgotten statues of Buddha and long-vacant churches used for marketplaces. Religions come and religions go…
It’s rare that a book can contain so much about our world in so few pages and even rarer for it to have a lasting effect on the reader. Over the past few days, I have been reading the newspaper and watching the evening news, and virtually every story makes me think of Cloud Atlas and the lessons it tells. Climate change sceptics, the Global Financial Crisis, population growth, asylum seekers – everything. To return to the question I started this lengthy review with: is Cloud Atlas great? Posterity’s answer is going to have to wait a few decades (at least), but mine is fairly unequivocal: yes. Cloud Atlas belongs on every list of books you should read; more than that, if you’re looking for some words to live your life by, there are worse places to look than the last few pages of this book. Please read it; I promise you won't regret it.