As I write this the eagerly anticipated Wachowski siblings/Tom Tykwer film version of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, is still two weeks from premiering. As such the book has only a precious few more days where it can stand on it’s own and escape comparison with the movie. A hoary old cliche in film criticism is “The book was better .” There are scant few books where the film IS better, and that list is very subjective. My personal list would include Jaws, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner). It’s not that these novels are bad, most are quite good, but the movies do a better job thematically condensing the same material and making for a more intense and emotional experience. Without having seen the movie, I have a feeling Cloud Atlas is going to fall in to that grouping as well.
Cloud Atlas is an easy book to admire and an enjoyable read, but it’s hard to love it. The six stories that make up the book are not so much interlocked as they are chained together. It begins in the 1800’s on a voyage from New Zealand to San Francisco. Midway through the story the narrative ends abruptly, literally in the middle of a sentence. The next story begins immediately. It is an epistolary using only the letters of a young composer in the 1930’s, Robert Frobisher, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. In the letters he mentions finding half of a diary in the home of a famous composer named Ayrs that he has taken a job with. Frobisher, while in an affair with Ayrs’ wife, becomes obsessed with completing a piece he has called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. From there the book moves to 1979 and a young reporter, Luisa Rey, is investigating safety violations at a nuclear reactor. Her primary source is Rufus Sixsmith. After he is murdered she discovers the letters from Robert Frobisher, and becomes intrigued by the Cloud Atlas Sextet and tries to track it down. This continues to the story of a publisher held against his will in a sinister senior home, a clone in a corporate run future Korea giving a visual affidavit for her part in a revolution, and finally to a far flung future Hawaii where human kind has reverted back to savage and warring tribes after a never explained “Fall”.
Got all that?
The biggest handicap of the book is also it’s greatest gimmick. The first 5 stories are all begun and take up about 30-40 pages before breaking off and starting the next one. The final story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is told in its entirety and then each story is finished in reverse order, ending with the last half of the diary. The problem with this device is that it is difficult to get invested in the characters and what is happening to them. There are hints that these people in each different time are reincarnations of the previous characters. Locations overlap, scenes have echos from story to story, but its never exactly clear what the connections are supposed to be inferred. The last half of the book arrives in a rush as the loop is closed on each story one by one. As the individual narratives end each character finds the missing piece of the next adjoining narrative and ends their tale by watching or reading the next story in the sequence.
By the end there is some expectation of an event that is going to tie the whole thing together. However, as opposed to a narrative finale, Mitchell instead focuses on a thematic one. There are multiple themes that interlock the 6 stories, but the primary one is that in all of these stories a visitor is saved by a native. Each story features a villain who uses their powers, whether they are monetary or authoritarian, to subjugate other characters through violence or subterfuge. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas seems to say that across times and lives the struggle against tyranny in all forms is a human constant. Where the novel falters is in making an impact on the reader when that tyranny overwhelms the heroes. Instead of being emotionally involved I found myself trying to see the narrative tie to what came before and after. Quite honestly this is more of a criticism on me as the reader than on Mitchell. I don’t think he ever set out to tell a “tie every bow” interlocked story but to express a philosophy and use 6 separate stories to underline the similarities between them all.
Structurally, the book runs in to trouble by mixing “reality” with “fiction”. When it is revealed that the publisher is reading a novel about Luisa Rey it calls in to question the reincarnation element in the book. How can a fictional character be the reincarnation of a real one? One theory I have is that this is not about reincarnated souls, but archetypes. Each of the 6 stories is wildly different in setting and tone. A story of treachery on the high seas, a drawing room drama, a corporate corruption thriller, a comedic farce, a science fiction story, and finally the post apocalyptic adventure. Yet each of these characters at the center all share a narrative similarity. These are all strangers in strange lands. Is Mitchell really commenting on the recycled nature of characters in all levels of fiction? That each genre, no matter how maligned, can still be “literature” and all fiction is really telling the same, hopeful story of good triumphing over evil? Cloud Atlas doesn’t really lend itself one way or the other but I think it’s a viable theory.
Cloud Atlas is a dazzling achievement that just doesn’t quite bring the lofty themes and ambitious devices together. Still, I highly recommend it, as there are very few novels quite like it. What you get out of it is likely going to be subjective from reader to reader. This is a very complex book and more schooled readers of literature than myself will likely hit on things I didn’t grasp the first time through. For instance the number 6 in multiple variants repeats over and over throughout the novel. Is this a biblical reference to Genesis and the mythological 6 days it took to create the cosmos? Maybe. I’m sure a second read through will reveal even more connections and thematic ties.
The core of Cloud Atlas is solid and the stories are entertaining but the emotional element was lacking for me. It is for that reason I can’t wait to see how they adapted the book to film and if the filmmakers were able to nail the emotional component while preserving the thematic elements. I’m hopeful that not only will Tykwer and the Wachowskis dazzle us with the narrative acrobats but they will also stick the landing taking Cloud Atlas from a good adaptation to a classic.