Cloud Atlas. What to say about Cloud Atlas? This is the question that has been running through my mind since I finished my highly anticipated reading of it last week. I’m hesitant to talk in too much detail about the nuances of the book so as not to ruin the reading experience for anyone who might be on the verge of picking it up. The way in which this book unfolds, and then refolds, is unlike anything else and I’m glad that I went into it without knowing too much in advance. So, if you haven’t read the book and want absolutely no spoilers, stop here. If you’ve already read it, or if you haven’t and don’t might just a few revealing details, read on.
The novel is composed of six separate stories. To say that they are connected or interrelated would be to oversimplify things. The most accurate description I've come across so far is to say that the book is set up as a kind of stacking Matryoshka doll that opens and closes, with the six stories presented in the order of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The stories progress from the past into the future and back again, with number 1 being the most historic and number 6 taking place in a far-off, post-apocalyptic future. My one word of caution about the book is that the first storyline, set on a ship sailing the South Pacific seas in the 1800s, is actually the weakest of the group, and may require a bit of soldiering through. Getting to the subsequent storylines is worth the effort, though. They cover a range of different genres and offer something for every reader’s taste, from a noir thriller in the 1970s to a modern day British comedy to a futuristic dystopian tale. With each genre comes a vastly different writing style that, to be honest, can be a little jarring when you’re first introduced to each new story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the transitions were confusing, but they did make me feel as though I had to be on high alert while reading, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It made me realize how, as a pretty fast reader, I tend to quickly adapt to the flow of the writing in a particular book and just fly through the pages. Of course, an easy flow isn’t a bad quality for a piece of writing to have, but with Cloud Atlas I gave extra attention to every word so as not to miss any clues about the connections between stories.
And speaking of those connections, I thought they were just about perfectly executed. With each revelation in the book, Mitchell successfully balances enough surprise to stop you in your reading tracks for a moment with enough subtlety to still leave room for interpretation. One of the themes he explores is that of storytelling, and the idea of a story within a story. Moving through the six vignettes you soon see a pattern in which the preceding story turns up as some kind of narrative form in the current story. For instance, the characters and plot of the third story in the series turn up in the fourth story in the form of an unsolicited manuscript sent to a publisher. The publisher's adventures, which unfold in the fourth story, turn out to be a movie that the characters in the fifth story watch. Yet even though this story within a story pattern exists, its actual meaning is never definitively established. The interplay of reality and fiction is one obvious theme. The idea of history repeating itself is another, as is the idea of reincarnation, hinted at through the symbol of a uniquely shaped birthmark that's shared by several characters. Just as the six stories exist in layers in the novel, the ideas that Mitchell explores are layered together in a similar coexistence, leaving it to the reader to decide how much or how little to buy into each one.
If you've stuck with me this far, has any of this made sense? Cloud Atlas is definitely one of those books that's best discussed with other people who have read it. So, hurry up and go read it! I need someone to talk to about it!