As a writer when you begin a new project you have to deal with the fact that you are going down a rabbit hole and you may very well be down in the self-prescribed trenches for several years. I’ve hemmed and hawed about what I should spend my creative time on after I finished my first novel. I love writing short stories because the form gives me the freedom to dabble with various characters and plots without committing the time required for a novel. And, then you read something like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and realize that there are no rulebooks for novels and their construction. Mitchell cleverly and artfully dabbled and spun multiple stories set in drastically different settings with characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar from each other and in doing so expanded the canon and certainly my relationship as a writer to alternative structural forms. Oh, but what a rabbit hole Cloud Atlas is for reader and writer alike!
Cloud Atlas is what I consider to be a writer’s novel. I say this because it isn’t the easiest read and at times, I got bogged down and I wished the section I was reading was over. This was true of the chapter or part titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After.” As you can see by the title the dialect is thick. I had to read this section slowly to ensure that I was understanding what I was reading and sometimes I had to reread a sentence to comprehend it at all. That got tiresome. I found myself flipping to the next section and counting the pages until this part was over. That said, this is worth reading and Mitchell has given the writing world something new and original. So, plod through. The collective aspect of this novel is worth stumbling through vernacular extravagances. Plus, the fact that Mitchell can write dialect effectively shows how brilliant a writer he truly is.
I loved not only the shifting points-of-view, but also the manner in which the stories were told. For instance, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” is told as if the reader is sitting around a campfire listening to old tales. “An Orison of Somni-451” is told via an interview, or questions and answers prior to Somni’s execution. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is in diary form. Mitchell uses the epistolary format in “Letters From Zedelghem.” What I loved was how Mitchell weaved each story into the main story. Robert Frobisher in “Letters From Zedelghem” writes letter to his lover, Sixsmith. Frobisher, a young composer apprenticing under the musical maestro, Arys, discovers part of Adam Ewing’s journal in the maestro’s library. He writes to Sixsmith asking him to obtain the missing part. It’s extraordinary how Mitchell ultimately connects these stories, how the characters intersect. View the image I provided above to better understand how the characters overlapped. I didn’t create this. Good Lord! I’d go nuts attempting to map out Cloud Atlas. You could slip into insanity just looking at this illustration, but feel free to enlarge and dissect. it’s your mental well-being. Another connective element was the shared comet birthmark which suggests, in my opinion, that these characters are reincarnated and there are certainly Buddhist themes throughout the novel. I think it is remarkable how Mitchell not only linked the stories together but that the stories were told in completely different voices, times, settings and at times in different dialects or using invented “futuristic” language or terminology. For more on Mitchell’s wordplay read “The Orison of Somni-451,” an earth ruled by corpocracy where Mitchell pokes fun at Ford and Starbucks. Writing in different point-of-view, tones, settings, and working that into one novel is no small feat.
It’s natural that the reader gravitates to what he or she prefers to read. I mentioned above that I found “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” to be a tad tedious, but that does mean it wasn’t well-crafted. Towards the end of that section, I was getting used to the dialect and this narrative is essential to the book’s plot. They all are. When reading colloquial language established by an author, it’s best to relax into it and not skim over and rush through. I imagine other readers thoroughly enjoyed this section and would disagree with me, but not mentioning my struggle would be disingenuous. I simply preferred the voice and storyline of some of the other characters or narrators.
There have been so many reviews—some resembling a thesis—that I really wondered if I had anything new to add here, but there is something that Mitchell did that I’ve only seen one other author do I’d like to address. In “Letters From Zedelghem,” Frobisher is composing his “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” what would become his masterpiece. Mitchell’s uses Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” as a pseudo sustained metaphor for his own masterpiece, his actual Cloud Atlas. Like a sextet, where six parts are combined, there are separate parts for each musician as there are separate parts for each character or narrator in the novel. It is the combination of these parts that form the whole. In this way, Cloud Atlas is a musical score and when the sound imagery, chiefly in the “Letters From Zedelghem,” is added in you can hear literally the music. When Arys is dictating to Frobisher he tells him the following: “Now Frobisher, the clarinet is the concubine, the violas are yew trees in the cemetery, the clavichord is the moon, so….let that east wind blow that A minor chord sixteenth bar onwards” (60). Simply gorgeous imagery. Go to page 442 for another taste of this. What I am trying to say is that not many writers can pull this off. While I was reading the words, I was also hearing the music. Mitchell speaks through his character, Frobisher, to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Here, Frobisher writes Sixsmith to discuss the structure of his composition: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” (445). Mitchell is asking the reader to respond about his decision to write his narrative in this manner. I’d have to go with revolutionary and imaginative, imaginative on a scale I do not often experience in modern literature. Well-done, Mitchell! Cloud Atlas is a cleverly woven masterpiece, an undertaking that only the very best at their craft could achieve.