Cloud Atlas is one part Rubik’s Cube, one part Zen Koan. It’s a novel, but it is also a collection of madly different stories that are loosely tied together through time and space. (I use the term ‘loosely’ loosely). More than once, while reading Cloud Atlas, I wondered how I could get a glass of whatever David Mitchell was drinking, in hopes that I might stumble upon the secret to possessing such an unfettered imagination. I, too, wanted to soar with the eagles of possibility and sink to the darkest recesses of the sea of despair without a backward glance at who was following.
I read the first two stories in this fragmented opus, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” and “Letters from Zedelghem”, with a dictionary at my side, racking up new vocabulary words with every other sentence. I could not fathom where some of those sentences came from, or where they were going, for that matter. I didn’t let it bother me. I bit my nails throughout the third story, “Half-Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery”. The fourth story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, made me laugh out loud. The fifth, “An Orison of Sonmi-451”, I read with open-mouthed wonder. It was all I could do to just keep up. I read the sixth story with my eyes crossed, allowing me to hear the words in my head as much as read them with my eyes. That story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, breaks the main rule about writing in dialect. The one that states: Thou Shall Not Write in Dialect. Unless you are David Mitchell, apparently.
And all of that only gets you to the halfway mark. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out where it goes from there. Hopefully you are getting the idea that this book is all over the map linguistically, crosses genres without a thought, and challenges the reader in most every way imaginable.
But wait! In addition to all this fancy trans-genre, trans-lingual writing going on, there’s a theme. An earth shaking, eye opening, heart breaking theme. In fact, there are several, and all of them are deep, meaningful, and fully integral to the story(s). Of course Mitchell is getting at the connectedness of everything: he is oh-so-clever about tying these stories together, threading the characters through time, and making their singular struggles eternal. But this book is also about the evolution of our species, the result and byproducts of the white man’s conquest of the world, and the karmic wheel of fate. That, and about ten other deeply profound things that just make you jealous of David Mitchell’s creative mind.
I’m absolutely certain that I have not appreciated half of what David Mitchell was striving for in this book. In order to really understand the shape of the plot, I would need to re-read it, substituting a pencil and graph paper for the dictionary, and create complicated charts with many colored intersecting lines. And when I’m done, do you know what I would have? A map, of sorts. An atlas of wispy, cloudlike ideas that connect not only these fictional characters, but the rest of us as well. This fictional atlas would likely show that we are all part of this giant plot called life, and, though we may fall on one side or the other of grace, and we may reach a hand across the abyss to help each other up or not, we are just one instrument in the grand orchestra. One of Mitchell’s more pessimistic characters cries out at the end novel: “…only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” But Mitchell himself gets the last word, reminding us: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
Read this book and be amazed. I was.