I am almost through my second reading of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. It’s so densely written and contains so much to delight the language lover that already I can imagine reading it a third time — and then taking it down from the bookshelf, year after year into the future.
Wikipedia helpfully describes the basic structure:
The novel consists of six nested stories that take the reader from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Each tale is revealed to be a story that is read (or watched) by the main character in the next. All stories but the last one get interrupted at some moment, and after the sixth story concludes at the center of the book, the novel “goes back” in time, “closing” each story as the book progresses in terms of pages but regresses in terms of the historical period in which the action takes place. Eventually, readers end where they started, with Adam Ewing in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1850.
The whole thing is akin to a musical composition with movements, recurring themes and eventual resolution and, in fact, the second story is about a piece of music: the Cloud Atlas Sextet. And of course — worlds within worlds — the sextet, as described by its composer, Robert Frobisher, is also a map of the novel:
Spent the last 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? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep …
Motifs recur throughout the stories: for example, the main character in each has a comet-shaped birthmark and there are hints that they share memories. Artifacts from one story turn up in others: Luisa befriends Rufus Sixsmith, the recipient of the letters written by Robert Frobisher in Letters from Zedelghem, and seeks out Cloud Atlas Sextet; Zachry in Sloosha’s Crossin’ worships Sonmi; Frobisher finds part of Adam Ewing’s journal; the manuscript of The First Luisa Rey Mystery is sent to publisher Timothy Cavendish. The complexities of the intertwining caused me to imagine making a big map of the stories with dozens of crisscrossing arrows.
Along with all the structural brilliance, though, the major accomplishment of Cloud Atlas is Mitchell’s mastery of language. He moves from style to style — eighteenth century prose in The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing to the disturbingly believable limitations of language, and hence thought, in a future dystopian world (the fordjams and colts and purebloods of An Orison of Sonmi-451) to the dialect and mythology of Sloosha’s Crossin’ an Ev’rythin’ After. In each, he creates a language that fits its subject so snugly that it is hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Here are some samples.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
Saturday, 7th December —
Petrels are aloft, sooty terns afloat & Mother Carey’s chickens roost on the rigging. Fish similar to borettoes pursued fish similar to sprats. As Henry & I ate supper, a blizzard of purplish moths seemed to issue from the cracks in the moon, smothering lanterns, faces, food & every surface in a twitching sheet of wings. To confirm these portents of nearby islands, the man at the lead shouted a depth of only eighteen fathoms. Mr Boerhaave ordered the anchor to be weighed lest we drift onto a reef in the night.
The whites of my eyes have a lemon-yellow aspect & their rims are reddened & sore. Henry assures me this symptom is welcome, but has obliged my request for an increased dosage of vermicide.
Letters from Zedelghem
“Look here, I’ve not advertised for an amanuensis!”
“I know, sir, but you need one even if you don’t know it yet. The Times piece said that you’re unable to compose new works because of your illness. I can ‘t allow your music to be lost. It’s far, far too precious. So I’m here to offer you my services.”
Well, he didn’t dismiss me out of hand. “What did you say your name was?” I told him. “One of MacKerras’s shooting stars, are you?”
“Frankly, sir, he loathed me.”
As you’ve learned to your cost, I can be intriguing when I put my mind to it.
“He did, did he? Why might that be?”
“I called his Sixth Concerto for Flute” — I cleared my throat — “‘a slave of prepubescent Saint-Saëns at his most florid’ in the college magazine. He took it personally.”
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Two well-dressed Chinese men walk in. A look from one tells her Luisa Rey is coming. The three converge at a desk guarding a side corridor: SAFETY DEPOSIT BOXES. This facility has had very little traffic all morning. Fay Li considered getting a plant in place, but a minimum wage rent-a-guard’s natural laxness is safer than giving Triad men a sniff of the prize.
“Hi” — Fay Li fires off her most intolerable Chinese accent at the guard — “brothers and I want get from strongbox.” She dangles a deposit-box key. “Looky, we got key.”
The bored youth has a bad skin problem. “ID?”
“ID here, you looky. ID you looky.”
The Chinese ideograms repel white scrutiny with their ancient tribal magic. The guard nods down the corridor and returns to his Aliens! magazine. “Door’s not locked.” I’d fire your ass on the spot, kid, thinks Fay Li.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
My senses rethroned, I observed the December rituals of man, nature, and beast. The pond iced over in the first week of December, and disgusted ducks skated. Aurora House froze in the mornings and boiled in the evenings. The asexual caretaker, whose name was Deirdre, unsurprisingly, strung tinsel from the light fittings and failed to electrocute herself. A plastic tree appeared in a bucket wrapped in crepe paper. Gwendolyn Bendincks organized paper-chain drives to which the Undead flocked, both parties oblivious to the irony of the image. The Undead clamored to be the Advent calendar’s window opener, a privilege bestowed by Bendincks like the Queen awarding Maundy money: “Mrs. Birkin has found a cheeky snowman, everyone, isn’t that fabulous?”
An Orison of Sonmi-451
Catechism Three teaches that for servers to keep anything denies Papa Song’s love for us and cheats His Investment. I wondered, did Yoona-939 still observe any Catechism? But misgivings, though grave, were soon lost in the treasures Yoona showed me there: a box of unpaired earrings, beads, tiaras. The xquisite sensation of dressing in pureblood clothes overcame my fear of being discovered. Greatest of all, however, was a book, a picture book.
Not many of those around these days.
Indeed not. Yoona mistook it for a broken sony which showed the world outside. You must imagine our awe as we looked at the grimy server serving three ugly sisters; seven stunted fabricants carrying bizarre cutlery behind a shining girl; a house built of candy. Castles, mirrors, dragons. Remember, I was ignorant of these words as a server, as I was the majority of words I employ in this Testimony. Yoona told me AdV and 3-D show only a dull portion of the world beyond the elevator: its full xtent encompassed wonders even beyond Xultation. So many strangenesses in one curfew toxed my head. My sister said we must get back to our cots before yellow-up but promised to take me back inside her secret, next time.
How many “next times” were there?
Ten, or fifteen, approx. In time, it was only during these visits to her secret room that Yoona-939 became her animated self. Leafing through her book of outside, she voiced doubts that shook even my own love of Papa Song and faith in corpocracy to the core.
What shapes did these doubts take?
Questions. How could Papa Song stand on His Plinth in Chongmyo Plaza Servery and stroll Xultation’s beaches with our Souled sisters simultaneously? Why were fabricants born into debt but purebloods not? Who decided Papa Song’s Investment took twelve years to repay?
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
Second day fluffsome clouds rabbited westly an’ that snaky leeward sun was hissin’ loud’n’hot. We drank like whales from icy’n’sooty brooks. Higher to cooler air we climbed till no mozzie pricked us no more. Stunty’n’dry woods was crossed by swathes o’black’n’razory lava spitted’n’spewed by Mauna Kea …
We tented up in a forest o’needles’n’thorns an’ a waxy mist hid our campfire but it hid any sneaker-uppers too an’ I got nervy. Our bodies was busted by tiredness but our minds wasn’t sleepy yet so we talked some while eatin’. You really ain’t feary, said I, jerkin’ my thumb upwards, o’meetin’ Georgie when we get to the summit, like Truman Napes did?
Meronym said the weather was way more scaresome to her.
I spoke my mind: You don’t b’lief he’s real, do you?
Meronym said Old Georgie weren’t real for her, nay, but he could still be real for me.
Then who, asked I, tripped the Fall if it weren’t Old Georgie?
Eerie birds I din’t knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.
Each segment is a complete story, with its “own language of key, scale, and color,” but each is enhanced by its relationships to the others. This is one of the most ambitious works of fiction I have ever read, moving about as it does in time and place and genre, but it is also one of the most rewarding novels I have come across in decades of reading.