David Mitchell's Cloud Altas

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tells the six interrelated stories, each with a distinct voice and style, using a symmetric structure: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1.

The Pacific Journal Adam Ewing, as the title implies, is a journal of the protagonist’s adventure in the Pacific. Reading the story is like reading one of Joseph Conrad’s stories, with the European colonists dominating over the natives. Dr. Goose, Rev. Horrox and the first mate Boerhaave, epitomes of greed and callousness and the sense of entitlement, could be villains from The Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim.

The Pacific Journal Adam Ewing

Letters from Zedelghem is an epistolary about Robert Frobisher’s coming of age, and he could be one of Stendhal or Flaubert’s protagonists, charming his way through life until he meets his match.

Letters from Zedelghem

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a mystery written in multiple third-person POV and it is a John Grisham style thriller about a reporter stumbling into documents that reveal a nuclear plant’s safety issues. The company’s executives would do anything to conceal the problems. The hunger for energy drives the greed and ruthlessness of these executives. The Pelican Brief comes to mind.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish written in a first-person POV is a humorous account of the title character’s adventure in a retirement home, a twist on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Only through such an ordeal could this callous and cynical publisher learn to appreciate life.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

The Orison of Somni-451 is a sci-fi about a fabricant server’s rise to self-awareness. The interview between the Archivist and Somni-451 reveals the sickness of the consumer-oriented society and the encroachment of technocracy. Reminiscent of A Brave New World and Oryx and Crake.

The Orison of Somni-451

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is a first-person POV dystopian tale of survival in Hawaii. Humanity comes full circle from savagery to civilization back to savagery, as if, after Nea So Copros, society could only descend into barbarism. Again Oryx and Crake comes to mind.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

The six tales would just be interesting stories, if written by six writers, but David Mitchell manages to cross genres—from mystery to sci-fi and from historical fiction to literary fiction—and integrate the stories through common human predicaments into a teleological vision.

Cloud Atlas, in addition to being great storytelling, is a postmodern study of text. In Sloosha’s Crossin’, an aged Zachry tells a yarn, where truth mixes with fiction, to a group of children. His son finds an orison which when warmed would create a hologram of Sonmi-451 telling her story, which is The Orison of Sonmi-451. And in Orison, Sonmi-451 watches a movie about a twenty-first century publisher called Timothy Cavendish. That movie is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. In Ghastly Ordeal, Timothy Cavendish receives from an author, the manuscript of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. In Half-Lives, Luisa Rey comes across Sixsmith’s letters: Letters from Zedelghem. And finally, in Letters, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journals in the famous composer’s house. And so, we go from yarn to stored data, to cinema, to novel, to letters, to journal—a journey through various communication media. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and other postmodern writers, Mitchell creates several levels of texts, and thus various levels of fiction. Since the aged Zachry is an unreliable narrator, we would question his yarn’s truth, as his son was doing so. The orison as stored data recounts an earlier historical period and might be true. Or is it, given the story of Orison is a setup to manipulate Sonmi-451? The movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is fiction within fiction but since it is based on the life of the title character, the story may be true within Somni-451’s world. Half-Lives, Letters, and Pacific Journal are various levels of fiction within the novel Cloud Atlas.

Cloud Atlas is a modern masterpiece where the aesthetic form matches the intriguing stories. And the reader will continue to reflect on the human condition long after she has finished the book.

I saw the movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry around the same time I read the novel and I prefer latter over the former. The movie, which changed various stories’ endings, destroyed the beauty of the novel. I recommend reading the book rather then seeing the movie.

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