At its most basic level, Cloud Atlas is a series of short novels that occur at different points in time. Mitchell has arranged six different narratives, in a sort of pyramid structure: we read the first half of the first narrative, next the first half of the second narrative, and so on, until we reach the sixth narrative and read it in its entirety uninterrupted. Then we read the second half of the fifth narrative, the second half of the fourth narrative, until we have finally gotten back to the first narrative and learn what happened to the characters who last appeared four hundred pages earlier. Decades, if not centuries, separate each narrative; the author does not always specify the year.
Doubtless, critics have taken great pains to analyze the different narratives: I will summarize them here. In the first story, we read the diary of an American notary in the 1800s named Adam Ewing, who witnesses the savage treatment of colored natives at the hands of white settlers while he is on an expedition by boat. In the second story, we peruse the letters that the British musician Robert Frobisher writes to his friend while apprenticing himself to an ailing composer in the 1930s. In the third story, an American journalist named Luisa Rey pursues the truth about the safety flaws of a nuclear power plant in the 1970s. In the fourth story, an aging publisher named Timothy Cavendish struggles to prove his intellectual acumen to the world as he navigates an unfriendly world in the early twenty-first century. In the fifth story, we hear the testimony of a genetically-modified servant-woman named Sonmi-451, who criticizes a technologically advanced but morally bankrupt future as she explains her rebellion against it. And in the sixth story, which probably takes place many centuries later and in a dystopian distant future where most technology has perished, a teenager named Zachary ponders how to deal with a series of terrible events when he believes that he has brought bad fate upon everyone with his own actions.
As an author, I was tempted to interpret this structure in an elemental sense - that is, to classify each story as a representation of a certain general quality, with the different qualities adding up to a sort of philosophical whole that the author offers as an ideal for the human mind. Adam Ewing, with his sympathy for those who suffer the ill effects of colonialism, represents compassion; Frobisher, reveling in a world of music and having an affair with the composer's wife, represents sensation; Luisa Rey, in her relentless pursuit of the journalist's perfect "scoop," represents impulse; Cavendish, who quotes every book he has read (his favorite author seems to be Solzhenitsyn) in a futile attempt to convince the staff of a nursing home that he is of sound mind, represents intellect. These four qualities then correspond to the four elements of Greek mythology: water (compassion), earth (sensation), fire (impulse), and air (intellect).
Sonmi-451's statement just before her execution, however, shows a break from any of these attempts at a philosophical outlook on life. Horrified by the depravity she has witnessed in a bleak world that reminded me of why I don't like the movie Blade Runner, derisive at any pretensions the court officials have about their own understanding of justice, Sonmi-451 coldly tells the attentive Archivist that any sense of order in the world will collapse eventually, that a belief in one's permanence is precisely what causes one's downfall. "As Seneca warned Nero," she tells him, "No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor." After a life of being manipulated by people, most of whom she has learned to recognize as pompous fools, she sees everything as an illusion. And in the sixth story, the apex of the novel, Sonmi is the deity of Zachary's village. Her ability see past illusions, and to shame people for their hubris, is at once an oppressing force in Zachary's world and a source of hope that someday they will transcend their conditions.
It is not progress; but perhaps we are better off that way.
The writing of the novel is extraordinary. Each story has a unique voice, and I almost had trouble believing that a single author wrote all of it. Every protagonist somehow becomes aware of the previous protagonist: Frobisher discovers the journals of Ewing; Luisa meets Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the man to whom Frobisher sent his letters decades ago; Cavendish decides to publish a manuscript of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery"; Sonmi-451 watches a "disney" about the life of Timothy Cavendish; and Zachary witnesses a holographic recording of Sonmi-451's testimony, though he does not understand her language at all. The connections between the characters are thin, and Mitchell shows little interest in bridging the gaps in the overall timeline. We have only a vague idea of what destroyed civilization as we know it and brought Zachary's world back to the stone ages. So many causes probably contributed, so many people probably worked so hard to protect one another (or perhaps just protect their own private interests).
Cloud Atlas is, as I noted before, a thing that does not exist. And Mitchell does not try to tease it into existence. We see no grand plan, no progression, no symbolic journey that leaves us with the taste of "true meaning" on our tongues. It is a profound exploration of all the wonderful and terrible things people can do, without the author plastering the inside of the cover with a "map" that shows how it all fits together. The novel has very little science-fiction or fantasy. And while I would not call it a "celebration of life" (as I did with the novel Forever; I get the feeling David Mitchell does not enjoy himself writing a novel the way Pete Hamill does), Cloud Atlas has moments of relief and wonder, in spite of the erratic, destructive nature of the plot. When Adam Ewing's father-in-law chastises Adam for his idealism, his pointless dedication to abolitionism, the father-in-law predicts, "Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Unruffled, Adam merely responds, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
I will confess that I really just don't know what to make of this book. If I had written it, I would have enabled the different protagonists to meet each other, and work together toward some greater goal. But, from what I have read, Mitchell had no interest in a greater goal. Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, but it is perhaps the least teleological masterpiece I have ever read. Somewhat in the spirit of Nabokov, Mitchell paints a world where nothing quite fits in, where everyone is "doing his own thing" and occasionally elbowing someone in the ribs because we've all been squeezed into a room that's just a bit too small. Because, if everything is connected, then the connections become pernicious snares that restrict our movements. The first four protagonists of the novel operate under the illusion of personal freedom; the last two know that everything influences and is in turn influenced:
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.
In 1931, Robert Frobisher begins work on the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece destined to resound throughout the rest of the novel. Whereas some novels manage to be more than the sum of their parts, I think Cloud Atlas aims to expose the weakness of this technique. The stories counter and undermine each other, like harsh waves slapping the ocean's surface endlessly in the middle of a sea that does not care how many ships divide its waters. Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly unique novel, and while I am not sure if I enjoyed it, I highly recommend giving it a try.