Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a novel that has been made into a movie and I have a sneaking suspicion that more people will be familiar with the story, because of the movie, than will ever even read the book. Which is unfortunate because the novel is interesting to read, creative and challenging as well.
By now, anyone who has heard of the movie knows that the story moves from the past through and into an imagined future. The characters of each part of the story are connected with one another in a way that is merely suggested throughout the first half of the novel and then driven home in the second half. However, these are not connected short stories (as in Ringwald’s When It Happens to You) nor is it a clearly albeit fractured linear narrative (as in Otto’s A Collection of Beauties). The novel begins in the 19th century and ends there, moving first forward into the future and then back into the past.
That is a technical feat, in and of itself. What makes it all the more impressive is that each of the pieces of the story is told in a unique tone, harmonizing one with the others. The first is told through journal entries, the next through letters, drawing on the epistolary novel tradition. But then one narrative is written as a thriller, another as an unreliable narrator’s comic adventures, yet another as an interview, and the central story is told as though one were sitting at the knee of an elder who is sharing a history that ripples back into the stories that precede it and hint at the ones that will follow.
The first stories leading up to the central one all break off at a pivotal moment and are picked up again when this capstone story is told, creating a clear and strong arch within the whole. However, the reader must make a certain investment in the novel as a whole because it is difficult to shift from one part of the story to the other, especially when many of the characters are not immediately sympathetic.
I often complain about how writers too often condescend to the reader or simply do not trust the reader to make connections. Rather than allowing a metaphor or allusion to stand on its own merit, this type of author will find a way, usually a clumsy one, to explain to the reader what the metaphor means or how suitable the allusion is, just in case the reader is too stupid to get it. Mitchell is not only innocent of this affront but he presumes upon his readers to such a degree that the moment I finished this novel I knew it is one that would improve with a second, third, or even fourth reading. There are metanarrative moments that I know I overlooked even if I did catch some.
When you know that a book merits rereading as soon as you finish reading it (and I actually realized it about halfway through the novel), is there really any better praise than this? A remarkable and not easily forgotten novel.
(Note: It is worth going to the Amazon link provided if only to see the publisher's disclaimer. You know how I say that each of the stories ends at a pivotal point? Well, apparently some people have complained about a printing error because they assumed it was a mistake. Perhaps I am mistaken in judging too harshly writers who feel they need to explain to their readers every jot and tittle because there are actually readers out there who are oblivious.)