To say that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a good book is a gross understatement. Cloud Atlas is nothing short of a masterpiece; a mesmerizing postmodern novel about the journey and self-education of a single soul. Borrowing from the teachings of such philosophies and beliefs as eternal recurrence and samsara, Cloud Atlas spins a tale of human greed which weaves as effortlessly between genres as the soul weaves through time, gender, and geography.
Cloud Atlas follows seven manifestations of a single soul, marked by a comet-shaped birthmark between their collarbone and their shoulder blade. There is Adam Ewing, an American notary sailing along the Pacific not a generation after the War of 1812, Robert Frobisher, a disinherited Englishman from a wealthy family in the 1930s, Luisa Rey, a dangerously ambitious journalist in the 1960s, Timothy Cavendish, a slimy but loveable publisher somewhere around the modern era, Sonmi~451, a fabricant created to serve in a restaurant in a corporate-driven dystopian world, and Meronym, a character in the story of Valleysman Zachary, a sheep herder living in Hawaii long after the fall of civilization. Each story begins and is then interrupted by another, only to return to the previous story. The reader experiences each story as a needle passing through a matryoshka doll: Beginning with Adam’s story before being interrupted by Frobisher’s, which is then interrupted by Luisa’s, who is stopped by Cavendish, then Sonmi, then Zachary, who finishes his story before returning to Cavendish, then Luisa’s, then Frobisher’s, and ending upon Adam with a bittersweet poignancy. The stories are ingeniously tied together by the narrator of one story somehow discovering the story of its predecessor; Frobisher discovers half of Adam Ewing’s published journal under a chair, Luisa meets the man to whom Frobisher wrote his story, etc. This device insinuates that the soul learns about itself in its travels, affecting its present self with its own past.
Mitchell is an absolute master of genre. His ability to identify each specific voice—the flowery, letter-driven narratives of colonial fiction, the hard-boiled urgency of the 1960s/70s murder mystery, the prophetic eccentricities of the dystopia—is beyond enviable. The “best” story of the novel will depend largely on the reader’s personal preferences; if one prefers an irreverent and charming Byronic narrator, then Frobisher will hold the most interest. If one cannot abide the strange new language invented in a faraway future dialogue, then Valleysman Zachary’s adventure will be hastily glossed over. Such was my journey into the ever-changing world of Cloud Atlas. I relished in the terrifying Corpocratic world of Nea So Copros, the world into which Sonmi~451 was born (or rather, incubated.) However, my distaste for the formal and often meandering prose in colonial fiction, and my hatred of the diary/letter format, nearly caused me to give up on the book halfway through Adam Ewing’s journey across the Pacific. However, each chapter is strong in its own right, with a complete story arc and dynamic characters to fall in love with and despise.
Taking a moment to speak of personal favourites, I would have to say that Sonmi~451’s story drew me in and kept me in the most. Nea So Copros is a terrifying nation because, like any good dystopian world, our current world can so easily become something like it. Corpocracy rules the land; the majority of the world has been driven to barren toxicity as Nea So Copros, and other like nations before it, leech away the Earth’s natural resources. Words like shoes, computers, and cars have been brilliantly replaced by and referred to exclusively as brand names; nikes, sonys, and fords. Dewdrugs and face-scaping eliminate the appearance of old age in the wealthy. Humans are divided into three distinct classes of wealth, privilege, and, in case of the hand-created fabricants, slavery. The world around me dissolved as I read Sonmi~451’s journey from mindless slave waitress at a McDonald’s-like restaurant (Papa Song’s) to voracious student to radical revolutionary.
Not every story in Cloud Atlas is as dramatic or action-packed as Sonmi ~451’s tale, but each story encapsulates a single theme, which is at times flat-out described to the reader: Mankind will destroy itself through hunger. Each chapter is a tale of the powerful preying on the powerless; murderers poisoning trusting friends, corporations and other structural powerhouses preying on the Earth’s resources, the elderly, the powerless. Cannibalism is also mentioned in some form in each and every story (even Timothy Cavendish’s comedic romp features him teasing elderly people by shouting “Soilent Green is People!”) The soul character is always the preyed upon, who fights oppression and either transcends their bonds or crumbles beneath them. In Cloud Atlas, mankind’s hunger for power is eternal. The hunger destroys lives, cultures, cities, and worlds in its wake. For every triumph of human empathy and betterment, the hunger rises from its ashes, ravenous, forever preying upon the downtrodden. Yet the novel’s message is not a hopeless one. Rather, it is a proclamation of perseverance in the face of endless human greed. In Robert Frobisher’s words, “One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Frobisher may be speaking subconsciously of his own soul, who transcends all conventions to be man, woman, fabricant, old, young, poor, or wealthy, but he is also speaking of mankind’s ability to overcome its own vices, its own long-held establishments, in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Cloud Atlas is a tale of man’s triumphs over its own evils, one moment in history at a time.