Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Toronto: Vintage, 2004.
David Mitchell is brilliant. David Mitchell is hilarious. David Mitchell is bleak, tragic, elitist, poignant, sardonic, pandering, casual, terrifying, awestruck, detached, angry, and any other adjective you can think of applying to him or his book. He may even be a bit hungry.
It’s perhaps an unusual tactic for me to start out discussing a book by talking about the author: that’s a huge no-no in the academic world, isn’t it? In fact, I think that’s Roland Barthes I see in the distance, shaking his fist. But wait a minute, Roland, I think I have a point!
Cloud Atlas is, as cliché as this may sound, a text that examines what human nature is. Really. The novel contains six stories, each starring its own protagonist. Of course the stories are related linearly, each picking up on the last to form the übernarrative that is Cloud Atlas in its entirety. Of course the stories share symbols, phrases and characters that recall the previous and following ones. Despite the relatedness and similarities of the stories, however, each is complete in itself: they could be read out of context without ruining the narrative. Moreover, if these stories were published separately, or mixed in an anthology with other stories by other writers, you might be hard-pressed to name, based on a few pages of reading, which are definitively Mitchell’s.
This complexity is partly due to Mitchell’s use of language: the stories run chronologically through time, beginning in the mid 19th century and extending to the far-distant future (making stops along the way in the 1930s, 1970-80s, current day, in a future Korean “corpocracy” as the world faces ecological and technological apocalypse, and a post-apocalyptic agrarian society in the south-Pacific). As the time and location changes, so too does the language. The initial story: “The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing,” for example, convincingly emulates the style and language of a 19th-century travelogue. Here’s a characteristic passage:
Torgny fled, but the first mate was not finished with me. ‘Sharks ply these waters, Mr. Quillcock. Trail ships for tasty jetsam, they do. Once I saw one eat a passenger. He, like you, was neglectful of his safety & fell o’erboard. We heard his screams. Great Whites toy with their dinner, gnawing ’em slow, a leg here, a nibble there & that miserable b—— was alive longer than you’d credit. Think on it.’ He shut my cabin door. Boerhaave, like all bullies & tyrants, takes pride in that very hatefulness that makes him notorious. (25)
Look at that censoring of vulgar language! The use of ampersands in the place of words! That non-politically correct way of describing Dutch people! This is a fairly realistic imitation of the 19th-century travelogue (and I worked at a Canal museum, so I’ve read a few ship’s diaries).
It’s these little idiosyncrasies of style that contribute to the sense of Ewing as a particular man: a pompously virtuous 19th American traveler with an eye for sensational detail. Mitchell does not only imitate the linguistic styles of the narrative genres in which he is working, but also manages to make each protagonist particular and real, each working through a different combination of “universal” human problems in individual ways. This is why I invoke the presence of Mitchell at the beginning of my response to his text: Cloud Atlas could not have been written by someone who has never paid attention to these universals, but the work is not close to biography; the particulars of Mitchell’s own personality are effaced.[i]
If Mitchell’s text is rooted in biography, I certainly can’t tell what’s “real” and what isn’t, and perhaps that’s the point. The blurred distinction between reality and fiction is yet another theme in the text. Perhaps I should mention the way these narratives are literally interwoven: each story breaks off half-way through and gives way to the next. Page 39 of Ewing’s diary ends “I decided to conduct a short Bible Reading in his cabin in the ‘low-church’ style of Ocean’s Bay congreagation, ‘astraddle’ the forenoon & morning watches so both starboard & port shifts might” Turn the page, and you get a new title “Letters from Zedelghem,” starring Robert Frobisher. Frobisher, as you might expect, finds the partial diary and discusses it. While he does leave tantalising clues about Ewing’s narrative, however, the main plot of Frobisher’s narrative does not depend upon knowing Ewing’s story at all, emphasising Mitchell’s theme of the individual’s casual relation with the universal human population throughout history.
More relevant to the point about reality and fiction, Frobisher comments on Ewing’s style:
Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true — but who would bother forging a journal, and why? (64)
The obvious answer is “Mitchell would, for our entertainment”. But is he merely being self-referential here? Yes and no. It’s important to stress that each character encounters the narratives of the previous character (Frobisher writes letters to Rufus Sixsmith, these letters are found by Sixsmith’s neighbour Luisa Rey, whose story is encountered by publisher Timothy Cavendish, who’s life is watched by Sonmi-451, who’s archive is found by Zachry). While the events of each narrative are apparently real, however, many of the characters encounter them in fictional forms: Cavendish discovers Luisa Rey’s “actual” narrative in the form of a cheap mystery thriller by a woman named Hilary V. Hush (we assume her narrative is actual, since she meets Sixsmith, who is a “real” person). Cavendish’s own narrative is written in autobiographical form, but Sonmi discovers it as a film (which Cavendish himself is helping to prepare). Luisa Rey’s narrative is both fiction and fact, as is Cavendish’s; the question is, are they really real? If not, does this mean that they “real” artifacts they discover, such as Frobisher’s letters, are also not real?
Well, yes. It’s all fiction, isn’t it? But fiction from the clever and frustrating mind of Mitchell himself who several times throughout the text convinces us that fiction is really, actually, truthfully real.
[i] One more comment on Mitchell’s remarkable deployment of language: the man actually imagines how present day language will develop in the future:
My heart beat fast. What is that knife? I asked. ‘Only lite, from a flashlite,’ answered Yoona. I asked, Is lite alive? Yoona answered, ‘Perhaps lite is life, sister.’ A consumer had left the flashlite on a seat in our quarter, she xplained, but instead of giving it to our aide, Yoona had hidden it there. (191)
Considering the influence of text-messaging, I wholly expect we will have abbreviated spelling like this in the future. Mitchell goes even further, though, and imagines a future-future language, related to, but wholly distinct from the language of the future. This is amazing attention to detail.
8 April 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Barthes, Roland. n. He’s dead.