Is Cloud Atlas a good book or a great one?
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a behemoth, and it asks a lot out of its readers. To qualify, Cloud Atlas isn’t an extraordinarily long novel – it’s only a little over 500 pages – but its story spans across centuries, styles, genres, and characters. It’s a book that is either revolutionary or gimmicky, based on whether you think its structure works. Cloud Atlas is divided into 6 novellas, each interrupting the preceding story so that the structure is that of a Russian nesting doll (stories inside one another). In the middle of the novel is nested the last (chronologically) story of the 6. After this story, the novel winds back down, finishing each interrupted story in reverse chronological order until the final pages dealing with the earliest story.
Mitchell admits in much (through his character, Robert Frobisher, who composed a musical composition mirroring the structure of this novel) that his work could either be a work of genius or a tremendous folly: a revolution or a gimmick. After mulling the novel around in my head, I’m convinced that Cloud Atlas lies somewhere in the middle. I’ve thought more about this novel than any other in a long while. Its structure is both playful and daunting, and it asks a lot of the read to abruptly stop a story and move on without any sort of conclusion.
If the 6 novellas of Cloud Atlas were published separately, or even in a normal anthologized fashion, I don’t think that they would have received the amount of attention that they have. Each of these stories are good – they range from fair to very good, but never fantastic. It’s hard to say that Cloud Atlas is better than the sum of its parts because there are just so many parts lying around, but because of its structure, it somehow becomes more than just six loosely connected stories.
I’ve struggled with the question of whether or not Cloud Atlas is great literature, and more specifically, if it’s something that will leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape. All great literature has something important to say, and Cloud Atlas does include themes and ideas that speak to the human condition, and what’s important is that it does so by using its structure to make this point. Early in novel (in the second story), Robert Frobisher writes that “a half-finished book is a half-finished love affair.” It’s an easy statement to make but one more difficult to prove within the context of a book. Mitchell is able to prove Frobisher’s point by interrupting 5 of the stories in Cloud Atlas. When these stories’ threads pick back up (i.e., in the latter half of the book when readers are able to read the conclusion to one of the 5 novellas), there’s a great sense of relief and comfort.
### Some slight spoilers ahead ###
The structure of Cloud Atlas also allows for the readers to see pre-established settings in a new context. When readers witness the slavery and cannibalism in the earliest story, it is a gross taboo. These indecencies to humanity feel like bizarre, disgusting acts that are in no way normal to human nature. By the final pages of the novel, however, these same acts feel less bizarre, and in many ways part of the human experience. Cannibalism takes place in Sonmi’s story, in Zachry’s story, and in Ewing’s. Slavery, captivity, and the fight for freedom of some sort also takes place in every story. Human behavior guided by war (or the threats of war) takes place in every story. These motifs aren’t always readily apparent, but because readers go through each time period before finishing a story, perspectives change upon returning to the last half of each story. If the structure of Cloud Atlas were that of a traditional collection of novellas, the reader would miss out on some of these motifs. No doubt after reading some of these stories, readers would pick up on the recurring themes of freedom and warfare, but the nested structure of Cloud Atlas allows the reader to notice and rediscover these ideas in real time.
The idea that human struggles never change is emphasized not only by the structure of Cloud Atlas but also by its style. The six protagonists of the novel all have very different backgrounds, settings, philosophies, and motivations, and each of them appear in a story that is told in a different way. These differences are enhanced by the varieties of styles, languages, and genres that are used throughout the novel. Each story is incredibly different from the next. What links these stories is the above mentioned themes and ideas. These themes are presented implicitly as constants in human nature, and the fact that they are apparent for not only a lawyer on a galleon in 1849, but for an elderly book editor trapped in a retirement home in 2012, or a human clone in North Korea over 100 years from now, only emphasizes how constant these things actually are.
The problem with Mitchell’s structure of Cloud Atlas is that the first half of the novel is just a fairly good one. The last half is a great one. Not only are readers able to requite with their unrequired love affairs, but they are also able to draw the connections between the stories. Up until the middle of Cloud Atlas, the stories are featured as being distinctly from one another. As each story closes, it becomes apparent that these stories really weren’t so different from one another at all.
While I have no doubt that some readers will believe Cloud Atlasto be a gimmicky pretentious mess, I think Mitchell does more than prove that to tell the story that he wanted to tell, he needed to tell it in this nested structure. By the end of the book, what was a gimmick becomes a necessity. Telling Cloud Atlas in chronological order would break it or render it ineffective; it would turn a great book into a moderately good one. At its best,Cloud Atlas tears down the convention of storytelling and shows that any and everything is possible in literature.