Mitchell, David: Cloud Atlas

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had really enjoyed it. Mitchell had graduated in English Literature from Kent (worryingly, his thesis had been on “levels of reality in the post-modern novel” – but at least he satirised such pretension in this book). He had been turned down for a job in McDonalds. He had lived in Japan, and now lived in Ireland with a Japanese wife.

“Cloud Atlas” was his third book, following “Ghostwritten” and “number9dream”. It had won a number of prizes and awards and a Booker nomination. The book had generally received “messiah-like reviews”, but he had found some dissenting voices on the internet, such as “pretentious load of over-written twaddle”, “unreadable” and “a literary novel with Literary in capital letters”.

In the discussion that followed, the group divided into two halves. One thought the book first class, engrossing, beautifully written in a remarkable range of styles. They found it very original and thought provoking in its structure of six interlinked tales moving forwards and backwards through time. The other half found the book certainly enjoyable and well-written, but found its structure contrived (indeed, for some, pretentious). For them it lacked thematic originality, and lacked sufficiently meaningful linkages between the tales.

For one reader, the author was a liberal, writing about the pursuit of enlightenment. Some of the individual stories were absolutely fantastic, such as the sensational “Letters from Zedelghem” with its great characterisations, the extremely engrossing “Ghastly Ordeal of Richard Cavendish”, the excellent use of language in the “Pacific Journal” and the light but enjoyable Luisa Rey story. He was not a fan of science fiction, and had found the two futuristic tales less compelling. But overall it was great fun and very enjoyable.

A different reader had also enjoyed it, but expected more, based on the rave reviews incorporated in the paperback version. He liked the individual stories, but as a unity it did not work too well. Some of the links – such as finding the journal and the letters – were a bit artificial. The Pacific Journal reminded him of Golding’s “Ends of the Earth” trilogy, while aspects of the “Sloosha” story reminded him Golding’s “The Inheritors”. But Golding was better. He thought “Cloud Atlas” a good read, but not “Booker” class (if that were not to give too much credence to the Booker).

But, another suggested, you should focus on the reading the book, not the reviews. Reviews were always suspect, not least because reviewers often knew the person whose work they were reviewing. He had really enjoyed the book, and admired the fine writing of the stories. There were some very sympathetic touches – for example in the cabin-boy – and great observation.

Another – although he enjoyed the individual tales – had sought in vain for linkages between the stories. At the end he was still wondering what it was all about. It would have been a much better book if the links had been better constructed and clearer.

For one the overt theme was man’s lust for power, which could not be suppressed – and if anything the author overemphasised this theme, as if worried that the critics might miss the point. But a subtler theme was the cyclical nature of time, which he embodied in the structure of the book with the half stories moving out through time and then the second half of each story placed so that they then moved backwards through time. His ability to write in such different styles that reflected different times was quite remarkable. The book was very funny – for example in the fate of the critic at the beginning of the Cavendish story. There was an amused playfulness in the way he made many of the connections – for example in the deification of Somni and Cavendish. Overall there was the imagination, tolerance, linguistic range and sureness of touch that marked out a major writer.

For another, picking up on the question of themes, there was also the cyclical nature of civilization. And perhaps exploitation rather than power was the key issue. One critic had raised the issue of whether each character was essentially “Everyman”. Or more directly – as perhaps suggested by the repeated birthmark, or in Luisa’s identification with Frobisher – a reincarnation of the central character who went before?

Another member, who had enjoyed the book a lot, felt that nevertheless it would have lost nothing if it had been written in linear rather than circular form. The writing was good, but it was “clever”. And the theme was not unusual – it was trite.

Nor were the stories – such as Luisa Rey – very special, interjected another. Oh yes they were – what about the “Letters from Zedelghem” – that story was exceptional? But it was partly based on the well-known story of Delius and Eric Fenby (as the author had acknowledged). And the theme was simply that of history.

And so the debate between the two viewpoints continued, like a hamster in a treadmill, to make little progress, other than to demonstrate the circularity of time.

Here was a young storyteller of real promise and ingenuity – with a delightful freshness and vitality – who delivered much enjoyment, if not great resonance. And he had remarkable empathy to write so well about old age in the Cavendish story. He could go on to great things.

Oh no, the book was overdone and overstudied! It said – “look how clever I am – please give me a prize”. The book was not as clever as the author.

Was it unreasonable to want a prize? Authors had to earn a living. Didn’t Shakespeare write for money?

Yes, but he was better!! Admittedly, though, this reader had liked the science fiction parts – demonstrating the theme of exploitation at its limits.

Was the writer too clever by half? Yes, a bit. Are we jealous? Yes! Is his theme unoriginal? Are most of the themes of great literature – say, Jane Austen – “original” – of course not! The themes were classic, rather than trite. It was a very good read, with excellent and diverse use of language. And was the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Yes. And there was no point in criticising the Luisa Rey story for being ordinary – that story was meant to imitate pulp fiction.

Perhaps the linkages were easier to pick it up if you read it in a short period of time? It was difficult to remember all the characters if you read it over three separate plane journeys as one had done. And, even if the themes were interesting, the linkages were weak, such as the birthmark, or Frobisher deciding to read the Pacific Journal (why?), or Luisa wanting to read Frobisher’s letters,.

But wasn’t there a fallacy here? Whenever you looked backwards in time – for example in genealogy, or in looking at a film story told backwards – trivial events could take on remarkable significance. So weak linkages just reflected the nature of causality and time.

So is that new? In telling a story you always select what is relevant…

Indeed, but this novel is bringing out the idea of time being circular. And I liked the structure.

But historians have always written about the rise and fall of civilizations…

Yes, but Mitchell is looking at a more imaginative, poetic view of time as circular, which he brings out at pp 408-409:

‘The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access…in contrast the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening and ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent…….One model of time: an infinite matrioshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future’

It is to explore that idea that he adopts the structure he does – the “nested structure”, like a Russian doll –making structure and theme coherent.

There were difficulties for the modern novelist, who, like Mitchell, had studied English as an academic subject. It tended to make them overly self-aware and analytical, and could tempt them into pretension. It was interesting that Ted Hughes, whose collected letters had just been published, had switched away from studying English because of his fear of losing spontaneity through too much dissection of other texts.

And was another difficulty that for the modern writer there was not much new to do? Did he imitate styles because there was not much new that could be done stylistically? No agreement was to be found on that proposition.

Was the book pessimistic? In many ways it was very pessimistic, bringing out man’s eternal desire to exploit and eliminate his fellow men, and projecting a highly unpleasant future in which firstly Western civilization has collapsed and then its Eastern replacement has also self-destructed. Suicide was also graphically portrayed in the book.

At the same time there were elements of hope and enlightenment. And the author’s zest for life and sense of fun were also very positive.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Mitchell, who ends his book:

“ ‘…Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”