I managed to take another book off my towering to-be-read pile today. This time it was a novel – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I started it yesterday, and it gripped so hard that I polished it off today. A set of six interlinked novellas, strung out along the theme of what makes us human and separated in time by thousands of years. Each novella has a unique voice and style, ranging from the historical novel, the detective novel, farce or science fiction.
The whole book is in the form of an arc through time, travelling first forward through the centuries to the central novella, and then retracing the steps back to complete the other five novellas until it ends where it began, with the tale of a 19th century notary travelling in the Pacific. The climax of the central novella is wonderful – like the moment where a ball hangs in the air at the peak of its trajectory before falling back to earth. It may be bittersweet or elegaic; I don’t know, but it hangs there, perfectly. There’s much to enjoy along the way as well. I must admit The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish was great fun: “Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage”. Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that line…
Update: during a night of fitful sleep (my leg is still sore), I reflected some more on the conceits and motifs of Cloud Atlas. Some strike me as being a step too far, for example that all the lead characters throughout the ages share the same birthmark. Then there is the moment when the lead character in the third novella feels some mysterious pull towards the three-masted schooner on which the 19th century notary had travelled:
Luisa is distracted by a strange gravity that makes her pause for a moment and look at its rigging, listen to its wooden bones creaking. … What is wrong? Luisa’s birthmark throbs. She grasps for the ends of this elastic moment, but they disappear into the past and the future.
She also has another moment when she feels that she knows the Cloud Atlas Sextet, the music composed by Robert Frobisher, the lead character in the second novella in the book:
The sound is pristine, riverlike, spectral, hypnotic…intimately familiar. Luisa stands, entranced as if living in a stream of time.
We seem to be steering dangerously close to the territories of woo here. For me (ever the rationalist), that’s a pity, since I think that the stories are strong enough to stand on their own two feet, without what strikes me as a cheap appeal to spookiness. There are more straightforward links between the novellas anyway, and for me these are sufficient. A diary links the first and second novella, letters the second and third, an unpublished novel the third and fourth, a film links the fourth and fifth, and a recording device links the fifth and sixth.
Mitchell uses other conceits as well. Events and characters mirror real life. For example, the lead characters in the second novella – an aging syphilitic composer, his wife and the composer’s amanuensis – are clearly inspired by Frederick Delius, his wife Jelka and Eric Fenby. The story of the third novella is like a remix of the Karen Silkwood affair. Mitchell also explicity connects, in order to separate, the events in his novel with the real life analogues. For example, the clerk in the music store telling Luisa that the Cloud Atlas Sextet by Robert Frobisher is “not exactly Delius, is it?”
And of course, the Cloud Atlas Sextet is a musical analogue of the six novellas that make up Cloud Atlas.
Oh, and SPOILER ALERT…
I was disappointed by the LEXX-like revelation at the climax of the fifth novella; the scenes on board of Papa Song’s Golden Ark. I don’t think that the numbers work out. Twelve years service for a Fabricant before Xultation? I don’t think there is enough to go round, as it were, certainly not hundreds of thousands… And was that a deliberate typo: Solent Green?