Author David Mitchell in his acclaimed novel, ‘Cloud Atlas’, is not shy at giving readers interpretive pointers as to his aims. There is the image of the matryoshka doll; scientist Isaac Sachs muses ‘each shell (the present) encased inside a nest of shells (previous presents) …the doll of now likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be…’. Publisher Timothy Cavendish wishes ‘for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable. To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds’. Finally, we have the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ of composer Robert Frobisher ‘a sextet for overlapping soloists… each in its own language of key, scale and colour.
We have, more simply, six separate and separated narratives stretching from the 19th century way into the future and back again. Each is interlinked formally and thematically and the whole shebang is a stunningly virtuosic display of differing storytelling presented in a highly original package. But is it anything much more? Well, once again, possibly because he’s concerned that the peacock’s tail might obscure the bird, or even that there might be just a tail and no bird, Mitchell informs us time and again how all this shows how man is on an ongoing project to wreck the world through blind greed and hubris. This is no news, and frankly, despite all the razzle-dazzle, intellectually ‘Cloud Atlas’ in toto amounts to little more than a bunch of leftie dictums linked by a recurring tattoo.
Not that this particularly matters, for Mitchell is a natural and gifted storyteller plus a whizz with words. Each of the tales are ‘types’ of narrative, presented in the appropriate language: orotund Victorian, hard-boiled detective, sci-fi, whatever. A good deal of the enjoyment of ‘Cloud Atlas’ is letting Mitchell show you what he can do, all the tricks. Inevitably, some things work better than others. Both sci-fi scenarios have big credibility gaps and the second is told in a bizarre inconsistent dialect. Generally speaking, there is a surfeit of jocular overripe prose, and although I didn’t feel this myself, I’m sure many readers will find it all just too much showy entertainment and become irritated by the relentless super-cleverness. Did I mention hubris?
For a big ambitious work there is little character development and psychological depth; Mitchell is too concerned to keep all his balls in the air. The overall abstracted view reminded me of the novels of Paul Auster, with the idea that there is a pattern in the occurrence of events, it’s just that we can’t see it, only glimpse pieces of it. Which makes us hostage not only to our own crazy instincts and drives but something bigger and unknown. Or maybe Mitchell just likes playing meta-fictional tricks as a sort of structural binding. He wouldn’t be the first there.
So, although I enjoyed ‘Cloud Atlas’ hugely and happily recommend it as holiday reading, I wouldn’t be wasting too may neurons pondering its various messages. For me, this was one in which the whole was considerably less than its undeniably brilliant parts.