Last week was somewhat heady for me. As I mentioned a few days ago, I saw Inception at a midnight screening. I also watched Waking Life for the first time a few days before that. I also had a metaphysical encounter of a different sort that week, one of the most interesting reading experiences I have had in a while in Cloud Atlas, a novel by David Mitchell*. I was intrigued by the description of the novel’s structure included (without proper spoiler warnings!) in a New York Times Magazine profile of the author.
[Spoilers below. It’s not the end of the world to be spoiled on the structure of the novel, but I’m certain that it will change the reading experience.]
It’s rare that a structure of a novel will become the focus of praise for me–that’s usually not the way that I think–but the structure of Cloud Atlas is so interesting, and emotionally effective in an unusual way, that it’s what I must start with.
Cloud Atlas is structured like a stone arch: it’s first half is five incomplete novellas, followed by a complete novella, then the conclusions, or second halves, of the first five novellas in reverse order. Not only are these stories presented symmetrically, but they are bound together, both in content and theme. The first novella is a diary of a passenger on a voyage from Australia to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. This diary is being read by the protagonist of the third second, who is writing letters to a secondary character in the third novella, which is presented as an airport-book thriller about an investigative journalist. This book is being edited by the protagonist of the fourth novella, which is the basis for a movie that a character being interviewed in the fifth novella remembers watching. That interview is being watched by the narrator of the final novella. It’s a wonderful bit of plotting. While first reading the book, links between the novellas become apparent, but in the second half of the book, those links are handled intelligently such that they are surprising, even though they are expected. This complicated structure points to the great breadth of the prose as well; in the first, second, and fourth novellas, Mitchell emulates the writing habits of characters from the past, in the third, he emulates the style of a Michael Crichton or a Robin Cook (heavy on plot, short on characterization, functional dialogue). In the fifth and sixth novellas, Mitchell operates in speculative-fiction territory, setting his stories in the Earth of the future. These disparate writing styles offer great opportunity for subtext (which Mitchell exploits masterfully): as you get used to the shifting perspectives of the narrators, you begin to recognize what the narrator might leave out of their story.
These bits of information left out of the story, or information that complements or refutes events in the story from other sections, forms it’s own story. The NYT profile characterizes this story as “a second narrative trail, a detective story with the reader cast as investigator, one who’s on the trail of connective clues that Mitchell has hidden in plain sight.” I don’t think it’s as crude as that. There’s no meta-narrative; the characters are linked more by coincidence than a common purpose (in fact, there’s no way that all of the characters could logically occupy the same universe. The third novella, the thriller, is the only one that acknowledges its own fiction, and it contains both a “real” character from the second novella and is being read by a “real” character in the fourth.). Instead it’s a story woven from things unsaid, from things that we know about the past and future that the characters do not, from recurring patterns in human behavior, from suggestion. The novel dances around its themes for almost its full length, themes of human aggression, oppression and rebellion, the conflict between humanity’s animal and enlightened nature, and the propensity for human civilizations to consume themselves. These are heavy themes, and they are driven home by a subdued, yet powerful ending.
The mastery of the book is revealed in that ending, not because you learn any information that changes what has come before, but because only after reading the ending do you see the big picture, the message that Mitchell is trying to send through his fictional messengers. It’s like putting together a single image from fragments reflected off of many mirrors. It may not be perfect, and only time will tell how it endures, but it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in a while, and Mitchell is one of the few authors I’ve become excited about on the strength of one book in a while longer than that.
*I had heard of a David Mitchell before, but I mistook him for the other Mitchell, a QI panelist and occasional newspaper columnist, whom I do not enjoy.