Having watched the film of Cloud Atlas, and loving it, I decided I had to read the book, originally published in 2004 and written by David Mitchell. I don’t think I’ll write a ‘proper’ review, on the basis that the novel is very similar to the film, but there are still interesting points to discuss and this may well end up morphing into a review of sorts.
The most apparent aspect of the book is the sheer skill of Mitchell’s writing. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Each of the six stories within the novel are told in a different style and in a different genre. You have:
- Narrative in the form of fictional journals.
- Narrative in the form of fictional letters.
- Narrative in the form of a fictional novel first draft – a novel within a novel.
- Narrative in the form of an autobiography.
- Narrative in the form of an interview transcript.
- Narrative in the form of spoken word.
I didn’t quite get this from the film, but I think each section is supposed to be real documents/records – very much harkening back to the 19th century style of writing fiction as fact. It is complete genius. Mitchell gets into the head of each character, creating wildly different personas: from the modest and likeable Adam Ewing to the narcissistic and delusional Robert Frobisher, gutsy Luisa Rey to pernickety Timothy Cavendish, and revolutionary Sonmi-451 to troubled Zachry. The variety of vibrant personalities, literally dozens of them, which are stacked into the novel is astonishing. The idea of each person being real beyond the confines of the novel, of their work really existing, is reinforced through their ripples into other stories; when Robert finds Adam’s journal, I almost believe it to be real. Tiny details like The Prophetess casually maintained in the background in San Francisco, 100 years after Adam travelled on it; or Timothy receiving a draft of The First Luisa Rey Mystery – it’s just brilliantly done.
If I had to suggest a criticism for the novel, which would not be easily done, it’d be that some of these connections between characters are rather superficial. The connections between characters are signified by the comet birthmark, and occasional déja vu, but otherwise the reincarnation aspect is a little flimsy (more on that later). One of the ideas that most attracted me to the film was the idea of characters’ influences rippling through time to impact the lives of future people, to inspire revolutions, etc. This is not the case with the novel. Adam’s Pacific Voyage can only loosely really have a direct impact upon Luisa, or Sonmi’s revolution, and has no literal impact whatsoever upon Zachry on the ‘Ha-Why’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are far subtler links, such as, going back to Adam, his rescue from Henry’s poisoning coming when they reach Hawaii; after The Fall, one of the final refuges of civilisation is on the same island. Oh! And, in the dystopia, Hawaii is where fabricants are told they’ll go for ‘exultation’. Hawaii symbolises salvation. I have only this moment realised that – another testament to the layers upon layers of depth this novel has. Though, the fact that Hawaii falls to barbarianism at the end of chapter 6 suggests salvation does not truly exist. Gosh, analysing this novel is fun.
Adding to that idea, the novel’s greatest links are thematic in nature. The theme of conflict between the weak and strong, “the weak are meat, the strong do eat“, recurs again and again (The Maori invasion of the Moriori, Henry’s poisoning of Adam, Vivyan’s power over Robert, the power of corpocracy to subjugate a population first seen in 1973 and again in Neo-Seoul, Timothy’s incarceration in the Aurora House and then, back to savagery, the cannibal Kona terrorising Hawaii). Belief also permeates through the pages: at the beginning, Christianity is being spread throughout the globe as ancient Polynesian religions in the Pacific are wiped out; by the far future Christianity is a long-lost myth nobody can remember, and has been replaced by a belief in Sonmi and other Gods. This is chronologically foreshadowed when The Prophetess stops at the island of Raiatea, and the theory is given that all religions will eventually fail. After doing some research, I was also alerted to the theme of ascent and descent: both Adam and Zachry begin their journeys after climbing a mountain; Autua earns a place on the The Prophetess after climbing the sails; Robert falls in love after climbing a tower with Eva, and his downfall occurs progressively after he returns to the ground; both Luisa and Sonmi experience a great fall whilst travelling in a Ford, which indicates the beginning of violence in their stories; Felix inch is killed by Dermot by being thrown off a building; the process of awakening within Frabricants is called ‘ascension’, and Sonmi must literally ascend an elevator to escape from Papa Song’s; and the collapse of civilisation is termed ‘The Fall’. Humanity is a species on a rollercoaster, the book seems to scream.
The brilliant characters, backstories and historical settings Mitchell creates are aided by his mastery over language. Each of the six stories are written differently: the Pacific Journal is written very archaically, as would be expected for the 19th century, with great circumlocutions and vast descriptions, making this a literary analyst’s goldmine. Robert’s letters are much swifter, often using sentenced excluding pronouncs and beginning with verbs (so, stuff like: “Thought I’d go down to the shops. Didn’t like them one bit. Found Vivyan intolerable when I returned) which is a realistic way for someone to write informal letters. Robert also writes using much musical imagery and with many exaggerations, creating a clear personality for the character. Half Lives is written in the present tense and, as Timothy comments, is divided into small, serialised chapters, making this a very distinct genre and allowing the action to be swift. Timothy’s autobiographical writing moves to and fro between the present and the past, making references to the reader here and there as he goes. Sonmi’s story is told in interview format, which is a neat way of allowing small details to be explained and also of determining society’s attitudes through comments the interviewer makes. Language begins to change here, with ‘ex’ always becoming ‘x’ – so, ‘xcitement’ and ‘xcercise’ – and finally, by Zachry’s time, it’s just gone mad. I commented on the future dialect in the movie, which was bravely kept in, but the novel was staggeringly well-developed on this front, with a good 80 pages written in it. To quote a random example:
“Yay, but what’d we do? My thinkin’ was stormin’n’fearing’. The Valleys is raided’n’burning’, prob’ly … an’ if Hilo ain’t fallen yet, it’ll fall soon…
My friend jus’ tended my wounds’n’hurtin’s with bandagin’s’n’stuff then raised a cup’n’med’sun stone to my lips. This’ll help fix your busted body, Zachry. Shut up your yibberin’ an’ sleep now.”
You can’t fail to be awed by the level of detail in this. Typing that, it’s incredibly difficult even to transcribe, let alone create and write consistently for 80 pages. I still maintain this is Cloud Atlas‘ finest feature.
The central idea of Cloud Atlas appears to be reincarnation, though this is only symbolic at most. Mitchell explained:
“Literally all of the main characters, except one [Zachry], are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
(shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)
I very much like this explanation, though it doesn’t immediately come across from watching the film. I think it would be futile to examine the progression of the birthmarked character through the novel, because any connections would be purely accidental on Mitchell’s part. As he explains, the reincarnation is simply a loose device to make his case for human nature’s consistency throughout the ages. It is interesting to compare the film’s take to the novel, which had a very deliberately different interpretation. Reincarnation was signified by the recurring actors, so it would go: Henry => hotel clerk => Isaac => Dermot => an actor for Timothy => Zachry; slave => Jocasta => Luisa => Meronym; Hugo Weaving always played the villain; etc. And the transition of the soul would go along the lines of: Tom Hank’s characters begin misguided and villainous, but redemption begins with Isaac’s betrayal at Swannekke and he ends as a hero; Halle Berry’s characters begin powerless, first as a slave and then a Jew fleeing persecution, but through Luisa she challenges men’s sexist views on women and, by the time of Meronym, has the most power of any character. I think this is quite a weak and flimsy interpretation of reincarnation, personally, as what the filmmakers chose to do was limited by the source material. An ambitious effort, certainly.
Finally, despite the film being very loyal to the novel, there are some quite large differences. Large sections on the Moriori backstory were cut and the themes of religion; Eva was cut and, in the novel, Robert never shoots Vivyan, quite largely changing the story; Sonmi’s story is highly changed, as she spends a covertly educating herself at a university and it is eventually revealed that Union was a conspiracy by the corpocracy to destroy any public support for abolitionism; and Catkin doesn’t escape Hawaii in the novel. I can understand why each of these decisions were made in scripting the film, and wouldn’t criticise any of them.
Overall, Cloud Atlas has to be one of the best books I have ever read. It tops my list of books read in 2013, currently numbering 9 (though, in fairness, the Twilight saga takes up 4 of them). I feel compelled to read more of David Mitchell’s books, though few libraries seem to have them, annoyingly. And I see he’s writing another novel now about the ‘stuff between life and death’, which sounds very promising indeed.
Final rating (if I had to give one): 10/10