Ever read a book and think, “Yeah, this is okay, but I wish it also involved an 18th century journal about a sea voyage, confessional letters of an aspiring composer, a comedy about a man escaping a retirement home, an Orwellian dystopia, and a post-apocalyptic journey to uncover secrets about an unknown past”?
This is the single most impressive novel I’ve ever read primarily because one of things I love most about writers is when they have more than one voice. Edgar Allan Poe is great, but he’s not known for being funny. He’s very good at what he does, but he’s limited in what he focuses on, which is why if I ask a bunch of people to describe his writing, they’ll probably all come up with similar ideas. In contrast, one of Shakespeare’s obvious talents is his ability to write tragedies, histories, comedies, and romances with equal skill. Authors like Shakespeare seem to be more than a single person, and each of these people has a unique style and set of ideas. And Mitchell is more people than anyone else I know of who’s writing today.
Mitchell is more people than anyone else I know of who’s writing today. Most of his novels are composed of novellas that, while they all tie together, often focus on a variety of characters in a variety of circumstances. In Ghostwritten, his first novel, we meet an old Chinese woman affected by the rise of Communism, a member of a Japanese cult, a supernatural entity able to possess people, a theoretical physicist, a radio host in New York City, and more.
That’s a great novel. But Cloud Atlas is light-years beyond it.
Mitchell is a historical writer. I don’t mean he writes about a particular period – rather, when you read his stories, they feel gigantic in scope. They span continents and generations. The conflicts are historical in scope, so that humanity as a whole almost functions as a character. In Cloud Atlas, we see the intense journeys of five different people separated by centuries. But their stories reflect the real protagonist of the story, which is society as a whole. We see civilization change and decay until we are left in the ruins of the grand and imposing world we are introduced to at the outset. We even see language change, as words like “extra” become “xtra” in the fast-paced not-too-distant-future, while a language with an wholly different rhythm evolves in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the final section. Of course, you could also argue that society stays the same throughout by pointing out similar themes, conflicts, etc. But that’s part of what makes the novel so great – it invites you to think about people and the world in terms of deep time, in eons instead of days or weeks. It is a story that is as engaging on the microscopic level as it is on the macroscopic.
Giving a summary of Cloud Atlas is impossible and would do you a disservice. However, I will say that this is an ingeniously constructed novel that combines a staggering number of genres that are each compelling while still forming a greater whole. I obviously recommend reading all his novels, and one of the best parts of reading them is that the only thing they have in common is that they’re all different.
This is a truly original novel that offers a unique experience in contemporary literature.
So go read it. Now.