The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Cloud Atlas
 by David Mitchell.
Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In adopting the term “conceptual fiction” to describe a body of
modern writing—which I have done in more than fifty essays
and reviews to date—I have aimed to draw attention to an area
of experimentation in contemporary storytelling that is
still poorly understood.

These works of conceptual fiction
cut through the great divides in
criticism: divides between high-
brow and lowbrow, genre and
mainstream, popular and literary.
They represent the fruition of a
quasi-hidden alternative tradition
in modern writing, with its own
genealogy and masterworks. As
such, they deserve—but rarely
receive—a response from critics
and scholars that is sensitive to
this larger framework.

These works have their deepest roots in the often despised—
but more often merely neglected or patronized—science
fiction and fantasy books of the middle of the 20th century.
This alone explains much of the incoherent response to this
tradition, which treats half of the defining books as hack work,
and bows down before the others—
Márquez, McCarthy,
Saramago, Rushdie, Auster, Murakami, etc.—but only after
isolating them (safe from contamination) in a different section
of the library. Yet this is only part of the richness and
complexity of the conceptual fiction tradition: an even longer
lineage can be constructed, back to
Verne and Wells in the
nineteenth century, even further to Swift’s
Gulliver Travels,
Thomas More's
Utopia, and eventually to the earliest stirrings
of conceptual fiction in myths and folktales. In short, the
tinkering with conceptions of reality and delight in the
fanciful—key qualities of these works—are as old as
storytelling itself.

David Mitchell’s
Cloud Atlas is almost a textbook example of
how this tradition is enlivening contemporary fiction—all the
more vital because it manages to be bold and experimental
without destroying the key elements of narrative structure,
character development and linguistic comprehensibility that
earlier progressive movements often ignored at their own
peril. The power of a book such as
Cloud Atlas is amplified
because its higher level complexities don’t require the ground
floor level of the story be burnt, pillaged and destroyed.
Instead of trying to keep up with the Pynchons and Gaddises,
who only live in the penthouse, Mitchell occupies the whole
building, even the boiler room and broom closet.

On its simplest level,
Cloud Atlas is a set of six sharply
contrasting stories, each one capable of standing alone as a
complete tale, but only revealing its full resonance when
viewed in the context of the total work. The stories cover a
wide range of territory, writing styles and psychological
perspectives. We find here a travel journal of a pious and
gullible 19th century notary; an epistolary novella about a
morally bankrupt young composer from the 1930s; a pulp
fiction conspiracy tale set during the Gerald Ford
administration; a comic tale of a vanity publisher who finds
himself confined against his wishes in a home for the aged; a
sci-fi story, in Q&A format, about clones working in an
underground fast food restaurant; and an account of tribal
warfare in a post-apocalyptic island society.

The structure of the novel is palindromic. The five opening
sections each represent the opening of a tale that will be
concluded, in reverse order, by the five final sections of the
book. This same form is adopted by the composer Robert
Frobisher, the protagonist of the epistolary novella, who
describes it as follows:

“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room reworking my
year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano,
clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language
of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted
by its successor; in the second, each interruption is
recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't
know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.”

This composition is called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” and the
passage above might seem to unlock the meaning of the title of
Mitchell’s novel. Yet the concept of a “cloud atlas” appears
elsewhere—for example, as a symbolic representation of the
transmigration of souls—or in a rare recording of Frobisher’s
composition that figures as a plot elements in a separate story.
The multivalent meaning of this one element is an example of
the many prefigurings and reverberations that give depth and
suchness to this ambitious novel.

As a result, the linkages between the six narratives are
difficult, perhaps impossible, to summarize. But let me
propose a (Philip K.) Dicksian way of approaching this
interconnectivity. Imagine that the defining stories of our lives
not rooted in reality, as many critics assume, but in other
stories. This may seem a radical notion, but upon reflection,
you can see that this is simply another way of expressing the
lineages of fiction described above—or, for that matter,  most
oral / aural storytelling traditions. In this instance, the
connection is made explicit in Michell’s narratives for
“overlapping soloists.” Each of the five half-tales that open his
novel serves as a plot element in the succeeding story, and
usually in a surprising way.

We have thus entered the world of the “meta-narrative,” where
stories build their house of cards within the framework of
other stories. Yet, in a marked departure from the way such
meta-narratives are typically constructed—i.e., flamboyantly
with the author’s presence constantly felt—Mitchell remains
hidden from view throughout
Cloud Atlas. The writing style of
each of the sections is perfectly matched to the tale, with even
the flaws of the genre mimicked with perfect fidelity. The
novelist is clearly dealing the cards, and playing them
brilliantly, but he is about as hard to second-guess as those
poker champions on TV, with their wraparound sunglasses,
floppy hats and other accessories designed to maintain a face
of mystery to all onlookers.

On top of this intriguing structure, Mitchell superimposes
echoes of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. You may
recall that this odd and seemingly implausible philosophical
concept proposes a universe that does not advance
chronologically, but merely repeats itself, over and over again.
This cyclical concept of history does not presuppose any
theistic doctrines, but can be made congruent with a belief in
reincarnation. Mitchell clearly draws on this metaphysical
angle, and sets in motion story elements that imply that the
characters in his six tales may be reincarnations of each other.

Of course, none of this is presented in the blunt, point-by-
point way that I have just outlined it. Mitchell works his
changes subtly, and even at his most philosophical, he “clouds”
his points in a fog of ambiguity. He is, after all, a storyteller
and not a theoretician, and the narrative is never dislodged by
the higher order meanings. They merely float above the
action. After a lifetime of reading novels that proclaim their
“message” in heavy-handed ways, I found this immersion in
the loosely defined and amorphous to be one of the most
endearing aspects of Mitchell’s extraordinary novel.

Then again, that might be just what one
should expect from a
cloud atlas.
The New Canon
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Great Books Guide
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