What I love about this novel is - well, one thing I love about this novel - how the line between what seems real and unreal is constantly destabilized and shifted, so that everything ends up seeming hyper-real and shimmery, like a dream or a strong memory, at the same time. Good god, I can't talk about this book! I won't even try to write a "proper" review of it. It makes me feel like my brain and heart are both going to explode, in the way only perfect, once in a lifetime books can. Instead, here's an interchange between my cyberspatial friend Kevin and me. I think what we say raises as many, if not more, questions than it can possibly begin to answer about Cloud Atlas. This is apropos, I think; Mitchell's work opens things up in a way literature should.
As you will see, all the good stuff below is Kevin's.
KEVIN:God, I love this book and I love what happens to people the first time they read it. It's like we're reminded of how perfectly magical literature can be...No, I have no perspective on this novel. It is probably my favourite novel of all time; no, it is. I suspected so, but this re-read has simply confirmed.
Dear C, know how you form a hunch about a book, its structure, theme, and purpose, only to have your hunch change as you read, or even after you finish the book entire, months or years later?
Well, here's my hunch about Cloud Atlas. Tentative as it may be.
It's largely plotless by art and design because that's the best way for Mitchell to establish his primary theme, which I take— my idea's tentative! — to be this: Something there is that eternally recurs.
In the fullness of time, language, culture, and even the biosphere change, like so many ever-shifting, white-to-gray-to-pink cumulus, cirrus, and stratus clouds, yada yada yada.
But something there is that stays the same, namely, a desire for autonomy, identity, and self-understanding. Think Somni ascending!
Because we're weak, paltry yearning wills, we cleave to the experiences of others, their letters (Frobisher), stories (Cavendish), interviews (Somni-451), and oral yarnin' (Sloshin').
What better way to show eternal recurrence at play than by creating mighty gaps in the temporal and narrative arc of a plotless novel?
Without these negative spaces, how could one yarn about that which doesn't change?
That's Mitchell's genius in Cloud Atlas, I think.
Anyhow, I'm not entirely satisfied with what I've said. After all, there is a plot of sorts, in the very loose sense that the motives and actions of characters in one story influence the motives and actions of characters in another.
Without Sixsmith and Bill Smoke, there's no Fall.
Without Sonmi-451, there's no Zach'ry the goatherd invoking a mythology to puzzle over it all.
I like what you've said, a lot.
I've been trying to get at something similar but I keep being distracted by/inspired by Mitchell's references, flagged and otherwise, to other books. He mentions, for example, Orwell and Huxley in Sonmi but Bradbury and Zamyatin and Miller, Jr. and Wyndham are there too. And I'm sure he wants us to see them! For me, this is somehow connected to how every narrative that seems "real" is questioned, overtly or otherwise - Ewing's journal seems inauthentic to Frobisher; Frobisher's letters change Luisa's view of Sixsmith; Luisa's narrative seems like hackwork to Timothy; Timothy's life is a film for Sonmi; and Sonmi is Zach'ry's sacred text!
I didn't notice the first time I read this novel how very similar Adam's diary is to Zach'ry's tale - just from different perspectives - the pacifist tribe at the mercy of their martial and ruthless brothers, and what's at stake.
I think we're both right, in other words, and that you articulated what I was seeing through textuality what you're seeing through the metaphysical - but the thing is - they're not separate!
By the by, your point about inter-textuality and the "real" and "authentic" just now reminded me of a lovely expression that Zach'ry uses in a conversation with Meronym about the Hole World and our place in it, something like the "true true is diff'rent to the seemin' true."
CA is quickly becoming one of my all time favorite novels...
What does one read after Cloud Atlas? I can't even imagine, right now.