Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, well… It’s not your typical novel, which is why it’s no surprise that it led to an atypical film from some atypical directing siblings.

Written as a series of 6 stories nestled within each other, Matryoshka doll style, Mitchell starts us out in 1849 in the South Pacific reading the first half of Adam Ewing’s journal; introduces us to the talented young composer Robert Frobisher in 1936; follows tenacious reporter Luisa Rey around 1973 San Francisco; recounts the 2012 captivity of publisher Timothy Cavendish in an old folks home; builds the fascinating Neo Seoul of 2144, in which a genetically cloned fabricant Sonmi-451 leaves the safety of her fast food home for the world of the purebloods; and takes us all the way to 2321, where, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, we encounter the tribesman, Zachary. And then, once Mitchell takes us to the peak of this roller coaster, giving us the entire serving of Zachary’s journey with the Prescient, he sends us shooting back down, revisiting each story again in reverse chronological order, picking up from where he left off. Each story opens and reaches a midpoint and then is abruptly interrupted by the next story. The only plot told in one full serving is that of Zachary and the Prescient he leads up the mountain, as this is the point of view the entire book is being told from. At the conclusion of Zachary’s tale the other stories are closed out in the opposite sequence they were opened in, as we come crashing down the pyramid of stories we climbed.

Mitchell’s enormous task is a wonder to behold simply as a mammoth writing exercise – as he shifts his tone from 19th century naval diary to swooning epistolary meditation to taught conspiracy thriller to cheeky prison farce to dystopian adventure and finally to the post-apocalyptic journey of two people who speak in a futuristic dialect (and, good god, as he walks it all back). The diversity of Mitchell’s writing is astounding and, yes, endlessly entertaining. There’s something for everyone here.

It is, admittedly, not the simplest story to follow, even piece by piece, let alone as a whole, but it ties together rewardingly. The shifts in genre undergird an overall interconnectedness that is stunning. In each story, one of our characters is reading about or interacting with someone from the previous tale. Robert Frobisher is reading Ewing’s journal, Frobisher’s lover Rufus Sixsmith, now quite aged, meets Luisa Rey, and on and on. All the protagonists share a specific shooting star-like birthmark that is seen in all six stories. It appears as if a single soul is being born again and again, traveling throughout time. Even as Mitchell gives each of those times an exceedingly different voice, they all focus in on similar themes of how the oppressed struggle and fight for what they believe is right no matter how futile the situation seems. In each story, our birth marked soul must make the choice to be different from the thing they are expected to be, struggling against the norm, to achieve some personal goal, to prove themselves, or just to be free from enslavement because the station at which they were born.

It’s a lot to process. It’s cacophonous chaos or deeply resonant chaos, a beautiful masterpiece or a dysfunctional mess. I tend to come down in the former camp, admiring Cloud Atlas for its ambition and the message that ambition serves. Three other admirers in my camp, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, focused their ambition into a big screen spectacle, released in 2012. Their vision of Mitchell’s universe is easily one of my favorites films (being one of the few I actually own). If you’re going to take on Mitchell’s possibly insane literary high wire act, you’ve got to engage in some backflips of your own, and the directors don’t disappoint. Actors were cast not for a single role for multiple roles that spanned each of the film’s six timeframes. It takes the books notion of reincarnation to the next level, making it feel like not just one soul traverses time but that every soul is reborn and again and again.

As an adherent of Mitchell’s overall vision, I personally couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. However, for those not familiar with the stories going into the film, there is the potential (okay, the near certainty) for confusion. While it begins going up the pyramid of stories like the book, it quickly does diverges from this linear pattern, skipping around so that all the stories are being told at once. They dance in and out of each other based not on timestamp, like in the book, but feeling and thematic connection, and together, all six climax feverishly and resolve simultaneously. Occasionally, some of the logic gets lost in the transitions, but it makes for a much more exciting cinematic experience than what a literal translation would need to do: cycle through six long conclusions one after another, as a series of episodes.

The Wachowskis’ and Tykver’s vision is, from where I’m sitting, a humanist masterpiece of an interpretation; know this: Cloud Atlas the novel is absolutely worth its time commitment as well. Yes, its format may be a bit frustrating, especially when the story you’ve been following is abruptly interrupted for hundreds of pages. In mid-sentence to boot! Put that frustration aside, or better yet, embrace it as part of the artistic experience. David Mitchell’s skill and range as an artist are vast, and one of the tools he’s leveraging is the crash of one story giving way suddenly to another and the tingle of anticipation as you approach that long abandoned story thread once again. If you fall in love with Ewing or Frobisher or Cavendish, the distance makes the heart grow fonder, especially when the distance points to them being but one player in a centuries spanning epic. As Ewing says at the conclusion of 1849 journal, even though he is the only character who knows nothing of any of his other selves: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Cloud Atlas makes you fall in love with the drops, but it also makes you reckon with the multitude.