Cloud Atlas (2004), by David Mitchell, is a stellar composition that illustrates the interconnectivity of humanity through all time periods and ages. It is a book written for all readers, lovers of all genres, and, simply put, it is a masterpiece.
A brief summation: Cloud Atlas is comprised of six short stories, each a different genre from the next, and taking place in either the past, the present, or the future. The first story is written as journal entries detailing the adventures of an American anthropologist during the mid-1800s. The second story, written as a series of letters addressed to his lover back home, is about an aspiring musician’s stay with his role model, a once great and revered composer, who is dying in the early 1930s. The third story is written as a crime novel circa the 1970s, wherein a young journalist, anxious for her big break, risks life and limb getting the scoop on a greedy corporation’s newest nuclear power plant, which will likely wipe out one-third of California. The fourth story is a memoir told in the style of a quirky British comedy, about an old man living in 2004 England who, through one set of hijinks or another, ends up trapped in an old folks’ home. The fifth story reads like a Philip K. Dick-esque sci-fi drama, and is a final confession recorded by a former A.I. slave in the near/distant future when corporations rule the world. Finally, the sixth story is told by an old man in the far, far distant future, telling his children a story from younger days when a mysterious woman came to visit his homeland and how they barely escaped with their lives. Mitchell expertly develops distinct personalities, settings, and language which quickly immerse the reader in the multiple worlds of the characters.
The catch: Although each of the six stories has the ability to be a stand-alone short published in an anthology of the author’s works, no story in Cloud Atlas could exist without the existence of the other stories. This is where Mitchell’s genius shines. Halfway through reading the journal entries of the 19th century anthropologist, it ends. Abruptly. The second story begins immediately afterward, and it is in the letters that the musician reveals he has found 40 pages of a torn journal written by a 19th century anthropologist, exactly what the reader has just read. Again, the second story ends halfway through the telling, immediately followed by the third story, in which the main character meets the musician’s lover and reads the letters. Again and again this happens, stories cut in half and then referenced in the following story, until the ultimate sixth story is told beginning to end. This then transitions to the second half of the fifth story, which then transitions to the fourth, creating a domino effect until the first story is finally finished.
In this way, placing stories inside one another, Mitchell illustrates how humanity is connected through generations and across space and time. No one would know about the journal entries had the musician not discovered them, and no one would know about his letters had the journalist not read them. Even the sixth story, though it is told in its entirety, could not have been told had characters from the previous story not existed.
I recommend Cloud Atlas to all kinds of readers. Literary and philosophical types will especially appreciate the techniques used and messages being conveyed, but all readers can enjoy the different genres and how they seamlessly fit together. A New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Cloud Atlas is absolutely a novel worth reading. Though please, try to read the book before the seeing the film.