By Catherine McClelland
There has always been literature and pulp: Tolstoy vs. James Patterson, Dante vs. Danielle Steele and perhaps Oprah’s book club balanced precariously somewhere in the middle. Each side of the great literary divide takes a certain pride in disparaging the other. Shakespeare is dismissed as stuffy. The bestseller shelves are slammed for trashiness.
Neither academia nor the pulp authors seem interested in bridging the divide, and in the age of mega-publishing it seems neither are the booksellers. David Mitchell’s 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas” aims to change that.
In the tradition of Shakespeare, “Cloud Atlas” aims to be entertainment as well as art. Mitchell plays in all sorts of genres—the novel’s six stories span a southern-seas drama, a scenic ars poetica,a conspiracy thriller, an absurdist adventure, a sci-fi dystopia and a post-apocalyptic story.
Rather than being boxed in by the conventions he uses, Mitchell always introduces a twist to break the genres’clichés. During an interview with the Paris Review he explained how he experiments with writing genre fiction as literary art: “When something is two-dimensional, here’s how to fix it: Identify an improbable opposite and mix it plausibly [into the story].”
What results is fiction that feels both familiar and strange. Every time the reader anticipates the plot, a surprise is around the corner. The characters are full of individual quirks but also come together into a coherent portrait of humankind. Mitchell’s strongest talent is his flair for writing memorable voices, slipping into a different vocabulary in every novella so that each protagonist stays in the reader’s head days after putting the book down. Every page is a testament to the author’s artistic bravado—and not only that, it’s clever, exciting and genuinely funny.
The novel’s most surprising element is its unorthodox structure. Each of the six novellas is split in half to form a frame around the following story. Mitchell chooses to structure the story like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Each novella is cut off in the middle of the action and the next one begins immediately. After the sixth, unbroken novella, the novel returns to finish the fifth novella, then the fourth, so that the whole novel is structured symmetrically.
To balance this structure, the six stories are interconnected. The musician protagonist of the second novella reads the seafarer’s diary of the first novella. The musician’s letters are then read by the journalist Luisa Rey in the mystery-thriller novella, which becomes a manuscript submitted in the fourth novella to publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose autobiography is turned into a film that the prisoner of the fifth novella requests to watch after her interrogation, with the interrogation’s footage found by the members of the final novella.
Each of the six stories deals with a different constellation of themes, but the novel’s common thread is power and suffering. The novel is full of seemingly disconnected characters—gunslingers, pirates, scientists, assassins, homosexuals, slaves and musicians—who unite to tell us about ourselves, how humankind never changes from generation to generation and how the world can be startlingly beautiful even in its saddest moments.