I have been looking at this book for years: I’ve read the back cover, added it to my lists of books to read, and yet never picked it up. In mid-December, though, it came up in conversation and I found myself vowing with two friends that it would be the next book I read. Cloud Atlas became my companion for two weekend trips on planes, my Christmas break and the first ten days into the new year–so needless to say, its 500 pages and nesting-doll style of six interwoven stories has messed up the number of books I usually finish in the winter. But. This is the kind of story that left me thinking about so much that I hardly know how to approach it in a space like this, much like last year’s winter read of Kaftka on the Shore. Both deserve a seminar class.
To give a bit of context, the novel is made up of six interwoven stories that are cut off mid way through and then continue as though mirrored to their conclusions. Interestingly, each story becomes a text of sorts in the next story as they progress from the 1800s all the way through a post-apocalyptic future: one is a journal that someone in the next story discovers, one is a set of letters that the character in the next story discovers, etc. Each narrative set has its own style and allusions to various kinds of narratives: mystery, romance, fantasy, epic, etc. David Mitchell explores the seemingly unchanging nature of humans and our up and down patterns both individually and corporately throughout time. I wish that I had a professor to tell me to be on the look out for such things while I was reading–because now I feel like it deserves a reread to truly study what Mitchell was up to.
What I am left thinking the most about though, is a comment I found in The Guardian while researching after I finished the book. The author noticed–and what Mitchell surely implied– is that as the reader makes her way through the narrative of time, that storytelling survives science and that if anything can save us, it’s narrative.
If anything can save us, it’s narrative.
The final piece of text starts as it began with a journal from an 1800s traveler, Adam Ewing, whom after witnessing the way that humans enslave one another in a myriad of ways, dedicated his newly-saved life to fighting against it. The Guardian columnist Hephzibah Anderson summarized Ewing’s musings by saying: “If by believing the wrong story we can bring about the worst, who knows what we can achieve by believing a good story?”