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Cloud Atlas at 20: What makes a novel tattoo-worthy?

Cloud Atlas at 20: What makes a novel tattoo-worthy?

Pity the writer who believes they have written the next Cloud Atlas! A literary agent once told me that when a fledgling writer compares their novel to David Mitchell’s, he invariably knows it will be awful. Once you have written a book like Cloud Atlas, you have not written Cloud Atlas because Cloud Atlas is not like anything.

When the novel was published in 2004, critics compared it to everything. AS Byatt in the Guardian invokes Herman Melville, Raymond Chandler, Martin Amis, George Orwell and Ursula K Le Guin among others. Tom Bissell in the New York Times adds to the mix Cervantes, Defoe, Isherwood, William S Burroughs, and, in a last paragraph twist, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Theo Tait of the Telegraph writes in a rare negative review that “Cloud Atlas spends half its time wanting to be The Simpsons and the other half the Bible.” This line is funny more than apt, but had I read it at the time, it would have sold the book to me.

For fun, I’ll add Orlando, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mitchell’s previous novels, and Italo Calvino’s metafictional masterpiece, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Mitchell read Calvino’s novel at university, and said he sees Cloud Atlas as “in conversation” with Calvino, who, in turn, saw his work as “clearly” influenced by Vladimir Nabokov. Of course, this is how fiction works – time-travelling conversations between introverts who mostly will never meet.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller features a sequence of intercalary first chapters, from novels of different genres, with narratives that interrupt at the climax. Cloud Atlas is like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller but doubled, reversed and with greater resolution: an answer to Calvino’s prompt. Like Mitchell, I read it at university, and while I see its DNA in retrospect, I didn’t think of it even once when I read Cloud Atlas almost 20 years ago. To the point, it doesn’t matter what references Mitchell is making, or what associations a reader finds in the text. The point is the way Cloud Atlas triggers memories of prior reading experiences. A reader of Cloud Atlas is asked to bring the experience of every other thing they have read.

Cloud Atlas’s six main characters are connected by a comet-shaped birthmark, which may or may not be evidence that they are reincarnated versions of each other. Chapter four’s Timothy Cavendish dismisses the notion as “far too hippie-druggy-new age”. And yet, I believe these characters, who are of different times, genders, races and circumstances, can be the same person because they come from the same person, the novelist who wrote them. If humans contain Whitman’s multitudes, novels also have the possibility to contain multitudes, and they should.

I would have once described Cloud Atlas as a book about storytelling, but now I see it more precisely as a story of language and the way it evolves. As a reader, I take no pains to avoid spoilers, and the first time I read Cloud Atlas, I had already been told its structure. I envy a reader who comes to this novel blank now, if such a person even exists. The reader who doesn’t know if she will ever read the end of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing when it breaks off mid-sentence. I imagine them yelling, Curse you, David Mitchell! You can’t do this! Will Ewing die at sea? And who the hell is Robert Frobisher? Part of the delight of Cloud Atlas comes from solving it. The reader is enlisted as a detective in a textual mystery: what connects Ewing to Frobisher to Luisa Rey etc?

“Russian doll” is the term most often used to describe the novel’s nested structure, but that suggests one of the narratives is the largest, and each subsequent narrative takes up progressively less space. In Cloud Atlas, all narratives are equally important. The novel is less like a Russian doll than a chain of paper dolls who are holding hands across unequally spaced wormholes, and who, at any moment, might be folded back into a stack.

In discussing Cloud Atlas, a reader may be pushed into revealing their favourite section. I resist this question, though I’ll concede that the character I relate to the most is composer/amanuensis Frobisher, with his mix of grand ambition and humbling obscurity: “I don’t say I’m a composer because I can no longer face the Moronic Inquisition: ‘What kind of music do you write?’; ‘Oh, should I have heard of you?’; ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’” I don’t know if there’s a novelist (or artist) on the planet who won’t recognise such an interrogation. However, the place I feel the strongest melancholy is during Cavendish’s chapters. It isn’t because of Cavendish, a delightfully poetic vulgarian, but because it is in the Cavendish section that we receive proof that the characters we’ve loved are fictions. “Luisa Rey” is revealed to be a manuscript submission that Cavendish is reading, and if that is true, all associated with Luisa Rey are not real – the sudden deaths of Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith, my heart! There should be a word for “the melancholy that comes from learning that which is in a novel is fictional”.

Of course, the way readers address such melancholy is through cosplay, reader art, fan fiction and scholarship. Cloud Atlas has inspired all of these in great quantity. It is a response that one might expect to a bestselling fantasy series, a video game, or the unveiling of a Taylor Swift album; rarely a literary novel. When I reread the book recently, I wondered how many readers had got a tattoo of the comet birthmark. A perfunctory Google revealed an impressive half-dozen, but there must be even more, unsearchable, unphotographed, waiting to be sprung on a lover. It begs the question, what makes a novel tattoo-worthy? What makes a person want to make a literary reference on their body for ever, or at least as long as one’s flesh lasts? It is the desire to make a fictional thing real in the world, and this only happens when a book is beloved in a particular way.

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It occurs to me that I haven’t yet said what the book is about, but maybe that’s because I think it’s beside the point. (Timothy Cavendish again: “As if Art is the What, not the How!”) But here goes. Six characters, who live in different time periods, might be reincarnated versions of each other. Their circumstances and forms change, but they play out the same conflicts. Sometimes, they do a little better; sometimes, a little worse. The book’s themes include, but are not limited to, corporate greed, abuse of power, climate change, colonialism, plastic surgery, AI, literary success and failure, revolution, propaganda, credit and collaboration, appropriation, racism, adaptation, technology, ageism and gender. Mitchell has said the novel is about “predacity and predation” and “individuals preying on groups”, and, while this is undeniable, I don’t think that’s why people sign up for the tattoo.

Let us briefly return to our fledgling novelist who has clumsily compared their book to Cloud Atlas. At times, I have been that novelist, at least in my own head, and I feel I can speak for us. We don’t compare ourselves to Cloud Atlas because we necessarily think we’ve written Cloud Atlas. It is because Mitchell is the kind of writer we want to be, and Cloud Atlas is the kind of book we want to write. It represents the possibilities for fiction – that there are new stories and new ways to tell them, that there will be readers for these new stories if only we can manage to be as brilliant as Mitchell. Cloud Atlas is tricky and metafictional, but it is also hopeful and filled with love. It is a book about the unexpected ways in which we are connected, but it’s clear-eyed about human nature. It is breathtakingly inventive every time I read it. It probably shouldn’t work. It is the kind of book that makes a novelist attempt to write books that probably shouldn’t work.

Source: theguardian.com