“…now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.”
Can books make you cry, just from the sheer, exasperating and paralysing realisation that everything you’ve ever felt or wanted to say has already been articulated by a mind far greater than your own? Oh David Mitchell, if only I could gobble up your mind and devour your knowledge; your smooth references to philosophers and scientists, your gift for intertwining narratives in a single, perfect whole. Yes, your story is a multitude of drops in an ocean of economic and brilliant prose. I despair.
I’m not going to attempt to unpack Mitchell. I won’t go into his references, his dystopia, his Nietzsche, his Darwin, his cut-throat but gentle incisive handling of humanity. The book is about a series of inter-related stories. We start in the 19th Century, with a lawyer named Adam Ewing who is in the process of traversing the Pacific. His diary is read by Robert Frobisher, the tempestuous, disillusioned composer who wheedles his way into the home of a musical genius, then sleeps with his wife. Frobisher’s great work, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, is a metaphor for the book itself, and his lover, Sixsmith, is a key player in the next narrative – a fictional thriller delving into the findings of journalist, Luisa Rey.
Luisa’s story is followed by Timothy Cavendish – the delightful publisher who accidentally gets trapped in a retirement home. The tale of Timothy is watched by Sonmi-451, a clone from the future, who relates her story of ‘ascension’ – the acquiring of knowledge and intelligence and defiance of her enslavement. Sonmi is a god to Zachry, a delightful storyteller who exists after the fall of the civilised world, living in the Pacific islands, and playing host to a wise visitor. Zachry’s narrative is wonderful – with made-up words and delightful sing-song prose. The book ends with this: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” What indeed?
Power, powerlessness, agency, paralysis, enlightenment, disillusionment, Derrida’s deconstruction, reconstruction, inheritance, loss, flux, flow, fizzle and burn. Each tale ends and begins again in another tale, a delicious continuation that has a completion as satisfying as its start. “What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”