Once upon a time there was a truly excellent novel which ultimately became considered a masterpiece of world literature. It was written by Italo Calvino, and it was called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… Each chapter of the book is actually the opening of ten different novels, and around those ten sections there is a frame of you, the unwitting reader, who discovers that each that due to some circumstance no longer has the actual book they desired but only a fragment of it, wherein you then go off to find its other pieces. What makes this book a masterpiece is the way all the pieces come together to make a connected whole – while the reader in the frame seems to feel cheated by his experience, you on the other hand see how it all comes together, and therein lies the magic of the story.
I read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… almost twenty years ago, and largely it has stayed with me. Much of Calvino has stayed with me, so much so that I enjoyed hunting him and his effects on the popular zeitgeist (it is much stronger than one would think). It did not have to get far into Cloud Atlas for me to say to myself “Ok, this guy is trying to pull a Calvino”. David Mitchell, unfortunately, did not manage to do it nearly as well as Calvino.
Cloud Atlas is six put together as one would a nesting doll. Each narrative is cleaved in half and another narrative is inserted into its center. Stories make reference to one another, but in something of a passing, superficial way. Individually, all the stories are well wrought, well told, captivating, and held together by a similar narrative thread.
There was a moment where the story broke for me, and that was where we discover that Luisa Rey is just a fictional character for Timothy Cavendish. That broke the spell a bit for me. But all the ties in this story felt a bit weak. I spent an unreasonable amount of time thinking about how the pieces fit up and down the metanarrative chain. If Luisa is fictional, does that mean that Robert Frobisher and Adam Ewing are as well? But somehow Timothy Cavendish feels just as weakly placed later in Sonmi’s slivers of the novel enough so for me to wonder if he was fictional or real. At some point I realized that the question was moot: so little of the Cavendish story was relevant to the later sections that it didn’t really matter if there was relevancy. Thus, little of the collected parts felt satisfying as any kind of a whole. What I ended up being left with was six individual stories, and myself showing a lot of favoritism to certain ones. The emotions I felt from the others just weren’t carrying over from story to story, and I wasn’t sure how much I cared once we got back to Enwig (I am, after all, a sci-fi guy). This happened to such an extent that I felt like the climax of the book happened 100 pages or so before it should have.