Can a book change your view of the world? It turns out that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I read last August, did precisely that.
No work of fiction has affected me as much as this one has. For reasons that you will soon see, I now stand in awe of what before was mundane, amazed at the infinite grandeur that underlies even the most humdrum activities of everyday life.
Before I get into why that is the case, let me first give an introduction. Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the winner of several literary awards. It is divided into eleven sections, consisting of five bifurcated stories surrounding a central one like Russian matroyshka dolls. Here is a brief outline of these stories:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: The "outermost" story, it tells the tale of an American notary (Adam Ewing) from gold rush San Francisco, returning home across the Pacific Ocean. It is set in 1849
Letters from Zedelghem: This story, set in 1931, consists of a series of letters from a "broke" young musician (Robert Frobisher) in Belgium, working as an amanuensis for a famous composer.
Half-Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery: Set in 1975, this story is written in the style of a mystery novel, and tells of a journalist (Louisa Rey) trying to "out" a conspiracy by a nuclear power plant.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This humorous section tells of a present-day elderly publisher (Timothy Cavendish) who ends up accidentally imprisoned in a rest home.
An Orison of Sonmi~451: Set in a futuristic Korea, this story consists of a fabricant (Sonmi~451) who rebels against a corporate dystopia.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After: The middle story, the only one not to be interrupted, tells of a far-future Hawaii (after "the Fall"), a young man's (Zachry's) confrontations with a devil-figure, and his encounters with member of civilization's last remnants.
Though the book is composed of six separate stories, it gradually becomes clear that they form a larger, unified, all-encompassing tale. This story has its own plot-line, its own themes and motifs, and continuous character progression across the six protagonists. However, at least in the first half, this plot-line is not a happy one. It begins simply, with naïveté and innocence on the behalf of Adam Ewing, but as the stories progress, it becomes clear that things are getting much worse. Through corporate conspiracy, abuse of the elderly, and totalitarian oppression, the first half of Cloud Atlas tells the story of a world that is consumed (and ultimately destroyed) by its own greed, egoism, and prejudice.
The middle story depicts a world that has fallen apart. Civilization has vanished, as with technology and medicine, and even the English language has devolved into a bizarre pidgin. There seems be no hope. To make things worse, a devil figure named Ol' Georgie constantly tempts Zachry to do selfish and prejudiced things, especially against a newly arrived member of a technologically-advanced civilization. But, in each case, he resists. This is the tipping point, the moment at which selflessness begins to triumph over egoism, and when hope starts to glimmer in the darkness of despair. In fact, from Sloosha's Crossin' on, these characters' stories begin to get better and better.
But hang on! How does that work? How can character progression happen reverse-chronologically? Well, the book itself addresses this point. Meronym, the technologically-advanced woman whom Zachry is tempted to harm, tells Zachry that souls don't exist, and that "when you die you die an' there ain't no comin' back". But then, to the audience of his story, he says this:
"Jus' that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o' time, Abbess'd say, like clouds crossin' the skies o' the world. Sonmi's the east'n' the west, Sonmi's the map an' the edges o' the map an' b'yonder the edges."
"I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o' that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east and' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."
These two quotations, in tandem, are the most important passage in the novel. Not only does it explain the book's title, but here we learn that the progression of a soul isn't bounded by time or place, but can continue wherever and whenever. In fact, this lesson becomes very apparent in the second half. For when we return to Sonmi's tale, she makes progress against the tyrannic "corpocracy" of futuristic Korea, but ultimately fails. But at the end of that section, just as she is about to be executed, she says something fascinating:
"No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor"
She implies that her fight against tyranny is not yet over, but will continue indefinitely As a matter of fact, it does, with none other than Timothy Cavendish taking up the mantle. You see, despite the fact that it happened in the relative past, I saw his escape from the abusive nursing home as a direct continuation of Sonmi's rebellion, an extension of her story. In a very real sense, Sonmi lives on in Mr. Cavendish, giving closure to her seemingly fruitless struggle. In fact, this fight continues on even further in the past, with Louisa Rey's outing of the nuclear conspiracy that had threatened her life as yet another manifestation of this timeless war.
But, in the second to last story, something tragic happens. Robert Frobisher, out of despair, commits suicide, dimming our hopes that his story will reach any satisfying conclusion. But he offers this observation to us, just before he pulls the trigger:
"We do not stay dead long."
And he does not, for on the very next page both Frobisher and the novel resume their stories. You see, Adam Ewing, like previous characters, is a direct continuation of Robert Frobisher's tale, meaning that whatever sadness Zedelghem brought us is made up for in this trans-oceanic voyage. This happens in a very interesting way: Ewing is being treated by a certain Dr. Henry Goose for what he believes is a brain parasite. But in reality, this doctor is poisoning him so as to obtain his possessions. Only a few pages from the end of the novel, Adam seemingly ends his journal, overcome by illness; it is all but certain, given no intervention, that he will perish. But he doesn't! Autua, a stowaway slave whom Ewing helped obtain passage, returns the favor, rescues him from Dr. Goose, and delivers him to actual medicinal care. The implications of this act are immense. It means that selflessness has finally defeated egoism. But it also means that Frobisher's life did not end in vain, as evidenced by the following quotation:
"Autua insists that had I not prevented him from being tossed overboard as a stowaway he could not have saved me & so, in a sense, it is not Autua who has preserved my life but myself."
So, in the end, good triumphs over evil, and Frobisher continues on. A truly happy conclusion to a fantastic novel. But there is yet another passage, the novel's last, which has amazing implications. He decides to go the South to help with the abolitionist movement, and imagines his father-in-law's response to such news:
"'You'll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!'
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
What does this mean, you may ask? Absolutely everything. Are we ultimately insignificant? Are our actions just "one drop in a limitless ocean"? Cloud Atlas ultimately answers with a resounding no. The gospel of this work is nothing less than an emphatic exclamation of the following: you are important, and everything you do matters. For this book is about the self. The self does not end at the boundaries of the skin, as most people think it does, as it continues in all directions, both across space and infinitely into the future and past.
There is only one main character in Cloud Atlas. From Adam Ewing to Zachry, and all in between, they all share the same being, the same story, and the same soul. Anything that happens to one of them can be said to happen to all of them, and at any given point in the novel you can say that they are all there. I actually believe that this is true of us, as well. Everyone that we encounter, whether meeting them in our day-to-day lives or reading about them in history, is an extension of us. All stories are our story.