The Treatment of Time in Cloud Atlas
Warning: Some spoilers ahead from Cloud Atlas (the novel).
To call David Mitchell’s landmark novel Cloud Atlas an intriguing book does not even begin to describe it. Among many other characteristics, what makes the book unique are the six separate stories Mitchell nests together and the widely different genres the stories encompass, ranging from a journalistic travel narrative to a one-sided series of letters to a murder mystery to a futuristic interview.
For the first few sections of the book, the connection between these six stories seems tenuous at best. The second section, a series of letters sent in 1931 from a man named Robert Frobisher to his friend (and lover) Sixsmith, only once explicitly mentions the first section, part of a diary by Adam Ewing that chronicles his travels in the Pacific during the 1850s. As the narrative progresses, more connections between the characters and stories are revealed, but almost halfway through the novel, it’s still not entirely clear how they all relate to each other (and the sixth story has not even been introduced yet). However, a quick flip through the novel reveals that Mitchell begins telling all six stories from oldest to youngest historically speaking, then after the sixth story returns to the first five in reverse chronological order and (presumably) concludes each of them.
This arrangement makes it seem like the reader has comes full circle to end where he or she started: with the journal of Adam Ewing. Yet describing Cloud Atlas as ending where it starts makes it seem as if there is no narrative movement in the book, which is simply not true. After all, Mitchell takes readers through not one but six complete stories in just one book, the opposite of narrative stasis. In fact, many have seen Mitchell’s intertwining of the stories as a demonstration of how vastly different different people, places, and time periods can become connected, however nebulously.
While we like to think of time as linear, it still has certain cyclical characteristics. The title Cloud Atlas even simultaneously implies the transience and permanence of time: time always moves forward and we can never go back and recapture a moment, yet (as George Santayana observed) all too often we end up reiterating what has already been done in the past. History may not repeat itself precisely, but the past still echoes through to the present, a truth that Mitchell’s novel demonstrates through its complex interrelating of the six different stories. Obviously, without finishing the novel I can’t yet make a definitive conclusion about what Mitchell is trying to say about time through Cloud Atlas. But maybe that was Mitchell’s point: we may never know the exact nature of each of our connections to the past or to the future, except that it definitely exists.