A Look at Literature Via Cloud Atlas

In his novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell makes some creative moves in connecting his barely connected stories.  The novel is one of the most self-aware books I’ve ever read.  Mitchell introduces the idea that his characters may be reincarnated versions of each other, but before that idea is even allowed to germinate, he has one of his characters call that literary move ridiculous.  He writes some stories to be a little far-fetched, and then has other characters read them as just that, far-fetched.  By the time you’re halfway through the book, it really isn’t clear whether or not the stories are supposed to be real, even from a perspective inside the book (I mean, obviously Mitchell wrote it all in the first place).

It seems to me that the reality and truth of the stories is at once both utterly insignificant and of the utmost importance.  On one hand, I think one of the points of the novel is that even in a fictional story there will be elements of truth.  Even through slivers of truth, people from different worlds and times can connect.  Right, ok, that’s the point of the book, great.  But I also think that it’s incredibly important that part of the stories are true.  For the players inside of them it certainly matters that they are true.  In our own lives it is everything to know that the places we go, the things we see, and the people we connect with are real.  It is no different for the characters inside the book.

Take Sixsmith, for example.  His letters from Frobisher are extremely important to him.  From the perspective of Luisa Rey, or Timothy Cavendish, reading about the entire experience, it doesn’t really matter if Frobisher was a real person or not.  But for Sixsmith that is everything.  And for everything else, it at least becomes something.

In the end, then, I think that maybe what we are left with is the realization that even that which may seem contrived is on some level real.  David Mitchell obviously wrote some things from his own life into Cloud Atlas, if only the places that he has lived.  We, as readers, are still seeing a bit of something real that matters to a real person.  This is the biggest defense of literature that I can offer.  Literature may all be stories that don’t tell us hard facts about the real world, that don’t give us the sort of truth or practicality that hard science affords.  But in every piece of writing there is something real.  Sometimes discerning fact from fiction is important.  Other times both are equally valid.  What matters is that either way, something of the truth makes its way through.


~ by ethanbdixius on March 2, 2014.

One Response to “A Look at Literature Via Cloud Atlas”

  1. As an engineering major, your defense of literature is very poetic in its simplicity. Although literature doesn’t provide us with the next world changing theory or problem solving technique, it provides a real human connection that is so vital to preserving humanity.

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