Is narrative linear?
We all know that we tell a story in a linear fashion – “begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop”-but isn’t the linearity imposed by us? Isn’t history a multitude of narratives taking place simultaneously, like a multi-piece orchestra?
And what about the narrator? Is the external narrative same as the internal one? Is the story paramount, or the teller? What would be Wuthering Heights
, say, if narrated by Heathcliff?
Writers and filmmakers across generations have struggled with these questions. Many of the gifted have tried to break free from the linearity that the story form imposes upon the teller. Most have succeeded to a greater or lesser degree.
I would rank David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
among one of the great successes.
is packet of six nested narratives, rather like one of those Chinese dolls nested inside one another or (for the mathematically minded) a series of nested functions in a computer program. Each of the stories adopts a different tone of voice, purposefully parodying established literary forms. Thus, the first story is written as a journal, rather like Robinson Crusoe: the second is in epistolary format: the third is a pulp thriller: the fourth, a partially dystopian novelette full of black humour: the fifth is an out-and-out SF story and sixth, a story of the far future dystopia with its own language, rather like A Clockwork Orange
. The second story starts in the middle of the first, the third in the middle of the second and so on till we reach the sixth, which is told at a stretch; once that finishes, we are again taken “out” through the stories in reverse order, from fifth to first.
The narratives are all linked, and they are progressive in time. The linkage is tenuous initially, but in the second half of the broken stories, the previous story has become all important to the protagonist of that one. Each of the earlier narratives is “read” by the protagonist of the subsequent one, and the author purposefully inserts a question mark on the authenticity, perhaps to stress the unreality of the fictional universe we are inhabiting – rather like the alienation techniques of avant-garde filmmakers and playwrights. While getting caught up in each story, we are reminded continuously that this is the narrative of a flawed human being like ourselves – and the narrator might be unreliable.
I will not dissect the stories in detail. Better reviewers than me have analysed the novel in detail on this site and elsewhere, and have explored the historical context of the novel in depth. Rather, I will concentrate on the overarching themes that run as a common thread through the connected narratives, and the structure of the book in general.
Man’s endless cupidity and greed, and the part it has played in human “progress”, can be seen as the underlying theme. In The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
, the Western powers are in the nascent phases of their ruthless domination of the “savage” world; the so-called “White Man’s Burden” to “civilise” the Earth. In Half-lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
, we can see the corporate behemoth this mission has given rise to – a juggernaut that crushes everything that stands in the path of its insatiable greed. In An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451
, we are introduced to the future dystopia that is the ultimate result of the consumptive nightmare of our times, and one clone’s fight against the faceless corporate. In Sloosha’s Crossing’an’ Ev’rythin’ After
, we see the ultimate result of our greed: a future society not very different from the ones of the Maori and Moriori in the first novella, where the strong enslave and plunder the weak and the rule of fang and claw hold sway.
But there is hope even in this bleak landscape: for the mythical ancestress of the Valleysmen is none other than Sonmi~451, the renegade clone from the previous novella. When her interrogator asks why she became a willing scapegoat, she answers:To Corpocracy, to Unanimity, to the Ministry of the Testaments, to the Juche and to the Chairman, I quote Seneca’s warning to Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.
This is the fire that carries the revolutionary forward, from Prometheus via Spartacus right down to Che Guavera and Suu Kyi: the promise of a golden tomorrow. And even though in a way unanticipated by her, the image of Sonmi and the recorded interview has become a sort of rallying cry for the downtrodden Valleysmen.
As Adam Ewing, protagonist of the first novella, says (as he replies to the imagined taunt of his father-in-law that “…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?
And it is one this standalone note that this strange book ends, like the Cloud Atlas
sextet written by Robert Frobisher, the doomed protagonist of the second story. It should be noted that this particular novella stands out from the rest, as it is different in tone and content from the others. Here there is no establishment trampling upon the individual, rather it is the tale of an outsider, an individual who would find any system oppressive. This rather unlikeable person has the gift of art inside him, which allows him to endure the torture of mundane human existence, which is the only thing he can share with lesser individuals like us.
The shifting kaleidoscope of clouds creating their own eternal yet ephemeral dance formations in the sky of human existence – and the artist, working like a mad cartographer, to create for us an atlas of the clouds.