Time as a tool, not as a couch

Cloud Atlas

It's easy to praise Cloud Atlas: partly because so many others have; partly because it's so good. But you wonder how it came about: if short stories don't sell, is this a way of selling short stories? Unite them with a theme, as Arabian Nights does. That's a set of short stories with a concept, and in its time it's sold rather well. So, take a central conceit—a nested set of tales, each told by a character in another—and apply it to any anthology you like. You can fiddle with chronology, throw in a few arch cross-references, that sort of thing: but don't fix what isn't broken. EVen if you haven't improved the narratives, you've at least made a literary splash (potentially) and improved your chances of publishing a bankable product.

It's easy to disparage Cloud Atlas: partly because everyone else has gushed over it; partly because of its clever-clever premise. But you marvel at the diligence of that premise: each story contains the story in which it's being told, and although that thread seems tenuous at first, it gradually gains strength as the book proceeds. One story's character in some way—transmigration?—embodies the essence of someone in the containing story, which sounds weak but is in itself no more than something to hang a complex interplay of empathy and internal conflict off. Odd coincidences of name and inversions of cause and effect accumulate, as chronologically earlier stories remain unfinished for a time, drawing the reader in.

It's easy to read Cloud Atlas: partly because each short story is so well written; partly because all six work so well as a whole. But you worry at times that it might all collapse: the weight of form, briefly, threatens to squeeze the life out of the whole project. Then, at its heaviest, the form turns out to be so finely counterbalanced that instead it starts to pull on the flywheel of the readers engagement, running him faster and faster as each tale, on closing, retroactively polishes and perfects the others which had dependent on it. The preponderance of first-person narration n(an old trick) is the one hint that Mitchell had to pull out all the stops to pitch Cloud Atlas at the volume he wanted. But however hard he's worked to bring it about, ultimately for the reader it's all just so easy.