Cloud Atlas: on suspense and structure

Cloud Atlas: on suspense and structure

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Donna Bowman: The salient feature of Cloud Atlas is, of course, its structure. What a wonderful moment, in the penultimate segment, when Robert Frobisher mentions in passing the structure of his composition-in-progress, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, where each section ends in mid-phrase and is taken up again, in reverse order, after the piece has crested its peak! We readers certainly recognized the way the stories are nested within each other long before that point, but there’s a shocking clarity to Frobisher's concise explanation.  (And I'm so glad the book did not end where he anticipated the Sextet would—with a horrible off-key bleat of despair.)

For readers as well as listeners, the breaking-off of the narrative creates suspense in two senses. Literally, the story we are reading is suspended. It stops and hangs unfulfilled. After the first section of seagoing diary entries, the suspension is in mid-sentence. (I read Cloud Atlas in its rather poorly converted Kindle edition, which features much missing end-punctuation and erratic spacing, and I wondered upon reaching that point if it represented another and more serious corruption of the text introduced in the digitization process.)

That suspension, in turn, creates suspense. Not only is the story left hanging, but we are as well. We want to know what happened. For me, the sheerest cliffhanger was Luisa Rey's car hitting the water after having been driven off the bridge. And that's at least as much because of the genre of that section—detective novels feature a lot of suspense—as my investment in the storyline. Interestingly, when the stories picked back up in the back half, I was most easily pulled back into the Somni story, which I would have ranked as my second-most-suspenseful after its first section, and I found Half-Lives one of the slowest to pick up steam upon its return.

How did the five suspended stories work for you as engines of suspense?  Which ones sucked you into their narrative drive in their first halves, second halves, or both, and how did the suspensions affect your resonance with their rhythms?

Leonard Pierce: I didn't expect much suspense or narrative tension going into Cloud Atlas; I didn't know too much about David Mitchell's work when I started, but I had anticipated it being more or less a straightforward bit of modern literary fiction combined with some genre elements.  So I was surprised, and pleased, at how well it strung together its various narrative threads.  (Now that I’ve read more of his books, I shouldn't have been surprised; it’s actually one of his greatest strengths, and he seems to be quite aware of that.)

It's hard to maintain that sort of strength in a work of literary fiction, since they're generally about tone, mood, and character rather than plot, but what's so interesting about Mitchell is how he manages to adeptly keep the story threads in mid-air while still maintaining a satisfying literary quality. In his masterful book on “writerly reading,” S/Z, Roland Barthes identifies five textural codes in which meaning is created within a text; the title refers to how he uses Honoré de Balzac's Sarassine as his sample story to teach this way of reading because it so skillfully combines them all. But reading through Cloud Atlas, I thought it would work just as well as a modern example of what Barthes was trying to teach.

Donna, when you talk about the literal suspension of narrative that creates an intangible sense of suspense in the reader, you're talking about what Barthes called the proairetic code, the process of describing actions in the text that move it forward. This quality is present in both hackwork (soap operas and pulp fiction are notorious for it) and in the best narrative fiction; what they share is the ability to create an almost tangible need in the reader to see the loop completed, the action realized, the circle closed.  Mitchell does a great job of this while still giving us characters, emotions, and situations that appeal to our desire for more than just action, and that's a rare skill in a writer.

Like you, I found the second half of “An Orison of Somni-451” the most compelling; the first part of “The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish” was the best beginning; and overall, I thought “Half-Lives:  The First Luisa Rey Mystery” was the most successful in toto.  Strangely enough, “Sloosha's Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,” as I discussed in my post, was the section I loved most, even though I didn't find it particularly suspenseful or possessed of a masterful narrative; in that one, my tendency to value tone over all won out. But for such a structurally complex book, Cloud Atlas surprised me time and again with its tightness.

Ellen Wernecke: This isn't my first time through Cloud Atlas, but I still remember the shock of that first cut—from “The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing” (whose story I found, if not dull, at least a little aimless) to Robert Frobisher in 1931. For that reason, I'm glad I went into it cold, with absolutely no sense of the structure and the leaps to come, although that may not be possible for most readers.

I thought “Half-Lives” was the most successful in hooking readers back in, but I think in some ways, that story made it the easiest to stay hanging. In thrillers, we're used to jumping from, say, the hero being thrown duct-taped into the trunk to the dusty attic containing the proof he's been seeking for his massive conspiracy; we buy into a certain amount of non-linearity with the revelation of different sides of the story. I think I expected less and was pleasantly surprised by “The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish” precisely because I was annoyed at being torn away from the impending nuclear disaster of Buenas Yerbas.

That said, my favorite section is “Letters From Zedelgem,” whose suspense engine runs not on what is trying to be found out, but what is trying to stay hidden. The opening section sets Frobisher's stakes for him; disowned but still pursued, he travels in a cloak of humility that ill suits him, and he flaunts his power over the Ayres household to such an extent that it seems his getting caught is inevitable. (Sleeping with one's host's wife in the bedroom granted by one's host: They don't teach you that in finishing school.) When we were left hovering, I was simultaneously rooting for him and hoping for him to get caught—and when he finally gets himself into a corner, writing to Sixsmith “at least I've been a firework,” I was sorriest to see him go.

Tasha Robinson: I would love to know what David Mitchell's agent thought when first reading Cloud Atlas. Or for that matter, whoever first saw the book at a publishing house. Given how little I liked the opening “Pacific Journal” segment, I could easily see more than one publisher’s-house reader only making it through 30 pages or so of this book and then rejecting the novel as lacking a sympathetic character or a strong opening or a noticeably developing narrative—and putting it down without ever realizing there was more to it. I came close myself.

So while the abrupt ending of that segment was startling, it was a huge relief for me, especially when the next segment proved immediately gripping. Then as each segment in turn ended, and I started feeling like the victim of a practical joke, I actually felt more suspense in the structure of the book itself than in any of the individual stories. Given the connections between the stories—another topic coming up later in the week—it seemed pretty clear that Cloud Atlas was somehow going to bring all the pieces together in some way, and I was more curious to see how that would play out, what exactly David Mitchell was trying to accomplish with all these fragments, than I was in finding out what happened to the individual characters. Especially since I didn’t care about Adam Ewing, and while Robert Frobisher hadn’t exactly reached a stopping point in his life, he’d reached a more stable one by the time his story cut, and Timothy Cavendish appeared to have gotten a savage comeuppance that read to me like a perfectly acceptable story ending. And we know from the beginning of Somni-451’s story what happens to her. I suspected we might see these characters again, but while I enjoyed most of their stories, they didn’t leave me on the edge of my seat with worry.

The exception was “The First Luisa Rey Mystery”—the only story where I really felt there had to be more, that there was no way Mitchell would leave us hanging with his hero having just apparently died. (If not for the title, I might have suspected it was just a very bleak, Silkwood-like story. But it isn’t “The First And Last Luisa Rey Mystery,” after all.) As I mentioned yesterday, I think the fact that it’s the one third-person narrative is meant to twig us to the fact that it’s the only “fictional” story, and I similarly think its neatness and relative conventionality is a key here—this story has a clear-cut hero and a set of villains to a degree that none of the others do. The action is larger than life and maybe even a bit overboard—the bad guys are essentially attempting to irradiate a city for money. (“Somni-451” and “Sloosha” have equally large stakes, but the villains are nameless, faceless forces of greed and ambition instead of specific men killing people.) There’s a reason it’s the tensest story—it’s the only one where good faces off against evil in a battle where the stakes are clear, the combatants are all identified and present, and we’re given a clear-cut list of things that have to be done for the battle to be won. I think it’s pretty telling that it’s also the novel’s only “fictional” story—and pretty tragic. It's as though Mitchell is saying that the rules are only ever this clear in the comforting, distracting fantasies we tell ourselves, and that's the only place where the good guys really do definitively win.

Zack Handlen: I used to have this problem whenever I read anything where, if I didn't completely get what was going on in a story, I would disconnect and give up. I'm not saying I had to be able to predict the ending; I mean more that if I didn't have a grasp of why things were the way they were in the most general sense, I would assume I would never make the correct connections, and I'd tune out. This is not a very smart way to read books, because some of the best novels are the ones that require you to have a certain amount of patience. Some books, yes, if you don't get the groove early in, it's not worth pushing forward (like, with Tom Clancy novels, once I understood I don't give a crap about reading tech manuals filled with Mary Sues, I was able to let go guilt free), but I'm glad that I've gotten better at trusting the author, and myself, to eventually make their point. 

I can't imagine myself having the patience for Cloud Atlas otherwise. Like Tasha, I found the opening section fairly interminable. The voice was fine, but there was no hook to the story, as the narrator wasn't that interesting, and there was nothing to really distinguish his story from a dozen other similar narratives I've encountered. (Which, for the life of me, I can't remember well enough to name. I realize Mitchell is going for pastiche here, and his ability to pass between formats is enjoyable, but on its own, that first section was painfully slow, and I didn't really get emotionally invested until its conclusion at the end of the novel.) Because I knew there was trickery afoot, however, I pushed onward, and the book became increasingly compelling as it went along. I was very impressed by Mitchell's ability to make each individual section stand apart from the others; even if I didn't like the opening, by the end it at least formed a cohesive, even moving arc that combined well with the other parts, but could hold up reasonably well on its own. 

The same is true the Henry James-light "Letters" and all the rest. Mitchell clearly set himself up some rules as to how his game was going to work (and it does feel like a game, doesn't it? Or else some marvelous circus act), and that he succeeded in sticking to those rules, or at least what we know of them, is impressive in and of itself. I'm glad we had that finale that brought everything home, because I needed some sense of relevance behind all the trickery, but even without that, I was delighted by his craftmanship and control. Again, though, I didn't really like it when Mitchell broke in with more direct commentary on how the sections were connected. The section Donna describes was a little disappointing to me, because after all the obvious trust I've placed in Mitchell, it was sad to find that he hadn't placed a similar amount of trust in me as a reader to piece it together. The structure of the book is unusual, but it's not so vague that you can't unravel it for yourself, especially by that point, and to having it described so precisely killed the mood for me. I preferred Ewing's catharsis at the end, because it tied together the thematic underpinning of what I'd just read (the book's soul, as it were) without being nearly as explicit. That was the main suspense for me by the final pages--would the writer stick the landing? By and large, I believe he did.

Keith Phipps: Donna, as much as I loved this book, I have to echo Zack in rolling my eyes a bit when Frobisher described the scheme of his “Cloud Atlas,” especially when he commented he didn’t know if it was brilliant or a folly. Yeah, yeah. We get it. Also, you’re very clever. No need to remind us. Scott Tobias and I have talked about imposing a moratorium on the phrase “on the nose” but if it’s not in effect yet, I’d like to trot it out again for this occasion.

That said, I found the structure of the book and the way it interrupted narratives quite effective, even if I can’t say I got it at first. I didn’t flip ahead and—like Tasha, it seems—I assumed that the interrupted narratives were all we got at first. I don’t think I realized until thumbing around a bit while reading the Sonmi section that we would be getting the second half of the individual narratives later on. You know how in chapter-heading sections of Breaking The Waves, Lars Von Trier plays famous glam-rock songs, but cuts them off just before they get to the catchy parts? I thought it was like that. I knew roughly what each section was about and thought of it as one story marching from colonialism to a post-apocalyptic world.

Which had me thinking about the book in a different way, looking for ways the succeeding section picked up the thematic and narrative threads of what came before. And I don’t think that’s a bad way of looking at it, honestly. What connects these characters and their stories beneath the differences in literary language, genre, and setting? Have we invested too much in the notion of closure? Can a narrative without meaning have endings too?

Nonetheless, I was pretty happy to find that I would get to learn what happened to Frobisher, Ewing, etc. And I really appreciated the rhymes Mitchell found between each character's fate. Sonmi becomes a prophet and a martyr. Ewing vows to live a more moral life in spite of the discomfort and disapproval this means for him. Frobisher dies at his own hand, but manages a final act of creation. Luisa cheats a violent death and prevents an act of destruction. And so on. On the issue of suspense, I convinced myself at one point that I didn’t have to know what happens to these characters. But by the end of the book, I’d come to realize that, here at least, the endings mattered too.

Todd VanDerWerff: You've all touched on this to one degree or another, but what struck me the most while reading this novel is that the greatest amount of suspense I felt was whether David Mitchell would be able to pull all of this off. It's rather akin to going to see a guy juggle chainsaws lit afire with one puppy in the midst of all of it. You know enough of the world to realize that there's no way this guy would be performing this stunt if he wasn't 99.99 percent certain he'd be able to do it without harming himself or the puppy, but there's the morbid curiosity to see if he'll botch it in the end anyway. I felt roughly akin while reading this to the feeling I felt as some of the longer-running TV serials came to an end recently, where I felt as though the writers of Lost were the true protagonists of that show. When Ewing and Frobisher started pretty much stating the themes of Cloud Atlas up front, it should have bothered me, but it didn't. I felt as though Mitchell had earned himself a little spot to wave up at us and grin about how marvelous this trick he was pulling off was.

That said, the temptation of every trickster or every juggler is to pull aside random passersby and insist that they watch his latest show. I knew a kid in college who was a juggler and always fond of showing off his tricks, even when it was fairly clear that his audience just didn't care to see whatever his latest feat was. Mitchell has to avoid a similar fate here, and there are places where I almost set aside the book with a roll of my eyes, particularly when the Ewing section ended mid-sentence. (There's no way any writer ever will be able to top Samuel Delany's Dhalgren at that trick.) Unlike a lot of you, I did know where all of this was headed - oddly enough, I knew of it because of an article published on this very site that had gotten me interested in the book in the first place - so I had a rough idea that I would be returning to Luisa and Somni and the others. That made it easier to part with them at the moments of their peril.

If there's a section that could use more suspense, I guess, it's the Timothy Cavendish section, which I felt was a little labored at first before settling into a nice groove as Cavendish's journey grows more and more hellish the closer he gets to Hull. But Tasha is right that the payoff of his imprisonment is more than enough to make a good ending for the section, and I wasn't terribly excited to see him break out (although the section where he does was one of my favorites in the whole novel). At the same time, the literary comedy that Mitchell is aping here rarely needs heavy suspense, so maybe it's for the better that this section didn't end with Cavendish stumbling across a murder or something.

In the end, the best thing about Cloud Atlas is that it proves that Mitchell is a masterful trickster and a masterful writer. He's terrific at coming up with the sorts of compulsive, page-turning narratives that would fly off the shelves on their own, but he's also good at wedding them to a larger purpose. "Luisa Rey" occasionally reads like a John Grisham ripoff (intentionally), but it's also concerned with the novel's wider thematic frameworks. The greatest trick Mitchell pulls and the one that left me in the greatest suspense was the fact that he was able to elevate each story to a level it might not have attained on its own through simple proximity to the others.

Emily Withrow: Like Keith, it took me awhile to get curious enough to start thumbing through the novel, checking out the remaining section heads. I'd happily done away with Adam Ewing, but at the end of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery," I fell victim to what Tasha describes above—that can't be the end, I thought. She can't just go careening over the edge of a bridge into the water. So the suspense there cracked any will power I had left. I flipped to the back of the book and saw that it ended with our old pal Adam Ewing.

The suspension of these stories did create an effective level of suspense, though that suspense is somewhat intangible if you're not sure there's a conclusion. I admired, to the point where I spoiled it for myself, the guts of that interrupted and unfinished narrative. The frustration of those interruptions, though, were quickly forgotten by the time the next chapter picked up, when we had to brush off quickly the world of the previous story to jump into the new one. It was like flipping a channel at a commercial break, then getting so sucked in that you forget the cliffhanger of the previous show.

In the end, that's what was difficult for me. As enthralled as I was with the stories the first time around, that literal suspension created so much space and wonder between the first and second parts of each story that I had a much harder time jumping back into things in the last half of the book. (Trying to remember minor characters, I had to retrace my steps a few times. I couldn't remember that Tilda was Ewing's wife, for example.) So while the new voices and settings thrilled me during the lead up, everything after "Sloosha's Crossing" felt like settling in to a nice, neat package. I always enjoy the few moments after I close a book with a satisfying ending. Here, I did it several times over. Strange, but ultimately satisfying.