According to Ted Gioia at The New Canon, the structure of Cloud Atlas is palindromic. “The five opening sections each represent the opening of a tale that will be concluded, in reverse order, by the five final sections of the book.” Schematically, the structure looks like this:
I (.5) – II (.5) – III (.5) – IV (.5) – V (.5) – VI (1) – V (.5) – IV (.5) – III (.5) – II (.5) – I (.5)
Cloud Atlas starts with the first half of “The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing” circa the 1850s and ends, several hundred pages later, with the last half of his journals, still in the 1850s, for a total of six novellas. “Sloosha’s Crossing,” the narrative centerpiece, represented here by VI, is the only novella that’s not spliced and diced. So while the story starts with Adam and ends with Adam, its temporal arc cuminates in the middle of the novel circa an unknown date in a post-apocalyptic future. Regarding the structure of Cloud Atlas, I agree with Gioia that it’s palindromic, but only superficially so, that is, only at the level of chapter headings. They can be read left to right, or right to left. It doesn’t matter. Their order stays the same. But the story itself isn’t palindromic. It means something read in one direction that it doesn’t mean in the other. A question intrudes, which Mitchell anticipates with a meta-fictional flourish in “The Letters from Zedelghem,” Why this bizarre structure? Is it revolutionary or gimmicky? Like droplets of moisture in a cloud, ideas are swirling, mingling, and crystallizing in my mind, and I’m eager as hell to share them tomorrow. Stay tuned.