In “The Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher, a charming rogue and musical genius, comments on the bizarre structure of his Cloud Atlas Sextet, asking whether it’s revolutionary or gimmicky. Hapless Pisces that I am, I’ve risen to Mitchell’s deftly angled fly. The structure of Cloud Atlas allows Mitchell to do two things, or I should say at least two things: one is interesting meh; the other, incredible, astonishing, mind-blowing. Add superlative of choice. By having the chronology of the story end in the middle of the book, Mitchell reinforces the theme of temporal non-linearity or eternal recurrence. The will to power isn’t subject to time. It’s eternally active and is equally present in the 1850s (when Ewing is writing his journal), the 1930s (when Frobisher is composing his Cloud Atlas Sextet), the 1970s (when investigative journalist Luisa Rey is exposing Seaboard), the 2000s (when Cavendish is penning his memoirs), as it is now in 2010, and beyond. Because the will to power is eternally active, it has no beginning, middle, or end. It’s ageless. Which is why, in part, Mitchell cleverly “ends” the narrative in the 1850s, where it “began.” This is a hip, cool post-modern maneuver, to be sure, but it’s hardly revolutionary. Wacky timelines abound. What is revolutionary is constructing a novel with TWO endings: a chronological ending (in the middle) and a narrative ending (at the end) on page 528. By diverging the storyline and timeline in this way, Mitchell creates two lines-of-sight that produce a unique parallax effect. We perceive two things at once, as happens in the morning when your eyes, still goofy from sleep, cross in the shower, magically doubling the label on the shampoo bottle. On the one hand, we see how Mitchell’s fictional story ends—dystopia gives way to societal collapse and a post-apocalyptic future. On the other, we see ourselves at the present moment—we’re readers of a story, a collective story, that has an uncertain future. We don’t know how history will unfold. Which is why we face a profound choice. Enter: Mitchell’s modified version of Pascal’s wager.
If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is brought into being…. If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peacably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.
The glory of Mitchell’s aesthetic achievement is that he adroitly frames a narrative that “starts” an extra-fictional reality when Cloud Atlas “ends,” namely, a reader who, anxious, worried, and not a little terrified by the state of the world, begins to wonder about the kind of history he wants to help write. How will you manifest your will to power? That’s Mitchell’s genius in Cloud Atlas.