“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor, in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?”
This is how Robert Frobisher, the main character in Letters from Zedelghem section of Cloud Atlas described his latest composition. But it’s also the description of the structure of Cloud Atlas itself, which contains six stories, two set in the past, two set in the present, and two set in the future. And yes, each story is presented in different style of writing, or genre, if you prefer that term (“its own language of key, scale and color”) – 19th century fiction, science fiction, post-apocalyptic narrative, airport thriller etc etc. Each story is presented about halfway through, where it is then interrupted by the next story, and so on, until we reach the sixth story, which is presented in full. The sequence is 123456-654321. Is it revolutionary or gimmicky? I don’t know, but I do know that re-reading the book in a different way as six separate stories recently (i.e. reading each story from start to finish, before moving on to the next story), with the exception of the Luisa Rey Mystery (the airport thriller), the stories held up remarkably well as interesting piece of fiction, even without the complicated structure.
There are some drawbacks to reading them as six separate stories – for one, if I had read it like this the first time around, I would have been denied the pleasure of being extremely shocked when Frobisher (his story is the second one in the book) casually revealed a HUGE plot spoiler from the first story, which the reader is ignorant of because they have not read the second half of the first story at this point. Or Timothy Cavendish foreshadowing the climax of An Orison of Sonmi451 when he yelled out “Soylent Green is people”. In the end it’s probably neither revolutionary nor gimmicky. The structure made it a more pleasurable read, but the individual stories stand up on their own just as well.
I’ve read two different types of criticism about David Mitchell putting the quoted paragraph in Cloud Atlas. The first criticism is that he’s being condescending to the readers, i.e. he thinks we’re not smart enough to figure out the structure of the book on our own, so he’s telling us what it is, disguised as a musical composition. I don’t really buy this criticism, from reading his interviews, Mitchell doesn’t strike me as someone who underestimates or looks down on his readers. The second type of criticism is that he’s being too clever by half, that it’s all a big post-modern wink. Could be true – he got his MA on Postmodern Fiction after all – but so what? It’s still a good book, and if the author wants to amuse himself a bit, I won’t begrudge him that.