I finished re-reading Cloud Atlas this afternoon. This time, instead of reading the book
straight through, I read both parts of each story before moving on to the next one. Cloud Atlas is divided into six separate stories, and each story is divided into two halves. The structure of the book looks like this:
Adam = “The Journals of Adam Ewing”
Zed. = “Letters from Zedelghem”
Luisa = “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”
Tim = “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”
Sonmi = “An Orison of Sonmi-451”
Sloosha’s = “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After”
You end up moving forward in time, from Adam to Sloosha’s, and then back in time from Sloosha’s to Adam again. Thus, while Sloosha’s is the chronological end of Cloud Atlas, it occupies the center point or fulcrum of the book itself.
The fancy word for a structure like this is a chiasm. It’s an unusual way to tell a story, but Mitchell gets a lot of mileage out of it by having a character in one story discover the previous/next story in the sequence. For example, Robert Frobisher, the protagonist in “Letters from Zedelghem,” finds the first half of “The Journals of Adam Ewing” (i.e. the part of the book you have just read) in the house where he’s staying; and in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” Luisa finds a pack of Frobisher’s letters in her story.
As intriguing as the nested-stories conceit is, it does have a serious downside: If you read the book straight through, as I did on my first read, there will be a lot of time between finishing the first half of “The Journals of Adam Ewing” or “Letters from Zedelghem” and starting the second half. I basically didn’t remember who Adam Ewing is or what his deal was when I got to the end of the Cloud Atlas.
When I read through the novel chronologically (all of “Adam,” then all of “Zedelghem,” then all of “Luisa,” etc.), I appreciated each story as an individual story more, because I still had the beginning in my head when I got to the end. At the same time, though, I think I lost some appreciation (or at least awareness) of how the stories overlap and interconnect.
I do think, though, that the reincarnation/repetition theme is one of the weaker parts of Cloud Atlas. And judging by the trailers, that seems to have become one of the dominant themes in the movie.