James Joyce once wrote to a friend that the thought of Ulysses is simple; it’s only the method that’s complex. Much the same could be said of David Mitchell’s extraordinary novel Cloud Atlas), which borrows from Joyce metaphors of reincarnation and a deep commitment to the idea that linguistic style is a way of envisioning and understanding the world. And also like Joyce’s masterpiece, Mitchell’s book has at its heart a simple and straightforward idea: a lamentation for the suffering we inflict on one another, especially when we inflict it in the name of some social identity that separates us from others whom we place lower on the Great Chain of Being. Sunt lacrimae rerum, one of the characters in Cloud Atlas writes at the end of his life, borrowing from Virgil: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts” (Robert Fitzgerald’s free but elegant version). For all his metafictional gamesmanship, Mitchell is, I think, trying to produce a few of those tears.
To be sure, Mitchell’s book is much more accessible than Joyce’s: he weaves together multiple narratives, each with its own distinctive style, but each narrative is eminently readable, and the small knots that connect them cleverly tied. Someone once said of Tom Stoppard’s plays, and this was not a compliment, that they make the viewer feel more intelligent, and Cloud Atlas may do that as well: there are many moments when I felt a sudden surge of delight when I made a connection between stories. But what’s wrong with feeling a sudden surge of delight at aesthetic discovery? And the pleasure of finding and unraveling the knots may actually make the reader’s heart a little more vulnerable to the moments of pathos. And properly so.
Though I do wonder if in the end Cloud Atlas may (as Joyce said of Ulysses) “suffer from an excess of design.” Everything fits together so neatly, and while there is great pleasure in noting the neatness of the weave, I think it may be true that the books that stay with us most profoundly are the ones that have some of the rough-edgedness and imperfect execution of our own best-laid plans. Books that are as flawed as we are, books whose reach exceeds their grasp. It will be interesting to find out, five or ten years from now, which book is stronger in my memory, Cloud Atlas or Infinite Jest.