Cloud Atlas: Text & Language

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a daunting book—well to be technical, it’s actually six books in one—well to be even more accurate, it’s dauntingly six different types of texts:

1) Journal of Adam Ewing
2) Letters from Robert Frobisher
3) Luisa Rey, which in the next segment we learn that is a yet-to-be-published novel
4) Timothy Cavendish, which then appears as a movie in the next segment
5) Sonmi 451, which is a record of an interrogation
6) Sloosha’s Crossin’, which Zachry presents as part of an oral history

You notice in this list that I hedge my text a bit—all of these narratives are written for us, yet to the characters they appear as discrete bits of different “texts”.  Luisa Rey’s story is presented to Cavendish as a unpublished novel, and in Sonmi’s world we see that Cavendish’s story is portrayed in film.

Among these six strands, we see the following trend:

       past —————–> present ————> future
hard copies ————> fictions——–> oral traditions

This in itself is fascinating as a commentary; as we ‘progress’ hard copies will disappear and we will again have to rely upon ‘traditional’ methods despite (or maybe because of) advanced technology.

Within each of the six narratives, the characters deal with textual interpretations of their own worlds, Frobisher’s reading of Ewing’s journal, the handling of the safety report in Luisa’s world, the inspiration that Sonmi takes from Cavendish’s plight, Zachry religious reaction to seeing a video of Sonmi…  This is perhaps most interesting in that narrative of Robert Forbisher, who finds and reads Ewing’s diaries, and reports on them to Sixsmith.  At the same time Frobisher is entrusted to the papers, notes and compositions of Vyvyan Ayrs, finishing, transcribing and adding to his works.  This then becomes a textual battle of sorts, as the two argue over the true authorship of the Cloud Atlas sextet, which of course is ironic when taken in context with the rest of the novel; six different narratives each of differing, sometimes dubious, authorships.

The previous paragraphs describe a more noticeable aspect of the novel, a progression through the narratives and some of the links between them.  An even larger scope and somewhat less obvious design is created by the use of language throughout the entire novel.

1) 1850s English
2) Refined English, early 20th-Century educated prose
3) 1970s Thriller novel
4) ‘current’ Comedic Screenplay
5) Science Fiction, about 100 years distant?
6) Post-Earth slang, about 200 years distant?

The trend here is that the middle parts of the novel are, linguistically speaking, the parts that Mitchell’s audience (us) most readily identify with and can read with ease.  The first and last parts are symmetrically removed from that middle, both in terms of time and language.  The casual reader would perhaps get the gist of both (eventually) but would invariably struggle with the details.

Ewing’s journal is full of erudite, Classical references with a vocabulary that was normal for it’s day, as Ewing wittingly-constructs words from Greek and Latin roots. Taking place on a Pacific Island, of course, makes it that much more foreign, adding a layer of location-specific vocabulary (names of tribes, landmarks, etc.) to an already dense lexicon.

Zachry’s narrative is just as dense and foreign, only now the reader feels it is the narrator’s lack of formal education that creates the linguistic difficulty.  Contrary to Ewing’s style, Zachry seems to be lopping the ends off of some words, running others together, eliminating vowels (cf. the spelling of his name).

                          150 years                       NOW                  200? years
when:                     past —————-> present ————> future

effort to read:      much——————> none ————–> much

With such a design, perhaps Mitchell is meditating on the time spans of lasting-education and language, and in a way projecting the equation forward as a type of hypothesis—the language from 165 years ago is difficult for a current-day reader, so the language 200 years from now will be just as difficult?  Is that correct?  Does language have a 400-year lifespan? Adam and Zachry would not understand each other, but from our current vantage point we can appreciate both….

© 2014 Peter J. Evans, theorist


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