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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Some thoughts…

What can it mean to think of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as a conservative text? Its author, certainly, does not come across as a political Conservative and is more likely to grace the pages of the Guardian than the Daily Mail. Mitchell is also no backwards-looking Luddite; like his Stateside contemporary, Jennifer Egan, he has published short fiction through Twitter and is frequently called ‘experimental’, even if he rejects such a label himself (Mitchell 2014b; Jeffries 2013). Furthermore, the novel in question is polyvocal and structurally playful, it is knowingly metafictional, it is often concerned with eco-critical issues and it also amplifies the tragedy of the Moriori genocide, a catastrophe much overlooked in the global North/West. These are distinctive tropes of the types of aesthetically experimental and ethically progressive fiction that the academy favours, particularly given the continued rise of postcolonial studies, for instance, under whose jurisdiction the last of these listed elements of Mitchell’s novel could fall.

To conceive of Cloud Atlas as a conservative text, however, is to more thoroughly consider the relationship between formal aesthetics and politics in the novel. In this piece, I will briefly examine the ways in which the potentially progressive or revolutionary elements of Mitchell’s text are frequently recuperated through the the uses of reference, allusion and ontological plurality. This analysis will consist of three sections that outline three approaches to this idea of a ‘conservative’ Cloud Atlas: a first on the formal structure of the novel (in which diegesis relegates all action to narrative); a second on the the uneasy legacy of postmodernism that haunts Mitchell’s book; and a third on the use of intertextuality and genre within the text (in which there seems to be only imitation, rather than innovation). Given the space constraints in such a piece, these areas are not meant to constitute a systematic overview of the text and it is impossible to cover each of these aspects in the thorough detail that might be merited; this I leave for another day. This selection is instead designed to give a flavour of the types of argument that can be mounted against the experimental nature of the novel. While there is an element of polemic to these arguments, it is also worth noting that it is not my intention here to utterly disparage the work but rather to note that wherever there appears to be an ethical trajectory in the text, any straightforward politics is almost immediately subsumed back into ambiguity on the aesthetic level. This can be seen as a virtue of the novel; after all, this ensures that Mitchell does not write straightforward propaganda. On the other hand, however, it makes it difficult to speak with any ease about the acts of resistance and ethics that the text nonetheless seems to hold out to a reader.

Form and narrativity: there is nothing outside of the text

In Cloud Atlas, all representations are narrated, even those within the text. Three of these narratives are written and read as texts by other characters within the novel while three are respectively viewed as a film, seen in a holographic device and related through the oral storytelling tradition. Indeed, the seafaring voyage of Ewing is a story read by Frobisher and related in his letters to Sixsmith. In turn, Luisa Rey reads the Frobisher letters after Sixsmith is murdered by Bill Smoke. Likewise, Timothy Cavendish reads the manuscript for Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery while on his ill-fated train journey, himself later appearing as a film in Sonmi~451’s narrative. All of these narratives are contained within the book’s central tale, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’ but this is, itself, finally nested within a coda that is narrated by Zachry’s son. With this final blip of a coda, Cloud Atlas makes it perfectly clear that the reader will find no representation of a ‘real’ world in this novel, only stories representing stories representing stories; an Arabian Nights or a Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

From this elementary observation of nested stories, two possibilities present themselves. Firstly, Cloud Atlas may be a novel that is mimetically accurate because it truly believes that everything in the world is narrative. In other words, the view of human understanding, consciousness and communication that Cloud Atlas represents could be one wherein everything is mediated, constructed and communicated through narrative. As will be seen, such views are far from uncommon. Alternatively, Mitchell’s novel could simply represent stories that truly never do match to a reader’s extra-diegetic reality; Cloud Atlas could be a text that is only narrative. In each of these cases, as I will now show, there is potential for textual conservatism to arise.

To trace the first of these paths, it is necessary to examine the history of philosophical and psychological models under which everything is narrative, an interpretation of Cloud Atlas that has been advanced most prominently to date by Courtney Hopf. While such a philosophy sounds, at first, like a form of solipsism, since its rise to prominence through a series of essays in the mid-1980s, this view has actually become fairly widespread, even if it is usually only held implicitly. Among the most prominent representatives of narrativity, as it is known, are the works of Oliver Sacks and Jerome Bruner, as Hopf points out, but it can also be seen in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Daniel Dennett, Marya Schechtman, Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur and Alasdair MacIntyre (Sacks 1985; Bruner 2004; Hopf 2011, pp.112–113; Sartre 1938; Dennett 1988; Schechtman 1997; Taylor 1989; Ricoeur 1992; MacIntyre 1981. This lineage is drawn from a prominent critique, to which I will turn shortly: Strawson 2004).

To explore this phenomenon and to add another name to this list, the work of Walter R. Fisher is instructive. In a 1987 study, Fisher proposed that

human beings are inherently storytellers who have a natural capacity to recognize the coherence and fidelity of stories they tell and experience. I suggest that we experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, as conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends (Fisher 1987, p.24).

In addition to expounding the view, therefore, that humans form reflexive understandings through acts of self-casting within the dramatic narrative of life, Fisher also considers that rationality is, similarly, a narrative form in which probability and fidelity are narratological tests:

Rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings—their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether or not the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives (Fisher 1987, p.64).

In some ways this perspective is empowering. For one, “[v]iewing human communication narratively stresses that people are full participants in the making of messages, whether they are agents (authors) or audience members (co-authors)” (Fisher 1987, p.18). In other words, through the ability to ‘write’ our own lives and to rationally interpret others’, we gain some control; it gives “the individual narrator profound powers to create his or her life with the help of cultural resources of self-narration” (Hyvärinen 2008, p.269). Conversely, however, there is a concurrent “darker, deterministic reading” in which “the culturally shaped cognitive-cum-linguistic processes take control over individual life, making life follow the model of an articulated autobiography” (Hyvärinen 2008, p.269). To extend this second reading, the fact that such self-narrations are fundamentally normative, formed within extant cultural constructs themselves shaped by contemporary power dynamics, reminds us, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has written, of the ways in which aesthetic and political narratives can be appropriated and assumed in order to silence the Other: the “staging of the world in representation – its scene of writing, its Darstellung [representation in art]– dissimulates the choice of and need for ‘heroes,’ paternal proxies, agents of power – Vertretung [political representation; speaking on behalf of someone else]” (Spivak 1988, p.279). Spivak concludes that because “[r]epresentation has not withered away”, it remains true that “[t]he subaltern cannot speak” (Spivak 1988, p.308). Narrative of the Other is always re-presentation of self-representation while narrative of the self is also dependent upon cultural norms enmeshed within power.

Let us assume, for a moment, that Mitchell’s novel adopts this philosophical stance; all of our experience is mediated/constructed through narrative and the text “problematizes the notion that ‘life’ or ‘experience’ can wholly be separated from ‘narrative’” (Hopf 2011, p.111). This seems plausible in some senses because, in addition to the Chinese Box layering of the narrative and the failure to escape from story, the text does speak of “flashbacks” to the “1980s with MAs in Postmodernism and Chaos Theory”, thereby evoking the historical context in which such models arose (Mitchell 2008, p.152). That said, this interpretation (which is supposed to foster agency) is somewhat contraindicated by remarks such as Sonmi’s declaration that “free will plays no part in my story” (Mitchell 2008, p.365). However, nonetheless pursuing this line for a moment, there is a greater challenge. The Sacks/Bruner/Fisher perspective, in which all elements of experience are narrative, is imbued with aspects of conservative bias. Indeed, even disregarding the well-known argument of Galen Strawson against narrativity that not all subjects experience life as narrative (and the counter-rebuff by James Phelan that this is, itself, a narrative (Strawson 2004; Phelan 2005; again, see also Hopf 2011, p.113)), a prominent critique by William G. Kirkwood pointed out that:

On this view, the strongest moral arguments are those which conform to people’s pre-existing beliefs about life. While Fisher states that narrative probability is the product of “structural,” “material,” and “characterological” consistency (pp. 47-49), how people judge these will be determined by their concepts of causation and human nature. Similarly, fidelity exists only when the values displayed in a story are “confirmed or validated in one’s personal experience, in the lives or statements of others whom one admires and respects, and in a conception of the best audience that one can conceive” (p. 109) (Kirkwood 1992, p.30).

In other words, in a world in which absolutely everything is narrative, the narratives that are favoured en massse are those that confirm their audiences’ pre-conceived views. Such acceptance could be seen as a success for a literary work: if a text chimes with lived experience, then it has certainly achieved some degree of mimetic fidelity. Conversely, though, this is a potentially antiquated idea for the function of an experimental twenty-first-century novel. Rather than to re-produce the lived experiences of its readership, the experimental novel should surely unsettle, disturb and trouble, whether in its aesthetics or its narrative. In other words, should not a balance be struck between mimetic fidelity – to anchor a fictional world – and a representation of the world as it is not, but as it could be? Those who adopt this angle when reading Cloud Atlas must, therefore, be careful; if the omnipresence of narrative is supposed, here, to re-inscribe agency in an experimental work, the counterbalance is that the book’s popularity and literary awards become a conservative millstone. Put another way: in philosophies of totalising narrative, there is a normative, conservative bias towards narratives that simply re-present the world as it is, the “merely existing reality”, as Adorno might put it (Adorno 2000, p.38).

This argument is bolstered when James English’s analysis of literary prize culture is added to the equation. In English’s argument, using Bourdieu’s notions of interchangeable forms of capital, literary prizes are bodies that award material, social and symbolic capital (money, support and prestige) to authors who are legitimated by the prize’s judges’ cultural capital (knowledge and judgemental skills) and the prize’s sponsors’ material capital (their money). In turn authors bestow symbolic capital back on prizes (whether they accept or scandalously refuse) through their own now-validated cultural capital (English 2002). In this compelling model of the regulation of symbolic exchange, the most important fact to realise is that such a system is normative because the valorisation process is cyclical. Authors produce work, good authors are judged worthy of prizes, good authors accept or reject literary prizes, good prizes are affiliated with good authors (sometimes regardless of whether they accept or reject), prizes award money and prestige to authors (giving them income to work) and then authors produce work. Now, of course, this is not to say that literary prizes cannot make awards to truly experimental work but rather to note that they tend towards the reproduction and legitimation of forms that are already valued, especially in a market context. Cloud Atlas was, of course, awarded the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, the Richard & Judy Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize, the Nebula Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. When this is coupled with critiques of narrativity as conservative, a two-pronged attack on the experimental nature of the text can emerge.

The second possibility offered within the form of Cloud Atlas is a rejection of the idea that reality is narratalogical but with a concomitant acceptance that everything in the text is narrative. In other words: Cloud Atlas could be just a series of interwoven fictions, deeply nested, but severed from reality in every way. While the novel may seem like a ‘real’ representation to a reader, undoubtedly a facet achieved through its extraordinary powers of literary voicing, in this interpretation the narrative’s falsehood is as transparent as Old Georgie to Zachry; a delusion. In this mode, Cloud Atlas does not represent the world outside the text. Instead, it represents the process of representation, the act of mediation, of storytelling. This stance is intensely problematic but also less feasible than the ‘narrative is everything’ route. It is less feasible because the incorporation of the factual details of the Moriori genocide, along with the parody of McDonalds’ consumer culture in the text, are, presumably, expected to collapse the boundaries between reader and represented world. Too many real-world crossovers exist to fully follow this interpretation of a totally isolated text. This stance would also be problematic, though, because if the novel had no connection to an extra-texutal reality, any ethical purchase from the incorporation of these factual details would be lost. It would also be hugely trivialising of serious horrors; genocide as nothing more than entertainment. Again, Adorno is instructive here in that this degradation of lived atrocity is inherent in any act of representation: “the aesthetic principle of stylization [… makes] an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; […] something of its horror is removed” (Adorno 2007, p.189). That said, it is hard to imagine that pushing this to its absolute, logical conclusion is Mitchell’s goal.

Both of these perspectives weaken the ethical claims that the text might otherwise stake but assuming that the former stance of narrativity is more likely, it is to the ethical conservatism in this view that I will now turn. Mitchell has claimed in his ‘Book World’ interview that the Ewing portion of his narrative was based upon the writings of Melville and Defoe, noting that “[m]y character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville, but with shorter sentences” (Book World 2004). This is an aspect further confirmed in the novel when Ewing remarks that Mr. D’Arnoq’s spoken history “holds company with the pen of a Defoe or a Melville” (Mitchell 2008, p.10). It seems simultaneously clear, however, that Mitchell’s novel is also located in the spaces between postmodern literature (from which its metafictional traits and “formal ludicism” derive) and postcolonial literature (from which its ethical purchase originates) (Dunlop 2011, p.201).

Postmodernism and Postcolonialism

These two aspects of Mitchell’s novel – a fusion of postcolonial ethics and postmodern form, already broached in part by Nicholas Dunlop (Dunlop 2011) – are most clearly exhibited through the brief presentation of the Moriori genocide early in the text. After all, this is a moment of broadening for British fiction wherein Mitchell narrates the extermination of the Moriori of Rēkohu (“the native moniker for the Chathams”) by the “Taranaki Te Ati Awa Maori”, a history that remains relatively under-told in ‘Western’ fiction, but one to which Mitchell briefly returns in The Bone Clocks (Mitchell 2008, pp.11–16; Mitchell 2014a, p.102). Many aspects of this narrative are factually accurate, thus intensifying the postmodern historicity of the passage. In fact, an 1892 journal article by A. Shand attests to a Captain Harewood who was part paid, part coerced into carrying the Moriori to the Chathams, along with potatoes and other foodstuffs, making this the most probable source for Mitchell’s account (Shand 1892). It is clearly also a passage, however, that is concerned with racial identity. This is seen in the language of the tolerant, pacifist and sophisticated Moriori, which, we are told, “lacks a word for ‘Race’” (Mitchell 2008, p.11). This aspect is intensified when the Maori, transported from New Zealand, quickly “proved themselves apt pupils of the English in ‘the dark arts of colonization’” (Mitchell 2008, p.14). All of this is narrated within Mitchell’s nested structure, thereby combining a postcolonial pluralization of under-reported and marginalized narratives with the postmodernist tropes of playful historical fiction and aesthetic experiment.

This specific conjunction can be seen in at least one other novel, one that is significant as a founding text of American postmodern fiction: Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963). In V., two narratives are interwoven in a ‘V’ formation. The first concerns a series of 1950s wasters while the second spans a set of historical crises and the character Stencil’s hunt for V, whom- or what- soever she/it may be. Like Mitchell’s novel, V. contains a core narrative thread within its otherwise playful structure that is quite clearly supposed to have an ethical function; the narration of the Herero genocide. Like the Moriori, this episode is relatively undocumented in Western fiction. Like Mitchell, Pynchon’s earlier account also relativizes the narrative of genocide, placing it alongside a historical parallel. In Pynchon’s case the colonial comparison for Deutsch-Südwestafrika is not to the English, however, but rather to the Holocaust when he ironically quips, of von Trotha’s assault, that the causalities number “only 1 per cent of six million”, which is, apparently, “still pretty good” (Pynchon 1995, p.245).

One of the problems for Mitchell and for Pynchon with these postcolonial moments, though, is that, although both seem to do good work in raising awareness of narratives conventionally neglected by Western history, both are also Western, white, male authors who cannot speak on behalf of the colonial subjects that they represent. While, then, it is quite clear that such ethical aspirations raise these texts beyond “politically abortive metafiction”, a frequent accusation levelled at postmodernist writing, they are, nonetheless, ethically problematic (James 2012, p.10). The mitigating awareness that both authors demonstrate to reflect this position is to deeply ironize the presentation of colonialism. This is, in both cases, achieved by ensuring that the narrators are also white males, an idea that is surely supposed to invoke a double negation (the white male author’s awareness that the subaltern cannot speak through him). Whether this strategy works, however, is debatable.

Also emerging from this line of argument – the Great White Male Narcissist lineage (as David Foster Wallace put it) – is the equally frustrating notion that postcolonial fiction is somehow separate from postmodernist experiment (a stance that I have seemingly implicitly endorsed until this point). It is, after all, true, as Madelyn Jablon notes, that “Black literature has always theorized about itself” (Jablon 1997, p.21), but the recent study of African-American metafiction, as just one instance, by the Anglo-American academy has been historically blinded to some degree by an antiformalism that privileged the socio-historical over the aesthetic. While, in Jablon’s persuasive history, certain black commentators saw metafiction as “an invention of elite white postmodernists” that represented “the pinnacle of self-interest and support of the status quo” – an argument not so far from the continuing and perennial assaults on the form – other scholars working on writing by people of colour failed to canonise several major figures because they “overlooked the connection between stylistic innovation and radical politics” (Jablon 1997, p.20).

Under this reasoning, the different taxonomies that might be applied to Mitchell’s novel all have an element of conservatism. If the focus is on the postmodern play of the novel, then the text sits in a lineage back to Pynchon and the problems of that Great White Male formalism. If the focus rests on the postcolonial aspect within a postmodern frame, then the fact that the formal-aesthetic is usually privileged over the socio-historical betrays the problem of canonization. A third and final potential route presents itself: what about thinking of Mitchell’s text as a post-postmodernist work, if a definition of such a term can even be found?

As Peter Boxall notes, the nature of the relationship of contemporary literature to its postmodern antecedents remains the core question for early studies of twenty-first-century literature (Boxall 2013, p.16). As Robert Eaglestone also humorously points out, though, post-postmodernism is a ridiculous term for any classification of what comes after (Eaglestone 2013, p.1099). In an attempt to avoid this, however, what emerges are a series of taxonomies, many of which try to relate contemporary novelistic forms to Modernist work. Thus far, there have been altermodernism, metamodernism, neomodernism, hypermodernism, remodernism and transmodernism, among others, some of which refer to supposed developmental phases of late capitalism, while others are more applicable to aesthetics. Elsewhere, terms such as “image fiction”, “infranovel” and “the New Sincerity” have been developed to find ways to describe the purported swerve towards a form of post-ironic, post-postmodern metafiction (Kelly 2010; Wallace 1993). At least one commentator has classified Mitchell’s novel as simply “later postmodern” (McMorran 2011, p.157). While to some extent classification and taxonomy are usually merely jargonistic play, they also often articulate important historical relationships with previous forms of literature as well as signifying the anxieties of the critical context within which they are formulated.

Where Cloud Atlas might sit within such a constellation of proliferating terms is unclear. What is at stake in such a question is obvious, though: it is the question of how the formal and political of the novel interact. The question of what comes ‘after’ postmodernism implies (through the many critiques of postmodernism and of the canonisation process that delineates postcoloniality) that a reconciliation between the forms might be part of such a project. It is through a final examination of Cloud Atlas’s use of intertextuality that I will interrogate this aspect of the novel.

Intertexts and Looking Back

Although the fact that Mitchell’s text is set across a broad historical range that contains a political message makes the novel seem as though it might be a work of historiographic metafiction (a definite postmodernist category), I would argue that this is not strictly the case (Machinal 2011, p.137). This is because the time periods within the text are not just historical epochs; they are genres derived from source texts. In fact, a parallel chronology of Cloud Atlas can be seen not as 19th-century colonialism through to post-apocalypse, but rather, more precisely, c.1855 to 1980. This can be explained when Mitchell’s own statements on the sources for the narratives are juxtaposed with additional likely references (Book World 2004; Mitchell 2010; see also Eve 2014, pp.5–6. Mitchell acknowledges Benito Cereno as an unconscious influence in Begley 2010).

Narrative Mitchell on Source Potential Sources Year(s)
Pacific Diary Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel; Melville, The Encantadas and Moby-Dick; Defoe Melville, Benito Cereno 1997/~1855
Letters from Zedelghem Fenby, Delius As I Knew Him; Isherwood, Lions and Shadows 1936/1938
Half-Lives All the President’s Men; “any generic airport thriller”; James Ellroy Hailey, Airport/ postmodern detective 1976/~1968/1981-
The Ghastly Ordeal Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; “Cavendish is Cavendish” 1960/1970s farce 1962/~1970
An Orison “gossip magazines” Post-golden age SF ~1970
Sloosha’s Crossin’ Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker 1980
Whole text Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… “Late 80s”

In this table, where no “potential source” is listed, I have taken the year to be the date of the precise source given by Mitchell in his Book World interview, his Guardian Book Club piece and his interview with Begley. Where more specific source guesses can be hazarded based upon these statements and other inferences I have correlated the year to these sources. By way of brief explication of these sources, the Pacific Diary segment could be dated to any of Defoe’s c.1720s seafaring works (Robinson Crusoe, Captain Singleton or Colonel Jack). More likely, however, is Melville’s Benito Cereno (rather than Moby-Dick), a short novella centring on a slave rebellion at sea and populated with extremely ambiguous racial subtexts. The Letters from Zedelghem narrative can be taken fairly straight at Mitchell’s word as derived from Isherwood and Fenby, while Half-Lives seems to have a specific airport-thriller quality merged with postmodern detective fiction. The Ghastly Ordeal, on which Mitchell himself says very little, feels akin to a late-1960s farce, albeit less overtly sexual than, say, Joe Orton’s still-shocking dramas from that period. An Orison of Sonmi ~451 has the feel of some late-1970s science fiction work, specifically Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, while Sloosha’s Crossin’ is clearly directly indebted to Riddley Walker in both its aesthetics and thematics.

This way of thinking about the text takes the principles of critical dystopianism (i.e. that science/speculative fiction is often not about the future but a critical reflection on the present) and applies it to Mitchell’s historical epochs. In other words, rather than believing each era to be a reflection upon the time period depicted it is rather a representation of the time period in which the sources were constructed. Brian McHale has called a similar phenomenon “mediated historiography”, a mode where historical fictions appropriate the stylistic conventions of their setting (McHale 2009). This is not quite what is happening here (a text set in the future cannot appropriate the literary style of that future without speculation). Instead, the text conveys all of its messages through genre and therefore, to some degree, becomes about genre. This is a mode that I have elsewhere called “taxonomographic metafiction”: “fiction about fiction that deals with the study/construction of genre/taxonomy” (Eve 2013, p.107).

When Cloud Atlas is considered not as a work about history but rather as a work about genre (not that contentious an observation), a different element of conservatism becomes clear: all of Mitchell’s narratives look backwards (a fact also remarked upon by Simon de Bourcier). In such thinking, the only representation of the future within the novel is achieved through previous representations of the future. To conclude this final section, let us turn to the use of Hoban’s novel within the work to see this phenomenon at play.

It is no secret that Russell Hoban’s masterwork, Riddley Walker, is a strong central reference point for Cloud Atlas , although this is usually confined to the footnotes of critical articles (Edwards 2011, p.198n6; Machinal 2011, p.151n18; Stephenson 2011, p.243n12). This intertextual anchor is one that Mitchell himself additionally confirmed in a pamphlet for the 2005 “some poasyum [symposium]” of The Kraken, the Russell Hoban fan club, where he wrote: “Zachry’s voice is less hard-core and more Pacific than Riddleyspeak, but Mr Hoban’s singular, visionary, ingenious, uncompromising, glorious, angelic and demonic novel sat on my shelf as evidence that what I wanted to do could be done, and as encouragement to keep going until I’d got it right” (Mitchell 2005). As the sole uninterrupted narrative within the text, but also the most chronologically advanced, Sloosha’s Crossin’ is “granted the highest ontological authority”, even if that authority is oddly placed in the middle of the novel (Hopf 2011, p.118).

Compared to its source text, however, Mitchell’s narrative is conservative. The language in Cloud Atlas is far more normative and comprehensible than Hoban’s as it deploys sub-clausal commas to mark different senses and apostrophes to indicate elided word forms: “an’,” “times’n,” “mem’ryin’,” “y’self” and “sayin’”. In contrast, these features are largely absent in Hoban’s work, which immediately plunges the reader into disorientation: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen” (Hoban 2002a, p.1). This type of confusion finds its apex in Hoban’s text with phrases such as “No rumpa no dum / No zantigen Eusa cum”, which expanded editions of the the novel note are derived from “No trumpets, no drums, no dancing when Eusa comes” (Hoban 2012, p.234). It is also less frequent to find, in Mitchell’s language, the type of pun that made the language in Riddley Walker so radically innovative. For instance, there is little to match the tripartite play on “fissional seakerts” that Hoban’s text gives, in its first meaning denoting the secrets of nuclear power that the characters seek, in its second referring to the UK’s Official Secrets Act and, in its third, signposting fictional secrets; the underpinnings of storytelling.

This section of Mitchell’s novel is nonetheless interesting because, as opposed to the other narratives, it does not feel like ironising ridicule. With any of the historical settings, or even the SF of Sonmi, it is possible to construe of Cloud Atlas as a genre parody; the sometimes purple prose of Ewing, for instance, mocks the writings of Melville and Defoe (which, themselves, sometimes mock nautical slang). This can be seen as similar to the “critical ironic distancing” that Linda Hutcheon locates in postmodern parody (Hutcheon 1985, p.37). In the case of Hoban, though, Mitchell’s own tone when describing the appropriation seems too genuinely awed to fall under this category. This implies that the re-use of both the aesthetic and setting of Riddley Walker is more about repetition than any kind of critical function; a nostalgic recapitulation of an existing form re-situated within Mitchell’s work.

This nostalgic function is also interesting, given that Linda Hutcheon and Mario J. Valdés diagnosed, as far back as 1998, that “in the 1980s, it was irony that captured our attention most” while, from “the 1990s, it appears to be nostalgia that is holding sway” (Hutcheon & Valdés 2000, p.18). As Fiona Schouten notes, the predominant association of nostalgia is negative (Schouten 2010, pp.107–108). This comes about through a perception of nostalgia as a revisionist mode of history designed to engender a “sadness without an object”; an “inauthentic” empathy with a time and place that exists only in an ideal, imagined state (Stewart 1984, p.23). Nostalgia does not, of course, have to be a purely negative phenomenon. Recent accounts of nostalgia, such as that by John Su for instance, have argued that nostalgia fulfils a particular epistemic function and delivers a mode of knowledge that encourages readers to “perceive present social arrangements with respect to idealized images of what could have been”; a type of utopianism (Su 2009, p.56).

With respect to intertextual reference and imitation, however, it seems more difficult to position the nostalgic element of Mitchell’s work in a positive light. The object of the nostalgia is for Russell Hoban in 1980, a time when, in the nostalgic re-imagination, it was possible for the author to write a “visionary, ingenious, uncompromising, glorious, angelic and demonic novel” and a time when what Mitchell “wanted to do could be done”, an aspect that Mitchell then sets out to re-write. Yet this reconstruction is somewhat strained. Hoban himself was frequently frustrated by the lack of mainstream attention given to his novels, a fact he inscribed in The Medusa Frequency just seven years after Riddley Walker, when his protagonist, Herman Orff, complains that “The Times found the writing ‘a little slippery’; the Guardian noted that the story was ‘a downhill sort of thing’” (Hoban 2002b, p.12). For Mitchell to rework the esoteric cult classic, Riddley Walker, into the mainstream commercial success denied to Hoban is both a triumph but also a repackaging of a work that resisted commerciality into a form more in line with popular market appeal. Once more, elements of recuperation are at play.


In this piece I have sought to suggest that elements of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, are less experimental and more conservative than critics have been willing to accept to date. Certainly, this argument probably needs more work to specify exactly what is meant by the term “conservative” and how it relates to notions of nostalgia but this I leave for another day. Each of the sections that I have outlined above can be summarised into further questions that demonstrate this conservatism. Firstly, if everything in Mitchell’s text is narrative, then what potential is there for representation outside the fictional world within the novel (and what does the book’s popularity do within such a mode)? Secondly, if Cloud Atlas is a text with a focus on the formal-aesthetic, with a secondary nod to narratives of oppression and the political, where does it sit with respect to canon formations of postcolonial and experimental postmodernism? Thirdly, when Mitchell’s text is viewed not historically, but generically, what does it mean to write a novel in the period after postmodernism, that stops at 1980?

Others will undoubtedly disagree, but my reading here leads to several answers to these questions which all bring to light the potential conservatism of Cloud Atlas. In its excessive diegesis, the novel can either represent only mediation itself or a philosophy under which its popularity excludes radicalism and betrays an implicit normativity. In its ethical positioning, the text does not circumvent the problem of speaking on behalf of Others and continues to privilege the formal, situating its proliferation of historical narratives within a clear example of genre parody. Finally, when Mitchell’s genre imitations are considered, Cloud Atlas becomes part of the same setting as Mitchell’s later novel Black Swan Green : the 1980s. This leads to one overarching conclusion that I would say works well: Cloud Atlas remains best classified as a postmodern novel. Admittedly, it is not a work of purely historiographic metafiction, but shares more in common with late Pynchon where genre comes to the fore. In its privileging of ludic play, [under-fulfilled ethical promise, potentially self-incriminating philosophies of narrativity and nostalgia for radical literary experiment of the 1980s, though, the category seems apt. I have, of course, focused here predominantly on the negative aspects of the text while most others have highlighted its clear brilliance in other areas, with which I often agree. Take this approach as malice if you will but it is meant as devil’s advocacy, because I think these elements gesture towards a slight conservatism within Cloud Atlas.

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Some of this piece builds upon and reproduces parts of my article on Russell Hoban and Riddley Walker.

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