Mapping the Cloud Atlas: Connections in the Novels of David Mitchell

A domestic terrorist accidentally calls a record store. A 19-year-old looking for his father is captured by the Yakuza. A cloned service worker leads a rebellion against a Korean superstate. A chronic stammerer gets poetry advice from the daughter of a famous composer. A Dutch clerk falls in love with a scarred Japanese midwife. A middle-aged woman is pulled into a millennia-long war between two groups of immortals with supernatural powers.

These are just some of the many stories in English author David Mitchell’s on-going project, which he has dubbed the Uber-Novel. Although the six novels and numerous short-stories Mitchell has released so far all stand on their own as individual works, there are small threads connecting them to a larger, more complicated story, a grand narrative he is apparently only half-way through. With his newest novel Slade House coming out, I figured now was a good time to start assembling the pieces of his massive literary puzzle before his new book makes it even more complicated.

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Mitchell is probably best known for the novel Cloud Atlas, which was adapted to film by the Wachowskis in 2012. The plot of the novel focuses on six different individuals whose lives connect across the decades, a premise which polarized critics and confused most audiences. Obviously, this concept is a little easier to manage in book form, mainly because cinema has shorter time limitations. But just like the separate stories of Cloud Atlas work together to form a single narrative, so too do the rest of Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole.

Some of his novels, like Black Swan Green and Number9dream, focus on single characters during a limited period of time, while others, like Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks, cover multiple characters and plots over the course of centuries. But it’s the small connections that tie these disparate tales together.

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The narrator of Black Swan Green‘s has a cousin who is a major love interest in The Bone Clocks. A sentient artificial intelligence that secretly runs the world in Ghostwritten was created in part by the computer hacker from Number9dream. A seemingly innocuous doctor in The Thousand Autumns of  Jacob de Zoet turns out to be an immortal being from The Bone Clocks who has been reincarnated multiple times. And so on.

There’s been more than a few attempts by Mitchell’s readers to try and map out every character and location that appears and reappears in his novels, but the biggest difficulty in chronicling these connections is that they are so hard to find. These narrative links aren’t paraded around for any reader to spot. They’re hidden in off-handed remarks and minor characters who only show up for a page or two.

I’ve put together my own map of all the connections I, and many others much smarter than me, have found. It’s a fun exercise in careful reading, where any name or casual reference could be a major connection. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo (or Where’s Wally, since I’m talking about an English author here) except you have no idea what you’re looking for.

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I find it a lot of fun, but I can totally understand why others wouldn’t and why people tend to walk away from me when I try to explain my interest at parties.

But if you’re like me and you love to look for these kind of hidden gems, or you’re a big fan of David Mitchell but have never bothered look for these connections, or you’ve just read this far in this post and figure there’s no point in stopping now, here’s my (definitely not complete) guide to how Mitchell’s works connect.

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Click to download as an xls file.

David Mitchell’s Uber-Novel – Connections Guide

But I have to stress, assembling a list like this isn’t really what makes reading Mitchell’s books enjoyable for me. After all, creating these connections isn’t Mitchell’s primary focus. Each book –whether it’s about a boy growing up in a sleepy English town, a young man trying to find the father he never knew in one of the largest cities in the world, or a young woman trapped in a Japanese religious cult in the mid-19th century– has its own priorities of  characters, plot, and theme.

And Mitchell’s novels aren’t light reading, either. Each book touches on themes of time, memory, isolation, cultural divides, growing-up, and the challenges of upholding a morality in an indifferent universe in different ways. One problem the movie version of Cloud Atlas had was adapting such a dense narrative loaded with complex issues viewed from nearly every conceivable angle.

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Forbes called Cloud Atlas “ambitious, epic, lovely, and an absolute mess all at the same time.”

This multilayered approach mirrors how Mitchell loves to mix styles and genres. Although some his stories revolve around super powered psychics and airport detective novel-style plotting, each book is rife with carefully-crafted historical atmospheres and literary merit. Mitchell also loves to pay homage to his favourite stories and authors, and since his tastes are extremely eclectic, he will jump from channeling Japanese bestseller Haruki Murakami to creating mash-ups of Blade Runner and 1984.  Mitchell is as much a fan of science fiction classics like Soylent Green and The Matrix as he is of grad school favourites like Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov, all of which seep in to his stories in different ways.

This I think is what really cuts to the core of his books. Mitchell’s novels are always balanced right on the divide between literary craft and escapist fiction. They’re fun but also challenging. You don’t find a lot of books on the science fiction shelf that set aside several paragraphs for an in-depth discussion on Nietzsche. But you also don’t find a lot of works in your literary studies syllabus that talk at length about Goldfinger, Lord of the Rings, and Led Zeppelin.

So, while I enjoy scanning every character name and place in Mitchell’s books like some would for George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, it’s also good to treat them like a serious read. Mitchell geeks out on pop culture just as much as he investigates the nature of history, humanity, culture, and storytelling.

Which is why I am so pumped for Slade House. I’m hoping that the extra attention and popularity Mitchell has received because of the movie and his latest book becoming a major bestseller won’t affect his ability to assemble multi-layered narratives that are just as fun as they are fascinating. The more fans he accumulates, the harder it is for him not to fall into either fan service or alienating his new readers. But if there’s one thing Mitchell’s good at, it’s maintaining a balance.

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