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Time out of Joint Pt. 5: Hyperreality and Hypertextuality in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

A version of this essay was originally submitted in partial fulfilment of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009.

Please note that if you quote or cite this work that it is  © Karl Hodge 2012. The correct form of referencing is:

Karl Hodge. (2012). Time out of Joint Pt 5: Hyperreality and Hypertextuality in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Available: http://www.brokenenglish.co.uk/hyperreality/ . Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.

Related stylistically to both pastiche and schizophrenia, ‘hyperreality’ is a concept that describes particular readings of simulation.  To define it, we need to return briefly to Lyotard’s end of grand narratives, where the postmodern subject is (metaphorically) unable to form the cultural or extratextual connections necessary to make new meaning.

For the reader the effect is more than misunderstanding. Our ability to create referential connections from a unifying narrative is, for Lyotard, what makes reality.  The postmodern substitution of pastiche and simulation, the recycling of the past as referent, leads to some contradictory constructs.

We’ve already looked at some temporal and fracturing effects of this condition.  Fredric Jameson makes a further claim, that the ‘perpetual now’ of the schizophrenic experience is almost hallucinatory:

 

‘This present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in positive terms of euphoria, the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity’.[1]

 

The corollary of this ‘hallucinogenic intensity’ in postmodernity is hyperreality, best described as texts, objects or artefacts that actively or passively reveal their inauthenticity.  We saw this at work in our reading of the intertextual elements of A.L. Kennedy’s Day.  Kennedy comments on the fictionality of her narrative, sometimes directly, sometimes through intertextual reference, most often through the manipulation of style and tense.  In Jean Baudrillard’s pessimistic reading, the hyperreal is the inevitable end result of postmodern production; simulation made by simulacra and the wholesale substitution of reality by simulation.

There are several ways we might see this manifest in literature, but I’d like to focus on two for the moment, quality of simulation and juxtaposition.

We’ve already talked about pastiche at some length.  A pastiche might exhibit some of the qualities of the original it copies – but it can also be good or bad; photoreal or a faded facsimile. Either extreme can be disquieting.  As Umberto Eco describes in his essay Travels in Hyperreality:

 

‘Between San Francisco and Los Angeles I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper.  Some are crude and unwittingly caricatural; others are more accurate though no less unhappy in their vibrant colours, their chilling demolition of what had been Leonardo’s vibrance. Each is displayed next to a version of the original’.[2]

 

This poses a question about the ‘quality’ of simulation, and our ability to recognise it.

 

The second marker I’ll call ‘discordant juxtaposition’; the pasting together of styles or narrative concepts that jar; a simulation shown next to a reproduction of the original – like the multiple Last Suppers encountered by Umberto Eco. The more incongruent the juxtaposition, the easier it is to see the joins; to recognise the artifice in the artefact.

The effect is to call attention to the contemporaneous nature of the text, to ‘wake the dreamer’.  When timelines cross, or incompatible spaces intersect, we become lucid. Again, the reader’s perceived chronology is divided between the world of the story, that of narrative structure and the ‘perpetual now’ at the moment of consumption.

 

As we’ve seen, Cloud Atlas quotes other texts as pastiche. In adopting different styles and narrative methods, Mitchell exposes the hyperreality of the construct – calling attention to variations in quality. Read alongside each other, the discordant styles jar.

Mitchell goes further, quoting Cloud Atlas itself; recalling characters, objects and concepts from one time period in the novel and placing them in another.

This isn’t just intertextuality – it’s hypertextuality; as though Mitchell is crafting discordant juxtapositions between themes, objects and even characters to breakdown the chronology of the text.  It is a far more intrusive, playful and committed approach than Kennedy’s commentary on the real and the fake.[3]

 

Cloud Atlas might be considered hypertextual at a structural level. The six sections of the text – ostensibly six novellas – are divided into two parts each and are arranged chronologically, reaching a fulcrum (Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After), then are resolved in reverse chronological order. So, we have a sequence of six time periods depicted that go from 1 through to 6, then from 6 back to 1 again.  Each section is interrupted at a mid-point.  The first section, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing even stops mid-sentence.  In other stories the point of interruption itself is self-referentially interlinked. For example, the first part of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish ends with the sentence:

 

‘But as I pushed cold peas on to my plastic fork a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the old world came to an abrupt end’.[4]

 

When we return to the text, we discover that Cavendish had a stroke – but the ‘world’s end’ is not only the end of the character’s world, but the narrative world – the first part of his story.  This is not the only section of the first half that ends with a declaration of renewal.  Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery ends with:

 

‘The American sun, cranked up to full volume, proclaims a new dawn’.[5]

 

These elements are hyperreal in themselves – calling attention to the narrative’s fictional construction – but Mitchell takes us even deeper. In each section, characters read or watch the story of the preceding section.  In Letters from Zedelghem the protagonist Robert Frobisher finds a portion of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.  In An Orison of Somni-451 the eponymous character watches a film entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, and so on.

Then, in each case the characters are interrupted in their ‘reading’ (as we were), but discover the missing part or resume reading later. We are then given the resolution of that missing section.

This nested structure makes explicit the narrative’s construction – more notably when characters in one section discuss the fictionality of the preceding section. For example, in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, Cavendish comments on the manuscript he is reading; Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery:

 

‘I opened my briefcase for a bag of Werner’s toffees but came up with Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery. I leafed through its first few pages.  It would be a better book if Hilary V. Hush weren’t so artsily-fartsily clever. She had written it in neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay’.[6]

 

So, hypertext and hyperreality inform the very infrastructure of Cloud Atlas.  Its Russian doll composition calls attention to the fiction of the histories it recounts, both past and future. The result is an acute awareness of the text’s existence in the present.

 

There’s a layer below that still; a deeper, metanarrative layer. Hypertextual links are playfully peppered throughout the text – quite separate from the practice of pastiche that informs each section and the nested interconnections between them. These ‘easter eggs’ – hidden content rewarding those in the know – are a source of great pleasure for the careful reader.  Once again, a playful reading of postmodernism that, while falling short of contradiction, contrasts with the gloomy ‘end of reality’ proclamations made by its founding fathers.

These hypertextual references are so plentiful that they might form the basis of a PhD thesis. They’re also a reminder that we are reading the text in the ‘perpetual now’. Here is a small selection.

The vessel Adam Ewing sails on in the first section, The Prophetess, is visited by Luisa Rey in Half Lives. In each story, the main protagonist has a birthmark shaped like a comet. The term ‘hydra’ appears in several sections:  It’s the name of a nuclear power plant in Half Lives and the ‘wombtanks’ in An Orison of Somni-451. Cavendish flees London to avoid the Hoggins brothers; the ‘Hoggins Hydra’.

And later, in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish the titular character declares:

 

‘’Soylent Green is people!’ I mocked their hollow stares, ‘Soylent Green is made of people!’ They looked puzzled – I am, alas the last of my tribe’.[7]

 

This is a reference to the 70s film Soylent Green, which in turn is based on the Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! Both feature a plot where the homeless are processed into food; into ‘Soylent Green’.  In the Cloud Atlas section An Orison of Somni-451, Somni discovers that the same fate befalls her fellow ‘fabricants’, once their usefulness has waned.

Each of these references, every shared character name, every return to a previous location and recounted incident, is hypertextual and hyperreal; an interconnected reminder that we are reading fiction and the narratives of the past are as constructed and unreliable as narratives about the future.

 


[1] Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, in Storming the Reality Studio, ed. Larry McCaffery, (Duke University Press 1991), p. 223

[2] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (Picador 1986), p. 16

[3] Hypertext is the practice of linking keywords within digital texts to external or internal references in a database. A mouse click takes you to the referred text or source.  The term was coined by American sociologist Ted Nelson to describe ‘Project Xanadu’ in the 1960s – a theoretical but unrealised precursor to the World Wide Web. The term is, of course, used metaphorically here.

[4] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Sceptre, 2004), p. 183

[5] Ibid, p. 144

[6] Ibid, p. 164

[7] Ibid., p. 179

 <part 4 | part 6>

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