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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: . 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>

Time out of Joint Pt. 4: Intertextuality and Simulation in A.L. Kennedy’s Day

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 4: Intertextuality and Simulation in AL Kennedy’s Day.  Available: . Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.

Postmodern theory suggests that late 20th and early 21st Century culture is a system closing in on itself; one with limited memory capacity. This foundation feature comes from the zero day text on late capitalism, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Every product of culture is absorbed into the memory of this system; every film, painting, novel or building is a frame of reference for the production of future texts.  The condition of postmodernity is one where innovation has ceased and everything old is new again.

History becomes multiple choice, a composite of texts amalgamated into a compound eye viewpoint.  The real is replaced by a recording, a recantation or a reconstruction.

In turn, these texts become the source for the structure of other texts.  Texts with meanings that are remembered rather than decoded. A.L. Kennedy’s Day is not only complicit in this, a micro-thin layer in a stack reaching sky-high, it is cognisant of it.  It comments on its own simulated nature.

We’ve already identified two chronologies at work here; that of the novel and that of the reader.   There is the world of the story, the fragmented chronology of character and setting; a narrative that reveals its secrets not chronologically, but by shifting focus across fractures in time.

This, in turn is a historical pastiche, assembled from film dialogue, other novels and recorded reminiscence.  Born in 1964, Kennedy has no direct experience of the period she writes about other than fiction and documentation.  As readers, our own reference is these texts rather than any lived experience. This is the second level of reading.

And then, there’s a third level of meta-reading; the level of pure simulation – of realising that you are no longer suspending your disbelief.

The protagonist, Alfred Day, returns to a fake prison camp as a film extra four years after his war is over.  Kennedy’s commentary on this as she describes the simulated prison camp is a third narrative; the self-referential acknowledgment that this is simulation.

Day refers to himself as ‘fictional’, for example, ‘The trouble was, after a while tucked up in the Luftwaffe bag, you had truly felt fictional and afterwards it didn’t leave you’[1].  The film he is taking part in appears to be The Great Escape, and some of his fellow extras confuse the fake camp with the real, and tunnel out…

We can pick out several instances like this[2], but the sequence where Alfred Day faints on set is particularly instructive and representative.


‘The director had liked the look of the whole palaver, and wanted to work it in, so some poor bastard (…) then spent the next two hours being required to crumple up and hit the deck; with arms flung out, with arms tucked in, with head back, with head dropped, head lolled sideways, left and right, with every variation you might think of and more besides and then just one time for luck, please, thank you. It was a fine game, filming’.[3]


Day faints, and then the history of that is replayed and re-recorded over and over.  He watches it – watches the moment simulated again and again, until a kind of perfection is achieved. Not the perfection of verisimilitude, but of fictional authenticity; a perfect faint that is better than life. It is Baudrillard’s ‘immanent surface of operations unfolding’, without transcendence or depth.

While Kennedy’s representation of the time period is as authentic as she can make it, in this scene and others she calls attention to the fact that the fiction can only ever be a construction. In acknowledging this openly, Day leaves us in an uneasy position as a reader.  While a pastiche of scene, dialogue and events places us in an identifiable time period – Kennedy’s deliberate revelation of the constructed nature of the text makes us aware that we are contemporary readers reading a contemporary narrative.  

In Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas this isn’t just an effect, it’s a central theme.

[1] A.L. Kennedy, Day, (Vintage, 2007) p. 42

[2] I am particularly fond of Day’s description of ‘Klim’, the milk powder Alfred has not seen since the end of the war: ‘Bloody Klim, from bloody herds of swoc, eating bloody fields of ssarg’. Mirroring the infinite regression of simulation in the text. A.L. Kennedy, Day, (Vintage, 2007) p. 18

[3] A.L. Kennedy, Day, (Vintage, 2007) p. 30

 <part 3 | part 5 >

Time out of Joint Pt. 3: Schizophrenia and Fragmentation in A.L. Kennedy’s Day

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 3: Schizophrenia and Fragmentation in AL Kennedy’s Day.  Available: . Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.

In the first section – The End of Time – we mentioned that, for Fredric Jameson, schizophrenia is the second of the postmodern condition’s ‘basic features’.  The clinical term “schizophrenia” is generally misunderstood and misused. It’s most often confused with multiple personality disorder, a condition with a quite different pathology.   Indeed, Jameson admits that his own use of the term may not be ‘clinically accurate’.

In debt to the psychoanalytical approach of Jacques Lacan, Jameson describes schizophrenia as the experience of living in a world at the end of history, without referents or negotiated signification:


‘Schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up in coherent sequence…’[1]


This, in turn, leads to Jameson’s proposition that the similarly disconnected postmodern subject is incapable of experiencing temporal continuity, of recalling an authentic history or extrapolating into a hypothetical future:


‘For Lacan, the experience of temporality, human time, past, present, memory, the persistence of personal identity over months and years – this existential or experiential feeling of time itself – is also an effect of language. (…)  But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, he or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity either…’[2]


And, as the postmodern condition is identified as an era in which the chain of signification has broken down, our experience is similar to that of the schizophrenic; of existence in a perpetual and fragmented ‘now’. While easy to dismiss as hyperbole, a thought experiment without traction beyond epistemology, the evidence is in the cultural artefacts we create within the context of this condition.

The texts under scrutiny here are superior examples but A.L. Kennedy’s Day embodies the condition through character – a character who exists in a perpetual “now”.


Day takes place in two main time periods.  There is the ‘present’ of an ersatz prison camp; a film set on which the main protagonist Alfred Day is an extra.  Secondly, there is a ‘past’ that preoccupies Day; his experience as a rear gunner in World War II. These are the key axes we move between.  A third time period, Day’s childhood and adolescence, is less frequently visited.

When the text begins, we are confusingly placed in the immediate ‘present’ of the novel, without explanation or preamble.  There are some temporal clues in the style of language used in the novel’s opening.  For example – the phrase ‘browned off’ is used; a character is growing a moustache.  These fragments might suggest that the text is not set contemporaneously – but we have to wait until the second page, the eleventh paragraph, before we can confidently establish any time period:


‘Today it had the smell of blue, warm Air-Force blue: the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they gave away after ops: Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.’[3]


And from those clues we know that we are in war time; a time of austerity and uniform, distinctive smells and styles and ‘ops’ and the need to ‘flatten out nerves’. Except, we’re not. We’re in a simulation of World War II; a fake prison camp. We don’t discover this until several pages later and, even then, in dribs and drabs throughout the first chapter, a hint rationed here and there:


‘…long after the end of the war’.

‘…it didn’t belong in 1949’.

‘…it wouldn’t be long before filming was over and they’d send you home’.


We gradually realise that the sections explicitly about war are reminiscence; that there are two main time periods, not one.

Contrast this approach with the opening of the six separate sections of Cloud Atlas. Each one swiftly establishing period either through stylistic pastiche, ‘mise en scène’ (the objects, environment and antagonists described) or simply by telling you (Letters from Zedelgehm opens with both date and year).[4]

Conversely, in Day, Kennedy establishes a general historical milieu but gives us little to differentiate between the two main time periods, painting them in the same hues and moving back and forth between them abruptly – even though one is “real” and one a simulation. As we learn more about the narrative, we come to recognise characters in each part of the plot and through them are anchored.  Prior to that, there are few cues and it is virtually impossible to unravel the temporal flow of the first chapter until we’ve read through to the second.

What is Kennedy’s intention in deliberately obscuring the setting and, later, in conflating the disparate time periods she depicts?   It’s the post-traumatic experience of shell shock; of detachment from reality. The real indistinguishable from the fake.  But it is also an explicit acknowledgement that what we are experiencing is a postmodern fiction – a narrative made after the end of grand narratives.

This disconnection from referent is made explicit from the outset.  Alfred Day describes himself as a ‘nobody’, a person without identity or solidity.  The text depicts him slipping in and out of character, trying on traits and lapsing.  For example, he practices speaking like an officer – assembles a vocabulary he can articulate without betraying his Staffordshire roots:


‘He was keeping things short, sticking to the phrases he was safe with, the ones he’d cut away from Staffordshire, that could sound fully RAF.

He still practised in his head’. [5]


Day’s personality is as fragmented as the novel’s depiction of time.

It’s significant that he is not the sole entry in the canon of post-war, shell-shocked protagonists set loose in time.  There is, of course, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 – a character literally floating free in chronology.  The difference is that while Vonnegut’s Pilgrim travels through time, in Day the reader is the temponaut.[6] Everything is simulation – and these intertextual references make that explicit.

This gives us an opportunity to introduce the idea that there are not one, but (at least) two experienced chronologies at work here.  Firstly, there’s the chronological experience of character and protagonist; the world of the story. In postmodern texts, this world is altered, stretched, shattered or fragmented.  We might assume this is an affectation of high modernity, but in this case it is a demonstration of postmodern narrative malleability – the elasticity of a transparently constructed world.

And then there’s a second reading. The chronological experience of the reader’s reading; a reader familiar with Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 who can recognise the shorthand at work here.

This amenity of texts to desiccation and reconstitution is a feature of postmodernity. We will consider this further in the next section.


[1] Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in Postmodern Culture, ed Hal Foster, (Pluto Press, 1995), p. 119

[2] Ibid.

[3] A.L. Kennedy, Day, (Vintage, 2007) p. 2

[4] Cloud Atlas too operates in a perpetual “now” – but it uses different mechanisms to suggest this.

[5] Ibid., p. 8

[6] Day also shares traits with Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, whose story is similarly fragmented by madness; cut into pieces that we must stitch together to construct a chronology.

 <part 2 | part 4 >

Time out of Joint Pt. 2: Period and Pastiche 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 2: Period and Pastiche in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Available: . Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.

Saussurian semiotics  – a cluster of theories that enable us to break down the process of communication – suggests that the production of meaning is based around three components. The first, the signifier is the sound of the word, the cipher on the page, a picture of an object.  Its partner is the signified, the decoded, culturally negotiated meaning of the signifier.  Together, they are the sign; the combination of signifier and signified.  For meaning to be produced a third component is required – the referent. This is the real world, culturally mediated concept or object to which the sign refers – and it is modernity’s final fling[1].

In Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, the anchor that holds the referent in place – cultural consensus and the singular grand narrative – has gone. Without the guiding hand of any fixed philosophy, culture becomes trapped in a feedback loop, cannibalising its own past. A two way, unnegotiated relationship between signifier and signified remains: the transparent surface of pastiche.

Jean Baudrillard’s glossy pessimism brings us a step closer to understanding. In post-structuralist terms, without a referent, the sign is a husk:


‘Everything began with objects, yet there is no longer a system of objects. The critique of objects was based on signs saturated with meaning (…) Today the mirror and the scene have given way to the screen and the network.  There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding[2]’.


Baudrillard is saying that meaning is no longer negotiated; it is instantaneous and two dimensional. Interpretation lacks the same level of engagement; we’ve simply seen it all before.

For literary critic and Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, pastiche is one of the ‘two basic features of Postmodernism’.  [3]

The term ‘pastiche’ is often misunderstood. It has none of the intellectual complexity of satire and none of the slapstick of parody.  Pastiche is, according to Jameson:


‘The imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language… a neutral practice of mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without laughter…’


With pastiche as the key mode of expression in postmodernity, yesterday’s stylistic ticks and experimental innovations are tomorrow’s homogeneous porridge of genre.  For example, plot points, settings and styles that connoted suspense, danger and street smarts in Raymond Chandler’s 1930s novels seem like hack work when they turn up in the writing of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. Like audio bounced back and forth from tape to tape, there’s little left but hiss.

The same could be said of the stylistic pastiche of 80s and 90s architecture – of Roman columns on glass fronted buildings. Transplanted connotations of pomp and grandeur that are, ultimately, without meaning.

When David Mitchell channels the staccato cadences of Dashiel Hammett in the Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery sections of Cloud Atlas, it’s filtered through porous layers of Dan Brown’s Deception Point, with a nod to The China Syndrome and Alan J Pakula’s school of 70s conspiracy thriller movies.

But while Grisham and Brown are uncaring descendants of more venerated (if populist) writers – Mitchell’s borrowing is knowing and deliberate. Cloud Atlas is an exercise in mediated familiarity, of dead styles reanimated.

Pastiche is the whole point.

Each of the six sections has clear and identifiable sources in other literature (and other media).  We could draw comparison between Letters from Zedelghem and Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, between An Orison of Somni 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World[4].


Here I’d like to take a closer look at the novel’s opening section, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.  Though Melville is Mitchell’s main claimed inspiration (‘but with shorter sentences’) – there are the inky fingerprints of Daniel Defoe on the text and more than a couple of echoes of Conrad, particularly The Shadow Line.


The section begins:


‘Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.  Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker (…) Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility’[5].


The markers here, of archaic language usage, of first person diary reportage, are immediately evocative of a recognisable style – but there’s something much more particular.  Even if we’re not familiar with Melville or Conrad, we cannot help but notice an iconic signifier of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; the footprints that lead Ewing to the character who will be his companion – later revealed as the narrative’s antagonist – Dr Henry Goose. In Robinson Crusoe, footprints let Defoe’s protagonist know that he is not alone on the island he has been shipwrecked upon:


‘It happened one day at noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand’[6].


Mitchell is not only playing with style here, but with iconography. The story of Robinson Crusoe has been filmed at least 20 times. Even if the reader hasn’t encountered Defoe’s original text, she will have seen a cinema or TV adaptation, with this very incident central to the narrative.

Playing seems an appropriate word.  Postmodern texts, especially when their deconstruction is prefaced by the kind of essentially portentous and pessimistic theory it’s been necessary to introduce here, are too often thought of as difficult and experimental. Looking at Cloud Atlas enables us to see a lighter side of postmodernity – a playful side.  When myth, religion and science are no longer viable as records of reality, we’re left with fiction; with intertextual reference.  There’s an enormous pool to choose from and Cloud Atlas does so repeatedly, gleefully, with a nod and a wink.

A key facility of pastiche is that it allows us to date the narrative, placing it in time according to the history and historicity of the text.  In the postmodern era, this doesn’t need to exact. It can be a rough approximation; a ‘sense’ of time.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719.  Conrad’s The Shadow Line is set much later, sometime in the 1870s if we are to see it as autobiography.  Melville’s work was published in an eleven year period between 1846 and 1857.  In The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing the specific year is not given – though we are able to calculate that we are in the early 1850s from the following:


‘The tattooed Maori conquistadores found their single-barked armada in Captain Harewood of the brig Rodney who in the dying months of 1835, agreed to transport nine hundred Maori…’[7]


We learn that the Rodney embarked on a ‘six-day voyage’, returning with four hundred more Maori who are ‘apt pupils of the English in ‘the dark arts of colonization’’. This leads to a conflict with the indigenous Moriori of Chatham Isle, occurring ‘fourteen years ago’ in the present of the text.  With the confirmed South Pacific setting and 1850s period, we might conclude that it was Mitchell’s intention to directly channel Melville and Conrad here, while more widely evoking a generic sense of ‘historical maritime adventure’ through iconographic references to Defoe[8].

The exact time period doesn’t matter in postmodern terms.  This is fiction – where the past is as much an undiscovered country as the future.  With the end of the era of ‘grand narrative’, an endless stream of alternate narratives flood through the cracks in the dam.  What we gain in choice we lose in authenticity. We lose the reliability of history.

This is something that both Cloud Atlas and A.L. Kennedy’s Day – the second text under consideration here – actively explore.  It’s to that precise issue that I will turn next.

[1] See: Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, (McGraw-Hill, 1966)

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, (Autonomedia, 1988), p. 12

[3] The other, quoting Lacan, is schizophrenia – a rather alarming statement that we’ll address more fully in the next section.

[4] Though the narrative of An Orison of Somni 451 is reminiscent of a number of dystopian science fiction futures  Mitchell claimed, in a Washington Post interview, to be emulating the interview structure employed by gossip magazines.

[5] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Sceptre, 2004), p. 3

[6] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, (Penguin, 2007), p. 84

[7] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Sceptre, 2004), p. 14

[8] Later, in Letters from Zedelghem, the character Frobisher reading the text notes: ‘Mention is made of the gold rush, so I suppose we are in 1849 or 1850’.  David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Sceptre, 2004), p. 64

 <part 1 | part 3 >

Time out of Joint Pt 1: The End of History. Again

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 1: The End of History. Again.  Available: Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.


This is the first instalment of a six part essay that explores the role of postmodernity as a periodising concept in two contemporary novels: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and AL Kennedy’s Day. In this part, the author sets out a definition of postmodernity based on the work of Jameson, Lyotard and Baudrillard.

‘If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,’

So says comic book supervillain The Joker in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke[1].

The Joker is a character with an 80 year history, reinvented over and over in comics, novels, radio, TV and film.  He is a character that – with many iterations, influences and interpretations – embodies the condition of postmodernity.

There are multiple postmodernisms; named or knighted by critics.  The aesthetic postmodernity of modern architecture, the hypertextual postmodernity of video games and the revolt into style of fractured youth cultures. These movements are products of a frequently forgotten root; of postmodernity as a condition.

I wish to go to the source and look at postmodernity as a theoretical construct. I’ll be using postmodernity as a periodising concept, following the leads of literary critic Fredric Jameson, post-structuralist theorist Jean Baudrillard and, the ‘father’ of postmodern theory, Jean Francois Lyotard.

Two novels will come under scrutiny: A.L Kennedy’s Day and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  The former is a historical narrative set in and around the time of World War II. It follows the character of Alfred Day as he deals with the trauma of an abusive childhood and a war spent in combat and captivity.

Cloud Atlas is, structurally, a more ambitious book. It’s a novel of six interlinked stories that span six time zones.  Though markedly different in terms of scope and theme, the two books share a common, fractured temporality. This is the key feature I wish to investigate.

Both texts might be labelled ‘postmodern’ in a stylistic sense.  They are both knowing and self-referential; they acknowledge their borrowing and seem cognisant of their place in historical canon.  Still, my interest here is not in postmodernity as a style.

And while there will be some overlap, it is not my intention to dwell too much on questions that interrogate the constitution of a postmodern novel; postmodernism as a genre.  Indeed, my contention is that all contemporary fiction is postmodern to a greater or lesser extent.

I am more concerned with time – which is an apparently perverse choice given that the postmodern condition is most often categorised as ‘the end of history’; the end of change and modernity.  As a theoretical construct postmodernity is most commonly associated and preoccupied with space. However, although postmodernity begins with a full stop, time – necessarily – continues.  It is only our experience of time that alters; our representation of it. In the same way that we can never authentically use the axiom ‘the camera never lies’ in the postmodern world, we can no longer believe in the reality of recorded history.

That is postmodernism’s immutable core. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne, published in 1979 and translated into English in 1984, he says:


‘In contemporary society and culture — postindustrial society, postmodern culture — the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation. (…) That is what the postmodern world is all about’[2]


By ‘grand narrative’ Lyotard means the legacy of culturally agreed truths; the convictions upon which societies were founded and operated. He cites mythology, religion and then – in the ‘modern’ age – science as examples.  At the end of modernity – the end of the age of invention – these are all in doubt. They are fragmented, fractured and no longer absolute. Postmodernity is, then, an age of uncertainty and a time without a future or an unequivocal past. The past is multiple choice. Myth, religion and science are no longer able to guide us to resolution.

The end of modernity is implicit in this.  Though its modality, practices and even intentions remain intact in every branch of cultural production, the results are always, arguably, postmodern.  It is those results – the modes of expression left to the creative practitioner in the postmodern era – that will be explicit in my analysis of the two texts I’ve chosen to look at. In particular I wish to signal that, though the postmodern condition may be the ‘end of history’, it is not the end of temporality.

I’d also like to state that I am not arguing for the reader to accept the postmodern condition without question. Theory is hyperbole.  Theory is metaphor.  Theories that define postmodernity as a condition are useful tools. We may not feel as though the postmodern condition is in our lived experience, but we can trace its influence in the artefacts of our culture; film, art and, of course, literature.

Here, the theory provides a framing concept that will enable me to talk about periodising elements in Cloud Atlas and Day, two texts that stretch the boundaries of linear narrative and sequential chronology.

[1] Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke, (DC Comics, 1988)

[2] Jean Francois Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’, in The Postmodernism Reader,  ed. by Michael Drolet, (Routledge 2004), p. 138


part 2 >