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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 >

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