115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

21st Century Heteroglossia: Cloud Atlas and the Future of Genre

Nicole Kenley, Simpson University

A Bakhtinian reading of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas demonstrates the novel's formal evolution in the 21st Century.


The current iteration of 21st Century literature pushes the boundaries of both content and form, but the stakes of its project are perhaps higher in terms of the latter. These contemporary texts bend, blend, and reimagine genre to such an extent that the durability of the novel itself comes into question. David Mitchell’s 2004 text Cloud Atlas brings the issues of genre and form into sharp relief, eschewing typical formal constraints by combining six narratives, situated in six different genres, like Russian nesting dolls. Cloud Atlas movesthrough the genres of sea narrative, epistolary text, detective fiction, the picaresque, dystopia, and post-apocalyptic fiction before retracing its course back through these genres, concluding where it begins.  

While this deconstruction may seem to suggest that contemporary literature has moved on from the novel, I suggest in this paper that Bakhtinian heteroglossia allows for a reading of Cloud Atlas as reinstantiating, rather than dismantling, novelistic form. Bakhtin emphasizes the ways in which novels use heteroglossia to present multiple speech-genres within a given text, insisting that the originality of a text comes not from its own distinct style but rather from its creative combinations of existing speech elements. Mitchell’s text exaggerates the concept of heteroglossia through its metafictional presentation of differing voices and generic styles. This hyperbolic depiction of heteroglossia reinforces the Bakhtinian principle that novels, as the dominant genre, continually reinvent and reinvigorate other genres. The continual reinvention demonstrated by Cloud Atlas highlights the continued relevance of the novelistic form for 21st Century literature.