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Cannonball Read IV: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

By TylerDFC | Book Reviews | October 16, 2012 | Comments ()


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As I write this the eagerly anticipated Wachowski siblings/Tom Tykwer film version of David Mitchell's novel, Cloud Atlas, is still two weeks from premiering. As such the book has only a precious few more days where it can stand on its own and escape comparison with the movie. A hoary old cliche in film criticism is "The book was better." There are scant few books where the film IS better, and that list is very subjective. My personal list would include Jaws, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Ridley Scott's Blade Runner). It's not that these novels are bad, most are quite good, but the movies do a better job thematically condensing the same material and making for a more intense and emotional experience. Without having seen the movie, I have a feeling Cloud Atlas is going to fall in to that grouping as well.

Cloud Atlas is an easy book to admire and an enjoyable read, but it's hard to love it. The six stories that make up the book are not so much interlocked as they are chained together. It begins in the 1800′s on a voyage from New Zealand to San Francisco. Midway through the story the narrative ends abruptly, literally in the middle of a sentence. The next story begins immediately. It is an epistolary using only the letters of a young composer in the 1930′s, Robert Frobisher, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. In the letters he mentions finding half of a diary in the home of a famous composer named Ayrs that he has taken a job with. Frobisher, while in an affair with Ayrs' wife, becomes obsessed with completing a piece he has called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. From there the book moves to 1979 and a young reporter, Luisa Rey, is investigating safety violations at a nuclear reactor. Her primary source is Rufus Sixsmith. After he is murdered she discovers the letters from Robert Frobisher, and becomes intrigued by the Cloud Atlas Sextet and tries to track it down. This continues to the story of a publisher held against his will in a sinister senior home, a clone in a corporate run future Korea giving a visual affidavit for her part in a revolution, and finally to a far flung future Hawaii where human kind has reverted back to savage and warring tribes after a never explained "Fall".

Got all that?

The biggest handicap of the book is also it's greatest gimmick. The first 5 stories are all begun and take up about 30-40 pages before breaking off and starting the next one. The final story, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" is told in its entirety and then each story is finished in reverse order, ending with the last half of the diary. The problem with this device is that it is difficult to get invested in the characters and what is happening to them. There are hints that these people in each different time are reincarnations of the previous characters. Locations overlap, scenes have echos from story to story, but its never exactly clear what the connections are supposed to be inferred. The last half of the book arrives in a rush as the loop is closed on each story one by one. As the individual narratives end each character finds the missing piece of the next adjoining narrative and ends their tale by watching or reading the next story in the sequence.

By the end there is some expectation of an event that is going to tie the whole thing together. However, as opposed to a narrative finale, Mitchell instead focuses on a thematic one. There are multiple themes that interlock the 6 stories, but the primary one is that in all of these stories a visitor is saved by a native. Each story features a villain who uses their powers, whether they are monetary or authoritarian, to subjugate other characters through violence or subterfuge. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas seems to say that across times and lives the struggle against tyranny in all forms is a human constant. Where the novel falters is in making an impact on the reader when that tyranny overwhelms the heroes. Instead of being emotionally involved I found myself trying to see the narrative tie to what came before and after. Quite honestly this is more of a criticism on me as the reader than on Mitchell. I don't think he ever set out to tell a "tie every bow" interlocked story but to express a philosophy and use 6 separate stories to underline the similarities between them all.

Structurally, the book runs in to trouble by mixing "reality" with "fiction". When it is revealed that the publisher is reading a novel about Luisa Rey it calls in to question the reincarnation element in the book. How can a fictional character be the reincarnation of a real one? One theory I have is that this is not about reincarnated souls, but archetypes. Each of the 6 stories is wildly different in setting and tone. A story of treachery on the high seas, a drawing room drama, a corporate corruption thriller, a comedic farce, a science fiction story, and finally the post apocalyptic adventure. Yet each of these characters at the center all share a narrative similarity. These are all strangers in strange lands. Is Mitchell really commenting on the recycled nature of characters in all levels of fiction? That each genre, no matter how maligned, can still be "literature" and all fiction is really telling the same, hopeful story of good triumphing over evil? Cloud Atlas doesn't really lend itself one way or the other, but I think it's a viable theory.

Cloud Atlas is a dazzling achievement that just doesn't quite bring the lofty themes and ambitious devices together. Still, I highly recommend it, as there are very few novels quite like it. What you get out of it is likely going to be subjective from reader to reader. This is a very complex book and more schooled readers of literature than myself will likely hit on things I didn't grasp the first time through. For instance the number 6 in multiple variants repeats over and over throughout the novel. Is this a biblical reference to Genesis and the mythological 6 days it took to create the cosmos? Maybe. I'm sure a second read through will reveal even more connections and thematic ties.

The core of Cloud Atlas is solid and the stories are entertaining, but the emotional element was lacking for me. It is for that reason I can't wait to see how they adapted the book to film and if the filmmakers were able to nail the emotional component while preserving the thematic elements. I'm hopeful that not only will Tykwer and the Wachowskis dazzle us with the narrative acrobats, but they will also stick the landing taking Cloud Atlas from a good adaptation to a classic.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of TylerDFC's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • SabrinaHatesDisqus

    Great review. Still on the fence on whether I want to read the book, though.

  • Thank you for taking the time to read the review and your kind words, everyone. I appreciate it!

  • denesteak

    dude, this review was really well-written. I disagree with you on a lot of what you said, but could totally see your point of view. I actually loved this book when I read it. For me, it had everything -- it had brilliant writing, great plot and immovable themes. Even though Mitchell tried to hammer home the whole idea of reincarnation, I didn't really focus on that until I saw the movie preview.

    This --"Ultimately, Cloud Atlas seems to say that across times and lives the struggle against tyranny in all forms is a human constant." -- I totally agree with, as well as what you wrote about archetypes. But I think it worked for me more than for you.

  • TK

    I don't know that I'll be compelled to read the novel, but that said, this was a great goddamn review.

  • Totally agree with your assessment of the "gimmick." I recall becoming invested in a particular story, only to have it cut off at a tense moment so the next section could begin. It was rather frustrating, but I felt it paid off in the end. I'd like to reread this one before seeing the movie, but I've got a long list of books ahead of it and don't see that happening.

    Great review, TylerDFC!

  • Skyler Durden

    I'll throw myself onto the pyre for mockery and confess that I could not finish it. I chose to listen to the audiobook, and even with someone reading it to me, by the time I hit the Hawaii chapter I was DONE. People love to say that this book is a challenge that rewards the reader, but you know what? Fuck those people. This book is the type of slog that makes me wonder, where is the fine line that separates genius from incoherence?

    This book. Just ugh. I just can't. I will still watch the movie, though. Because I'm a plebe.

  • Xulux

    I lost patience about the same place. Mitchell is a good writer, but he's trying way too hard to be clever here, and the strain shows.

  • Mickey

    My opinion, after having read Cloud Atlas, is that Mr. Mitchell
    would have been best served to hire a good editor to help him eliminate the
    extraneous sub-plots and focus on the excellent material now hidden behind clouds
    obscuring his Atlas. His literary tricks
    are impressive, but disconcerting to many readers. And maybe the film’s director (Tom Tykwer) will
    be that good book editor.

  • BWeaves

    Thanks! I was wondering what this was about. I'm not sure it would work for me, because I always read the last page first, then the last chapter, then backwards towards the front. Drives my husband nuts.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    wait, what?! for real?

  • BWeaves

    Yes.

  • return of santitas

    I started this book last year, having confused it with a different novel (can't remember what I thought I was picking up but hoo boy was I wrong). I wanted to throw it across the room, but I suspect that might have had more to do with being unprepared for what I was about to read rather than the qualities of the book itself. This review makes me want to try again!

  • Thanks for reviewing this @TylerDFC. It's quite a book, as are his others, especially Ghostwritten. While his approach to structure can be novel and difficult to understand, he writes beautifully. One of the marks of his writing skills is just how little you notice while you read. It's effortlessly rich prose. I can't recommend all of his books highly enough. Thanks!

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