For some people, awards are guides as to which books to read, but for others they can serve as a warning that the novels are “too literary,” all art and artifice and no story. It’s easy to see how some might think that of Cloud Atlas. Nominated for several awards, including the heavyweight Booker prize, written by an author — David Mitchell — known for his surreal “literariness,” and constructed in a non-linear fashion, Cloud Atlas runs the risk of being ruled out at the outset by many. That would be too bad, however, for the book is utterly brilliant, one of my favorite reads of the past decade and a perfect example of how craft and storytelling are not mutually exclusive.
The structure, as mentioned, is unusual, taking the form of six stories linked mostly if not solely by theme and told in chronological order. That isn’t all, however. Each story is abruptly interrupted by the one following, until one reaches the middle of the book and the sixth story, after which the stories are completed in reverse order. The form sounds much more gimmicky than it reads (and serves a purpose beyond the gimmicky) and is not at all difficult to follow. The structure is part of the book’s pleasure, offering up the simple pleasures of varied story/style and cliffhanger endings, along with the more complex pleasure involved in tracing the connections wending between all the stories.
The stories span centuries, styles, and genres. They are told as diaries, as letters, as interrogation; they are set in the 19th, 20th, and 22nd centuries; they mimic the style of mystery, science-fiction/fantasy, travelogue. They all share strong characters, strong voices, a sense of humor and one of sorrow. They can be equally funny and poignant. As one might expect when there are six separate stories, some are perhaps stronger than others, but that is more testament to any single story’s strength rather than indictment of any story’s weakness. Even then, the differences between them are slight and it wouldn’t surprise me if readers disagreed about which are the better ones. Each is in its own right a compelling, well-told story, though all are improved upon and deepened by the connections between them.
If there is any slowing in the book, it probably will come for most in the futuristic story, which is told in a stylized slang that simply because of its unfamiliarity will cause more reading difficulty than the previous stories for those not familiar with such a style; regular sci-fi/fantasy genre readers will probably not have any problem at all. That said, it is not all that difficult to follow (there is, for instance, no need of a glossary as in Clockwork Orange), it gets easier as one reads it, and the story shares the same strengths of character and plot with the others, making the extra work (little as it is) well worth it.
Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly enjoyable read on many, many levels. People who pick it up for its pedigree of awards and past authorial history might be surprised by the genre aspect (“how did I end up reading speculative fiction?”). People who pick it up despite, rather than because of, its pedigree might be surprised by its accessibility, by the compelling nature of the various plots. In either case, it will be a more than pleasant surprise for both. Highly and strongly recommended.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a complex and thought-provoking meditation on the nature of individuality, the nature of humanity and the nature of stories.
Even if Mitchell did not have intense, complex characters and sharply grounded descriptions, and even if he didn’t have intriguing stories and imaginative worlds, the structure of Cloud Atlas alone would make it worth reading. Cloud Atlas tells us six stories. The first five follow each other sequentially, each one ending at a dramatic point. (One ends abruptly!) The sixth section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ a’Ev’rythin’ After” is a complete tale. Then the five others complete in reverse order, so that “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” begins and ends the book. It’s like a palindrome, with “Sloosha’s Crossin’” the fulcrum, or vertical beam on a balance-scale. “Sloosha’s Crossin’” functions as the fulcrum not only structurally, but narratively as well, letting the reader understand the effects of the some of the earlier sections.
Mitchell addresses various eras: the mid-1800s, the 1930s, the 1970s, our present, and two time periods in the future. In each section he tells a different type of story using a different style. There is an old-style travel journal; an epistolary section; one part is written in the tone of a 1970s murder mystery; there is a transcription of an interrogation and an oral history. The sections move through time linearly, but impulses and dreams seems to move in both directions; shifting among characters who seem to be in no way related except for an odd birthmark.
In terms of the shifting styles, which Mitchell executes flawlessly, this book reminded me a little bit of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but Cloud Atlas is infused with literary influences and references. Fahrenheit 451 gets a nod, and so does Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, as well as Moby Dick and others. I’m going to indulge in a moment of cynicism here and say that while this is excellent science fiction, the literary crowd probably couldn’t wait to appropriate it because it’s so darn good.
I’ve gone this far without discussing characters. The character who travels the farthest in terms of growth is Sonmi, a convincing folk hero in a future corporatist state. Because they are adjacent in the book, the character of Adam Ewing, a naive but well-meaning man, capable of change yet completely a product of his time, is affected, if only in contrast, by Robert Frobisher, a composer, grafter and cad who says of himself, with some accuracy, “… now I’m a spent firework, but as least I’ve been a firework.” Frobisher writes letters to a man named Sixsmith who will become a nuclear physicist, but Luisa Rey, a young journalist, will find herself captivated by Frobisher’s music, as if she has heard it before, though she has not. Is it only through Frobisher’s letters that she develops this sense of familiarity, or is something else at work? When Frobisher stands over his sleeping employer, staring at his throat, in the grip of a powerful and strange influence, is there something else at work? Something from a time that should be Frobisher’s future? These kinds of questions keep bubbling up for me, quite apart from the serious philosophical questions posed by the book. A book that makes you question philosophy, physics and the art of story-telling is a treasure, so seek out Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas is layered, complex, uniquely structured, occasionally puzzling, often moving, and not for the faint of heart. It’s famously (or infamously) structured with a sextet of stories that range from the mid-1800s to the distant future.
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.
I like that Mitchell has a sense of humor about his story. :) Like this Cloud Atlas Sextet musical piece written by one of the characters, each story is told by a different voice, and cuts off abruptly (sometimes in mid-sentence) until the central story. Then the storyline moves back again through time, wrapping up each tale. To use another simile, the novel is very much like a set of Russian nesting dolls that is taken apart and then put back together again.
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.
Despite the sometimes huge leaps in time, each story is tied to the stories before and after it by colorful threads: characters read (or view) each others’ stories; themes resurface, showing a different face; memorable scenes — like increasingly small fruit being shot off a reluctant clone’s head with an arrow — are unexpectedly reflected in a similar scene in a later story; characters experience deja vu moments that tie them to another character in a different story.
Part 1 is the 1850-era journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary who is traveling in the South Pacific. He witnesses the brutality of the Maori people toward the Moriori natives, not realizing — at first — that his own white people are often equally as brutal and predatory. This story is told in the style of Herman Melville, which, frankly, makes for a rough start to the novel. But don’t lose heart, because very soon comes:
Part 2: Letters written in 1931 by a young Robert Frobisher, an amoral, self-centered, dishonest, but very funny and charming bisexual musical genius, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher, disinherited and looking to escape from his debts, attaches himself as an assistant to an older, nearly blind musician, Vyvyan Ayrs, who is living in Belgium. After a rocky start, the musical collaboration goes well, but soon problems start to surface again. Adam Ewing’s journal is discovered by Robert while he is fishing around in the Ayrs’ home, looking for old books to steal and sell.
Part 3: It’s 1975, and Rufus Sixsmith is now an older man who meets a journalist, Luisa Rey, in California when they’re stuck together in a broken elevator. Luisa is looking for a good story, and Rufus has some dirt on the new nuclear reactor in the area. This piece reads like a fast-moving crime novel that you’d pick up in an airport to distract you on your flight.
Part 4: In the early 2000s, Timothy Cavendish, a 60-something British man who is a vanity publisher, is writing his memoirs. One of his authors (who comes from a rough family) tosses his worst literary critic over the side of a skyscraper, killing him. The resulting publicity makes the author’s book an instant bestseller. Though the author is in jail, his brothers come to Timothy looking for a piece of the monetary pie. Timothy goes on the run…
Part 5: Sometime in the not-too-far-distant future, in what used to be Korea, not-too-bright clones (“fabricants”) are used as a source of slave labor. They are deemed to have no soul. Corporate power rules, and the slang amusingly reflects that as several trademarks are now the generic names for everyday objects (people wear nikes on their feet, drive fords and watch disneys). Sonmi-451 is a fabricant fast food worker who is unexpectedly “ascending,” gaining greatly increased intelligence and understanding. A group steals her away from the restaurant, but what is their agenda for Sonmi-451?
Part 6: In a far-distant future, Zachry tells the story of his adventures in his youth on the “Big I” of “Hawi” to a group of children. Zachry’s people, the Valleymen, are a no-tech, superstitious, rural people who worship the goddess Sonmi and are periodically in danger from Kona raiders, who seek to enslave them. The Valleyman are also visited annually by the Prescients, who seem to be the one group of people who still have technology and scientific understanding. One of the Prescients, Meronym, asks to stay with Zachry’s people for a year and Zachry’s family is elected to host her, much to his dismay. They eventually become friends as he leads her on a pilgrimage to what’s left of the observatories on Mauna Kea, symbolically capping the novel as events start to descend from there.
Mitchell’s ability to create very distinct narrators, writing styles, and futuristic languages without sacrificing (too much) understanding is truly praiseworthy. It helped me to know that each story section was (with the exception of the culminating central story) only about 40 pages long, so if I was having difficulties with one narrator I had the comfort of knowing that a different narrator would soon take over.
Cloud Atlas grapples with some heavy themes: power, greed, slavery, predatory vs. selfless behavior, prejudice, love, the nature of souls… I could go on. I think I may admire this book more than I love it, but it’s an amazing achievement and really made me think. It is absolutely worth reading if you’re up for a mental challenge.
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.
yea–more Cloud Atlas love! Glad you enjoyed it so much Marion–“a treasure” is exactly right.
That “On 1 wishlists” is me.
Don’t know if this books asks so many profound philosophical questions as it does express human truths. Nietzsche’s eternal return, Eliade’s similar concept, even Daoism’s cycles of life are used as thematic underpinning. The challenge of confronting this reality are what give the book its “thought value”.