Books: Cloud Atlas

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

In case you missed it, Cloud Atlas won the The Morning News’ First Annual Tournament Of Books. As a contributing writer for TMN, I was asked to participate in the tournament, but I declined because I had an upcoming trip to D.C. on my calendar, and assumed I’d be too busy to read. As it turned out, I spent pretty much the entire trip devouring the very book I would have been reading otherwise. I started Cloud Atlas on my flight East, read it during every available moment while there, and finished it on the plane home. Something of a page-turner, that book.

Cloud Atlas a book of short stories, or a novel, or maybe both at once — it’s hard to tell. It has a very peculiar narrative structure, that much is certain. The separate stories (or are they separate stories, hmm?) take place in different time periods, and each is told in the tone and vernacular endemic to the era: the first story, set in the 19th century, has an ornate, Heart of Darkness feel to it; a later story takes place in the 1970′s, and bears a striking similarity to the pulp thrillers of the era; and so on.

What’s amazing about Cloud Atlas is that each story seems completely authentic for its time period, and (with the exception of one misfire) each is enthralling. The voices of the stories are so distinctive that, were the names of six authors listed on the cover instead of just David Mitchell’s, the reader would never suspect that they had all come from the same pen. It seems more like an anthology than the work of a single, amazing writing.

Unfortunately, the sum is somewhat less than the parts. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the “peculiar narrative structure” I alluded to above (although I will in the comments), but it hints at a much bigger payoff than the book ever delivers. My assumption was that all of the stories were in the service of the structure, and that the connect between them would ultimately be revealed; alas, in the end the mystery is not only unsolved, the reader is left wondering if there ever was any mystery at all, whether the structure was a means to a deeper novel or simply an if end in itself. Or as one character puts it, “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.” I’ll confess that I did not know when I finished, but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

Even so, it’s one of the better books I’ve read in a while, despite the disquieting feeling of disappointment I felt as I neared the end and realized that the questions it raised were not going to be answered, or even addressed. But make up your own mind. Revolutionary or gimmicky? You won’t know until you’re read it yourself.

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9 comments.

  1. Spoilers aplenty here in the comments.

    Okay, people: what was the deal with Timothy Cavendish? My impression, basd on the central story, is that all the main charatcers are one, reincarnated soul. And that works fine for all the stories, except The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Not only does he make point of saying that he does not have the comet tattoo, but (assuming I’m doing my math right), he alive the same time as Luisa Rey — Luisa who did have the tattoo. So he couldn’t be a reincarnation of her. Furthermore, he’s the only protagonist who isn’t “Raging against the machine” in some way, either as a pacifist trying to fend of aggressors, or a humanists trying to stop the pillage of capitalists. And the story was the “misfire” I mentioned in my review, overly long and essentially just the Clift notes for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    I think Cloud Atlas would have been improved by that story’s omission.

  2. Funny, I too read Cloud Atlas recently. And I was left with the same questions you related; but while I think that GOTC didn’t make sense structurally and the plot was pretty old territory, I found his narrative voice to be really hilarious nonetheless. When he screams the line about “Soylent Green is people!” and rues that alas, he is the last of his tribe, well, I found that to be laugh out loud funny. Did you not recall it when you read Sonmi’s discovery about where retired fabricants go after they leave Papa Surf’s? And what about “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory,”?
    BTW, have you read Auster’s “Oracle Night” (2003)? I think it too qualifies as interesting metafiction.

  3. ***SPOILERS ***

    I think it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the reincarnation thread. In my view, the characters are more spiritually connected than literally retreads of one another. The character’s determination to effect change in the world ends up influencing the lives of each subsequent character, until at the end (in the middle!) it saves a family and gives hope for rebuilding civilization. Of course, all of this is set against the backdrop of a lot of blood, death, and violence, so it’s not exactly rainbow and roses. But I see the point of the book as more “here’s what the human spirit can do” and less an ode to Shirley MacClaine. Which makes the book better than simply a little less than the sum of its parts.

  4. I tend to feel that the difference between art and entertainment/propaganda is that the former asks complex questions and the latter imposes simple answers on them.

    Given that, Cloud Atlas sounds like just the kind of book I love. I’m going to give it a try.

  5. for me, the structure of Cloud Atlas, like the equally controversial footnotes in Johnathan Strange, justified itself by the way it made me read differently. i became more conscious of my own absorption in the stories when i was forced to stop in the middle of one and proceed to the next. brechtian maybe? ultimately the structure paid off not because it led to some grand overarching point but because it made the experience of reading unique.

    if Jonathan Strange still requires a second, please let this serve as one. JS and CA were my favorite novels from this year.

  6. Just a throwaway thought for you all -

    If you’re looking for a great short story collection where everything builds into a bigger story once you look at the sum of the parts, take a look at Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.

    Lots of others have tried it as well, but Faulkner’s attempt is the best I’ve come across.

  7. I just finished Cloud Atlas last week, and part of me wants to say that it’s gimmicky, if only because I’ve read Mitchell’s earlier book, Ghostwritten, which has a similar narrative structure.

    With that said, I absolutely loved this book. I didn’t think that each character was the previous one reincarnated simply because I thought that some of them, Luisa Rey in particular, were supposed to be read as fictional. The snappy dialogue and neat, Nancy-Drew plot of her story indicated to me that she wasn’t real. What I liked most was how the medium of each story was different, and how they influenced each other–from journal to letters to novel to film to computer and back around to oral storytelling. It draws attention to my favorite snarly subjects, like mediation and propaganda and how narrator and audience influence how we read. Yum.

  8. I once spotted Cloud Atlas in the library. It turned out to be “The Cloud Atlas” by Liam Callahan. Which, oddly enough, is an excellent book as well. Hopefully I’ll stumble across this other “Cloud Atlas” sometime.

  9. My reaction mirrors yours pretty much, though perhaps skewed a little more positively. I picked up the book in Singapore and finished it a few weeks later in New Zealand, so the Pacific Rim aspects of the book were especially resonant. I came away in awe of Mitchell’s cleverness and moved to mull over his take on human progress. All in all, it’s my favorite book since American Gods.