Julia’s #CBRV Review # 7: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas is not a bad book, it’s just a “not for me” kind of book. I thought it was for me, I had heard great things from pretty much everyone who ever read it, including past CBR reviewers. The book was even lent to me by a friend who recommended it. I saw the trailer for the movie, and that looked undeniably cool. So here I am, having read the book, and all I can think is, “that was okay…?” I almost feel like the fault is with me, that I just didn’t read the book right or that I need to have someone explain it to me, and I’ll have a revelation where I suddenly think it’s great. However, right now is not that moment, and I’m reviewing the book based upon my current impression.

The plot of Cloud Atlas is not easily summarized so I’ll let Mitchell himself give a brief description so I can get it out of the way:

“My 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, opens in 1850, with a notary on an island-hopping voyage from the South Pacific to San Francisco. But that narrative gets interrupted by another story, set in the 1930s, about a young composer who finds a memoir written some decades earlier by the notary; which story in turn is interrupted by another, involving a journalist and a physicist, whose letters recount the 1930s narrative; and so on, for a total of six different time frames. In the novel’s second half, the interrupted narratives are continued, and the novel ends with the conclusion of the 1850s memoir.
-David Mitchell, October 19, 2012

I do admire the format of the book. Mitchell plays with his storytelling style in a way I have never seen done before. It’s a unique way of delving into the idea that humanity is all connected, that the choices we make now will have ripples far into the future. Each of the stories are well written. In some cases, Mitchell has created completely new dialects or new realities, and he does so with skill. He philosophizes on everything from racism to sexism, good vs. evil, class and status. So why didn’t I like this book…

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the book felt smug, or rather the writing felt smug, or maybe the author seemed smug. It was too much an exercise in, “Look what I can do!” However, if the idea is that events can cause ripples that cause changes in the future, quite frankly he didn’t do a great job. With the exception of the middle of the book, where we see the culmination of these stories, there is not a lot of causality. There are a couple of cases where we see the direct ripples, the direct cause and effect. However, for other stories the only connection at all was that a character in the future is reading a story from the past. However, whether this connection had an effect on their behavior, philosophy, or anything at all is really unknown to me. Some of the stories in fact could have been taken out completely (I’m looking at you, “Letters from Zedelghem”) and I don’t see how this would have made a difference to the novel at all. So maybe the fault is with me…maybe I missed the connection… But seriously, then he gets into a comet birthmark that links the different characters? Transmigrating souls? STOP THAT. Ugh.

It was clear from reading Cloud Atlas that David Mitchell can write. He’s a talented author, he plays with big ideas, Cloud Atlas certainly didn’t make me write him off, it just made me wish he had used his talents to write something different. With Cloud Atlas there were too many, “whys,” that were never answered, too many themes that didn’t quite work, that were never quite explained. I would recommend reading Cloud Atlas for “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” alone, I found that particular chapter to be profound, but as a novel I don’t think Mitchell quite made it work.

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