I’m so bad about posting (and linking to) my reviews. Links below to reviews 27 through 36.
Goodreads says: “A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.”
There was a lot to unfold in this book, with its successive stories each moving forward in time, interrupting each other, addressing each other, and then concluding sequentially. Having read it, I think I can especially understand the more at-odds than usual mixed reviews of the movie, since adapting this for film seems an unusually tasking endeavor.
Mitchell has accomplished an impressive technical feat here, which is to leap between stylistic genres believably. Some (possibly those with a higher literary IQ than I) have also alleged that the “stacked” nature of this book is itself an accomplishment; for me it seemed a little gimmicky. A vague thread of existentialism ran through each of the stories, which were more explicitly tied together with notes like the narrator of one story reading the journal of the prior narrator’s story, or multiple narrators mentioning having the same birthmark (this seemingly random connection was lampshaded later when one narrator, an editor, scoffed at the random inclusion of two other nested characters having the same birthmark.) Each of these stories also borrow heavily from other works of art (literature, film, music/music history), as acknowledged by Mitchell himself, so in a way, as the stories string themselves together, they are also tied to our living reality. It is very clever, all of these tenuous threads, but at the end of the day your enjoyment of the book as a whole probably rests mostly on how you respond to each of the different stories. I read someone else’s review recently (I’m sorry to say I don’t remember whose!) that addressed the idea that sometimes appreciating what the author has done is different from enjoying it, and that’s basically what I experienced here.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy any of Cloud Atlas. I just didn’t enjoy all of it. My personal favorite stories included “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, which was the sci-fi Blade Runner-esque account of a replicant type who became sentient. It’s presented as an interview with her as she waits on what is essentially death row. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek with its inclusion of many of our favorite sci-fi tropes in such a short story, and as a fan of the genre I appreciated the wink and nod. I also liked the story that comprised of letters from 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher to one Rufus Sixsmith, and the delightfully cheesy noir mystery of Luisa Rey. Conversely, I didn’t like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (I think I could the apostrophes correct!) much at all — the forced pidgin was an absolute chore to read and I gave up on it entirely, other than to scan through and find the connection, which was that Sonmi~451’s story had survived and elevated her to God-like status among some.
It’s hard to say if this book will, ultimately, ascend to the status of literary classic, or be defamed as hacky and pompous after some time. In the present though, it’s worth reading.
I feel a bit embarrassed that I am so hopelessly tardy in my arrival at the Cloud Atlas party. I bought the book years ago, but my loathing for smart-arse writerly ‘technique’ getting in the way of a good story put me off. When this year the book was made into a film starring Tom Hanks (who I hate more than the aforementioned self-indulgence/arrogance of some authors), I decided I could ignore it no longer. As a rule, I don’t like being proved wrong, but in this case I’m happy to eat my judgemental hat. Good god I LOVED this book.
The novel tells six separate, but interlinked, stories. The first deals with a 19th century American lawyer and his adventures on the high seas of the Pacific; the second is narrated by a talented, petulant composer in 1930s Belgium who seduces his mentor’s wife and falls in love with his daughter; the third is a Silkwood-esque 1970s morality tale of corrupt big business; fourth is the hilarious story of Timothy Cavendish, a publisher in 1980s London who gets trapped in an old people’s home; next is the tragic story of Somni-451 a clone in a dystopian future who is due to be executed for evolving feelings and a will of her own; finally comes the story of Zachary, a tribesman in a world centuries after the fall of civilisation. I know, I know, I thought all this sounded affected and ridiculous too, but it’s not. It’s NOT!
David Mitchell is such a genius that he effortlessly weaves these stories together, ending each on a cliff-hanger that in no way stops you from getting immediately gripped by the next one. He is as comfortable with the historical novel of the opening or the Amis-like world of Timothy Cavendish as he is with the sci-fi of the later stories, and each narrative voice rings completely true.
I hardly know what else to say. I loved it so much I can’t do it justice. It made me laugh, made me cry, made me anxious, and even got me over my Irvine Welsh (the Crown Prince of self-indulgent arrogant writers) induced phobia of dialect outside of dialogue. I was desperate to find out what happened to each of the characters, but at the same time didn’t want the book to end. If you’re reading this review, stop pissing around on the internet and read Cloud Atlas instead.
Cloud 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:
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’ve finally gotten around to reading what seemed to be everyone’s favorite Cannonball Read from a couple years ago: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004). I guess I could call it a cross between six short stories and a comprehensive philosophy of the nature of humanity. I wish I had come into this book with fewer expectations, though, because even though I was impressed and enjoyed it, the hype was probably too much to ever live up to.
To read the the entirety of my meandering and spoilerific review of Cloud Atlas, click here.
Having read Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green came as quite a surprise. It’s just one story, told in a straightforward fashion, and it’s subject matter is familiar and relatable. Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor has an eventful 1982 as he tries to overcome his stammer, capture his feelings in poems, make sense out of the war in the Falklands, and make it through the bullying at school.
While it might seem like this would be a disappointment coming off the inventive Cloud Atlas, in actuality Black Swan Green is a delightful read. Mitchell expertly catalogs the anxieties of an unpopular boy on the verge of adolescence. The specific details of the time period and the setting are also appreciated .
It seems like David Mitchell is just as comfortable in the real world as he is spinning out a futuristic fantasy-world.
I’ll preface this by saying I read Cloud Atlas last fall, avoided the movie, and am pretty enamored with David Mitchell. I’m already fiending to read more of his work. Cloud Atlas unreels its nested narratives artfully, and Mitchell’s transitions between very diverse voices is unbelievable to witness. number9dream offers much of the same literary craftiness.
Unlike Cloud Atlas, this story has one central narrative told through the eyes of our hero, Eiji Miyake. He has come to Tokyo from his rural island home to find his father, whom he has never met. The book is divided into 9 parts, which unspool chronologically. We follow Eiji from his early days in Tokyo, broke and distracted, living above a video rental store, to his two odd jobs in a city he can’t quite understand, and onward into frightening adventures and travels back to his birthplace. Each section has a sort of sub-plot (if you can call it that) that arises from something Eiji reads or interacts with in the chapter (e.g. an author’s fantasy manuscript, his great uncle’s journal from WWII). These intertwine with the immediate events and lend a fantastic element to what could have a been a very straightforward story. The story benefits hugely from these apt side stories.
Check out the rest at my site: benmitchelllewis.com
I started reading Cloud Atlas a few months after seeing the movie, with the full realization that my impressions of the book would be colored by what I already knew. I was surprised to find, however, that though conversations had been copied directly, often seemingly word for word, from the text and that many other details were identical, my impressions and the meaning that I took away from the novel were entirely different.
Cloud Atlas is a series of connected stories focused on six different characters in six different times and places.
- Adam Ewing, a young lawyer on a voyage across the Pacific in 1850
- Robert Frobisher, a composer and a disgraced English aristocrat, working in Belgium as an assistant to an old and dying but famous composer in1931
- Luisa Rey, a young journalist caught up in a dangerous nuclear conspiracy in California in 1975
- Timothy Cavendish, a vanity publisher on the run from gangsters, accidentally trapped in a nursing home in present-day England
- Sonmi-451, a genetically modified “fabricant” slave in a highly advanced future Korea
- Zachry Bailey, a villager in Hawaii after the fall of civilization, living in fear of attack by savage tribes
Each character is explicitly tied to both the previous and subsequent character. Zachry Bailey’s tribe considers Sonmi a god; Sonmi describes watching a film of Timothy Cavendish; Timothy reads a manuscript of Luisa’s adventures; one of Luisa’s informants in Robert Frobisher’s former lover, and Robert Frobisher reads an old diary written by Adam Ewing. In the movie, parts of each of these stories were interspersed, with bits scattered throughout the duration, but the book is arranged as a Matriyoska doll, folding out symmetrically. It starts with Adam Ewing, working its way out into the future gradually, leaving each story only half told, and then doubles back on itself- a conceit that I must admit delighted me.
Walking away from Cloud Atlas the film, my impression of the meaning was that we are all connected in unexpected and wonderful ways, and that we have a responsibility to each other. This theme was also present in the novel, but not as obviously. Instead, the meaning that I took away from the book was the universal nature and destructive power of greed.
This started small and grew steadily bigger- first Adam Ewing is poisoned by another man for the contents of his trunk, then Robert Frobisher is blackmailed by a conspiracy of a husband and wife. Luisa Rey faces down corporate greed; Sonmi-451 contends with societal greed on an unimaginable scale, leaving Zachry, dealing with the fallout of the greed of past generations and grappling with greed in the present in its purest form: savagery.
I really liked this book and would recommend it without hesitation, regardless of what anyone thought of the movie . Each story benefited from the additional room to breathe that the novel’s length afforded, and the sections about Sonmi-451 especially achieved a richness that was not present in the film. Though Cloud Atlas was not quite the life-changing experience I was promised, it was a very good novel with quite a bit of food for thought.
“I wish to finish viewing a film I began watching when, for an hour in my life, I knew happiness.”
A blurb on the back of this novel states that Mitchell “entices his readers onto a rollercoaster,” and while I would agree with that entirely, I would not intend it in the overused sense of a “wild ride.” I would mean a slow, laborious ascent followed by a rapid, eye-watering descent. No twists or turns, but maybe one giant loop.
“Cloud Atlas” tell the tale of souls traveling through time – how their stories link and how their actions influence the whole of an entire planet – and takes the adventure there and back again. The novel begins in the 19th century in, as best as this geographically challenged reader can tell, New Zealand. Adam Ewing, a young notary from the states, is traveling abroad for legal purposes, and we are privvy to his journal which documents his landscapes and the motley crew of sailors with whom he travels. From there the reader travels to Belgium in the 1930’s to follow a young and arrogant musical apprentice, and then on to 1960’s California and into a mystery of political intrigue and journalistic integrity. The novel then moves to present day and tells the tale of a shady and irresponsible publisher, and following his trappings we travel to an all too probable future of clones and consumerism.
The novel climaxes in a dystopian return to primitive living. It is the only vignette that isn’t interrupted and is written in a non-existent dialect. Once we’ve peaked at the end of the world, the novel begins its rapid downhill leg. Connections that might have been missed on the way up all begin to click together and even if the reader had struggled on the way up, as I did, the journey to the end is quickened as the souls and relevance line up like Rockettes.
I really struggled through the first half. The “authors” of the first two narratives were not entirely likable and that is, historically, a stumbling block for me in any medium. The third, a classic mystery, was too political and technical for me – not a genre I would tend to choose to read at all. The fourth was funny and light, but “The Orison of Sonmi-451” hooked me in absolutely. These chapters are scfi-fi at its best. I hit my “a-HA!” moment during that tale (which is not to say the connections weren’t visible up to that point – they were, I just didn’t care), and devoured the rest of the book like a cheesecake about to go bad. Re-read factor is high, because I feel like there are so many more things to see – especially since the first half of the book felt like a chore the first time through. David Mitchell proves adept at several genres and styles, so expect to see at least one more Mitchell review for CBR!