Book Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell
Published in 2005

I’m planning to watch this movie later this week, so I want to write this before I do.

(In defense of this book, and in my own defense, and to explain the review I’m about to write, I started reading Cloud Atlas right after I finished The Book ThiefThe Book Thief is a book that grabs your heart, your mind and your guts, twists them together, and leaves you gasping afterwards, trying to collect the parts of yourself that you’ve somehow left between its covers. It’s the kind of book that you try to tell yourself to stop reading, so that you’ll be able to work tomorrow… but you can’t. You just can’t stop. I’ve tried to be fair to Cloud Atlas, but I suspect that any book I read after The Book Thief was going to leave me a little deflated.)

There are lists of books that you’re supposed to read. They’re lists that are full of excellent, heavy, complicated books. I love lists like this, because they give me ideas about what I should read when I run out. Cloud Atlas is a book on one such list. I also read it because I’ve heard good things about it, and I wanted to watch the movie. When possible, I prefer to read the book first.

So. Cloud Atlas.

The book has a remarkable structure. Six interwoven stories, starting from the outside and working their way in chronological order to the center, and then out again. Each story is written in a style suited to the era that it’s set in.

To give you a brief overview:

Adam Ewing’s sea journey is first, and is written in the form of diary entries, a style popular in the late 1800s. It reminded me of Golding’s Rites of Passage.
This diary is then found by Robert Frobisher, who is writing letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, in the 1930s.
These letters are then found by Luisa Rey in 1975, as she investigates a case, and has her life placed in peril on several occasions.
Luisa Rey’s story is then turned into a manuscript, which is being read by Timothy Cavendish, before he finds himself accidentally locked in an old age home.
Timothy Cavendish’s story gets turned into a film, which is watched by Sonmi-451 in Neo-Seoul. Sonmi-451 is telling her story, which is being recorded.
Finally, the story at the center of the book, is set in a futuristic, post-Apocalyptic world, where Sonmi’s recordings have been found, and she is regarded as something of a goddess.

Now… it’s not as complicated a book as all that. It did, however, take me about 8 months to finish. Some sections I read through at great speed, and others dragged like cement.

For example, I was intrigued by the story behind Adam Ewing’s journey (part 1) and was curious to see how it worked out, but the journal style always leaves something to be desired. What is missing? What are we not seeing? This section… I got through it with the kind of grim determination that I had to learn while reading books for my degree.

Robert Frobisher, presented a fascinating story. In this section, I think we’re much more aware of the bias of the speaker. Is Frobisher meant to come off as arrogant? I suspect so. But we find some depth in him as his letters continue. He’s spoiled, and I think that we’re mean to see him as such, but he’s not irredeemable.

The Luisa Rey story fitted perfectly into its genre – a great peril posed by a mysterious corporation, cars being driven into a lakes, great deals of danger, a dead father that the lead character wants to live up to, and so forth… perfectly in the style of pulp crime thriller fiction.

Timothy Cavendish… again, I feel a character that we’re supposed to dislike, and again, I think we’re supposed to. He’s arrogant and self important, and there are enough hints from the other characters that lead us to see just how much of an arse he is, and also how much of a fool he realises himself to be. It felt like scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, written from the perspective of the elderly.

The story of Sonmi-451 fascinated me. She’s not human – not really, I suppose – and as such, she presents a fair and neutral view of the world. She is treated as less than human, but she’s somehow not portrayed as bitter or angry about this fact. By the time we meet her, we’re aware that she’s about to die. She’s calm. Her perspective of the world and human nature, from her downtrodden position, is somehow still balanced and (perhaps even) optimistic.

Finally, the story of Sloosha’s crossing…
The use of a new, differentiated, but still recognizably English brand of language isn’t all that new of an idea. It’s been done well, and effectively, by others before. For a prime example, think of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess invented Nadsat for the book, and it worked well horrorshow at helping us to distance ourselves from truly viddying all the ultraviolence, oh my little brothers. The new language here was less obscure than Nadsat, and also served less of a purpose. True, it would have been odd if Mitchell’s future characters spoke English as we speak it today, but it wasn’t really necessary. Nadsat was used for a reason – in masked us from truly seeing all the violence in A Clockwork Orange. We knew what was happening, but in unfamiliar words, it makes it possible for you to keep reading.

This section, while fascinating in itself, somehow lost me. I could recognise the world of Neo-Seoul (from Sonmi’s story) and see how it had come about… but there was so much of this section that left me wondering why it had been included at all. How did Sonmi’s world become that world? And why did it become the way it did? Why does everyone speak the way they do? Too many questions, and not enough to lead me to an answer.

So… plot and a minor bit of analysis over. On to my opinion.

I’ve read books with complex, interlacing plots before. Sometimes I’ve enjoyed them, sometimes not. What is crucial for this, and why I need to watch the movie, is so that I can see how the characters move between the various stories. In truth, I think I was hoping for something more like Hal Duncan’s Vellum, where the stories are wildly different, the characters have different names, are doing different things, and a whole bunch of things only start to come together at the end… but goddamn… it is brilliant. I think the thing was that the connections between the plots started to become clear. How the characters moved from myth, to present, to future, to alternative realities was incredible. And there was something connecting them all, by the end…just… holy shit.

Cloud Atlas, while objectively excellent, (and hopefully making a good film), somehow misses something that connects all the stories together – not just each one to the next, but all the various parts.

Would I recommend Cloud Atlas? Yes.
Will I read it again? Probably. After watching the film.
But what did I really think?… brilliant, but somehow… dry.

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