oriana's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jan 21, 12

bookshelves: read-2009, why-werent-you-better, too-smart-for-their-own-good
Read in September, 2009

** spoiler alert ** There's no doubt that David Mitchell is incredibly talented, and Cloud Atlas is a superior achievement. It was stylistically inventive, intellectually daring, etc etc, just like all the critics and reviewers promised. But ultimately it sort of left me cold, and I found myself wondering (often) what all of that effort was really for.

There are two unfortunate things that at the onset contributed strongly to this book not knocking me on my ass. The first was the insane amount of anticipation I had going into it, as I had been told by countless people that this book was amazing, astonishing, etc., and so I think it was set up to be unable to live up to all that. The second is the impossibility of ignoring comparisons to Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. I know that it's a little unfair, but Mitchell simply cannot compete with Calvino, and I couldn't stop thinking about Traveller while reading, and so my whole experience of Cloud Atlas was tarnished by that.

Let's go back. This book, like Traveller, is written sort of like a set of interlocking parentheses, with six totally separate storylines beginning one after the other, going for a while, and then breaking off at climactic points. Then, at the end of the sixth storyline, the fifth is brought back, starting at the previous cliffhanger and continuing until its conclusion, then the same with the fourth, the third, etc. Each of these storylines is extremely different in tone, style, and character – we have the travel journal of an American in Australia in like the 1600s (maybe; I'm awful with history); then letters from a British composer in Brussels to his former lover; then a sort of thriller about a young journalist in California in the sixties trying to unravel a dastardly corporate cover-up involving nuclear testing facilities; then a present-day caper story; then a dystopian-future piece told over the course of a long interview with a woman who has been sentenced to death; then a crazy post-apocalyptic oral history.

So two things here: First, let me again stress that Mitchell is extremely skilled. He does each of these drastically different things with aplomb, and is equally imaginative and able to completely immerse the reader in each one. Each has not only its own setting and story type and narrator and characters, but also its own complete language (the latter two using completely different made-up sci-fi speak). That is utterly astonishing, and Mitchell deserves due respect for it. And second: a book of this nature is excellent for helping one crystallize one's preferences, by which I mean that as someone who dislikes post-apocalyptic sci-fi nearly as much as historical fiction, it's no surprise that I liked the British composer and the American caper far more than the rest. (And I did like them, lots; if I could rate those sections alone, they'd get five stars easily.)

And it is true that Mitchell does a bit of work connecting these vastly varied stories – in storyline two, for example, the letter-writer finds half the manuscript of storyline one in an attic, and at the end of the end of his story, he plans to read the second half, which he'd found much later. But here is the crux of the non-external reason I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to: these connections were tenuous at best. It's true that there are feeble attempts to weave things together a bit further, such as a recurring comet-shaped birthmark and some vague hints that a character from one story remembers a piece of music from another story (which even this is meta-ly discredited, actually), but that wasn't nearly enough for me. I just never really understood what made Mitchell stick these specific stories together, other than to be very very clever.

And this is where the comparison to Traveller hurts Cloud Atlas the most, IMO. With Calvino, every story is constantly reinforcing and augmenting (or obfuscating) the others, everything woven tighter and tighter, not to mention threaded throughout and tied firmly with an overarching ur-story. But Mitchell does none, or barely any, of this, and so the whole thing begins to feel just like an intellectual exercise, rather than an emotionally connected whole, and lord knows I need my literary meta-experimentation to be emotional.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 51) (51 new)


t-rex I'll be curious to hear what you think when you've read CA, Oriana - I do hope you enjoy it!


oriana Thanks t-rex. I'd like to say I'll get to it soon, but I don't even have it yet, and there's so many books to read!! But I suspect that one day a copy will smack me in the face, and I'll know it's time to read this.


message 3: by Tara (new)

Tara Seriously, ditto! I've had this book on my shelf for it seems like *years*. Every time I go to clean off my bookshelves, there it is, all worn and scrape covered, saying "read me, Tara!" Perhaps it is time, it is time. Looks like it's almost a 5-star across the board book :P


Nick one of my favorites from last year.


oriana So tell me, Nick... Is the whole 500 pages old-timey language and weird spelling and racist stuff about Maori? Or does it change to modern? Because this is not what I was expecting at all.


Nick Haha...no, that's only the first part. It will change. I don't wanna give away too much, but just stick with it and you'll see most all of the novel will come as a surprise.


oriana Word. It's already changed, actually, and I like this new narrator way more. Though now I'm sure he'll change soon too and I'll be sad... But anyway, ok. So it's going to be like that.


Nick I remember by experience upon finishing this book. At first I was a little miffed, like 'did i miss something.' Like a sum of parts that didn't quite fit. But after a week or so, this book really sunk in, really had an effect on me. I couldn't quite grasp its profundity right away, but gradually it showed itself. Not sure if you will share the same experience, but stick with it! Unfortunately, I think this is Mitchell's best novel by far.


message 9: by C. (new) - rated it 2 stars

C. Your review is much better and clearer than mine! And I agree with it entirely.


Mike                                              Great review.

I'm with you. Goodreader Chris made a brilliant comment about another writer (Jonathan Lethem), saying the guy seemed to write the novel the way the Dutch play soccer -- more intent on the game's techniques than ever scoring a goal. I *love* Mitchell, but this one felt like a virtuoso exercise.


message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian What a super review, Oriana. I haven't read the book yet (I still might, and I don't feel like your spoilers were too spoiling). I am curious, though, why the 4 stars? From the text of your review I would have guessed you would have given the book 2 stars, or 3 at best. Did you enjoy the book more than what (I felt) came through in the review?


oriana Thanks Choupette & Mike & Ian. You guys are awesome!

Ian, I know, I know, people ask me that a lot, because my ratings always skew high, even for books I really am displeased with or disappointed by. And this one particularly I really was going to give only three stars – and I still might, as I think about it more and more – but then I remember that we live in a literary world that is replete with self-help drivel and romance novels and teen-vampire-abstinence bestsellers and Dan fucking motherfucking Brown, and I just can't do it. I mean, yes, Cloud Atlas let me down a lot (as I emphasize with my oh-so-clever 'why-weren't-you-better' shelf tag), but still, it's still so much better than like 90 percent of the written horror out there....


Michael I read this first and am reading the Calvino now, which would of course explain my own 6-star rating. I like them both on their own merits.


Conrad Yeah, great review, though I have to admit I'm kinda disappointed that you didn't like it more. I liked how inscrutable it is, and how thin the connections are. The conversational quality of Calvino's voice in If On a Winter's Night A Traveller really turned me off. Different strokes, I guess.


Leota great review! my thoughts exactly, though said much more eloquently.


oriana aw, thanks Leota!


Laura My praise is identical to Leota's--curious: have you read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet yet? I found a couple very minor shifts were awkward (I'll just say "when a British, I believe, sailor enters the picture" and leave it there) but was far more sad it was over and not because it was lacking a thing. CA climaxed right in the middle--Sloosha's Crossing and The Orison of Somni were amazing--but then Timothy Cavendish, Luisa Rey, and Adam Ewing especially fell flat for me, like he was spent... he didn't connect the last one in particular; the Frobisher letter seemed so forced/contrived a means to end with the Ewing journal, despite loving the Autua parts... in any case, you summed it up far better than me without doing as I would have to and giving away TOO much! In any case, I'm following your reviews... social life, begone! (Jacob de Zoet, though, I certainly encourage you to read--by far the best of his works from my POV, which made me knock a star off CA as I'd already read the "better, more refined" Mitchell!)


oriana Aw, thanks Laura! I haven't checked out Jacob de Zoet; I'll definitely look for it!!


Stephen M Very thorough review. It is one that this book deserves and I agree, David Mitchell is bursting with aplomb when it comes to writing.


Allie Absolutely echoing Laura - Jacob de Zoet! It left me with an ache, and I visited the place it's set (Dejima, Japan) and was almost in tears walking through it. I can't even put my finger on why it affected me so profoundly, but jesus, it did.


oriana Wow! You guys are extremely convincing.


David Katzman I finally read your review! I had avoided reading it because it took me so long to finish reading this, and I didn't want to be biased by what you had to say. Check out my review, you won't believe how similar our opinions are! We just expressed them with a different emphasis. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

And although I am a fan of science fiction, I actually agree with you that I liked his composer story and the publisher story best.


oriana Aww, I'm so flattered both that you waited to read my review and that you actually remembered to go back & read it (I never remember to when I do that). And yeah, so neat that we both felt so similarly about the book! Great minds, obvs. : )


message 24: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Does it have profanity? Moreover, sexually explicit? Thanks!


oriana Um. Is that a joke?


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Hey yeah what? Mr. Scott here just asked me the same thing about Oscar Wao


message 27: by Mariel (new)

Mariel He asked me the same thing.


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

C'mon Scott.. looks like you've got some explaining to do


David Katzman Take a look at his profile, friends. Where he lives and his other posted review ... I think you'll get the drift without too much effort.


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

I see...


message 31: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Scott wrote: "Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Does it have profanity? Moreover, sexually explicit? Thanks!"

Scott, with all due respect, you are only hurting yourself if you filter out books with explicit language or sex. Reading a character's/author's use of profanity is a far cry from using profanity yourself. Likewise reading a sexually explicit scene isn't going to turn you into a sex maniac. Why limit yourself and miss out on a whole world of worthwhile liturature? Why miss out on new ideas and ways of looking at the world, things that might make you think?


oriana Agreed, and also Scott, this isn't the best approach. If you had messaged some of us individually to ask if we could recommend books that weren't gratuitous in their use of expletives, violence, etc., and given some background on why you were asking, you might have gotten somewhere. But the same seemingly random question from a stranger on several people's threads just feels off.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Scott wrote: "Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Does it have profanity? Moreover, sexually explicit? Thanks!"

It's nothing but fist-fucking and fuck-bombs from open to close. You're welcome!


David Katzman Scott, I recommend you avoid reading that last post.

Oops, too late.


Jason Coyne I agree with your review wholeheartedly. I wrote my own review with very similar concepts. The 6 stories seemed to have not much to do with eachother other than a loose theme, and all of the nesting/reincarnation stuff could have been dropped and just made it 6 short stories, and the book/experience would have been almost identical. A lot of extra effort went into the work, for not a lot of extra benefit.


oriana Thanks Jason. I hear that in the movie they're making things waaaay more connected, which is what David Mitchell obvs should have done.


Scribble Orca Nice review, Oriana. I don't know the book but I will be sure to check out Calvino first. I like intertwinedness and layering so if the book is attempting this (or alluding to it) I'm sure I will feel a little cheated - although not as much as you did, since I have your review as a guide :D


oriana Aww, thanks GN. I hope you like it, but Calvino is undoubtedly your first priority. : )


message 39: by J. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J. Thanks. I'll have to look into "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller". I think the only reason this book gets so much hype is because of the clever way in which the stories are interlocked. I was put off by the author's obsession with anal sex and his insistence on bashing all things Christian, capitalist, or white.


oriana Huh, I don't remember it in that much detail. But I do remember that I really didn't fine the interlocking very clever.


message 41: by Josh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Josh Yeah, I agree with you. The book fell short.


message 42: by Greg (new)

Greg On a random drift through the internet today I hit upon a link to the trailer to the Cloud Atlas film. Having watched that, I must say the film looks ambitious and interesting and presumably better than the book it is based upon. With my memory of the book refreshed I came here to read what others felt about Mitchell's novel. Your opinion appears to be closest to my own. Individually the 6 pieces ranged from adequately well written to extremely good. Collectively, alas, the whole things amounted to less than the sum of its parts. I can't help but feel that many readers regard this novel so highly because they are captivated by the idea of it. And that idea, as you correctly identify, is 'If On A Winter's Night A Traveller...'


message 43: by J. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J. Greg wrote: "On a random drift through the internet today I hit upon a link to the trailer to the Cloud Atlas film. Having watched that, I must say the film looks ambitious and interesting and presumably better..."


I checked out the trailer only because you mentioned it and I agree it looks like it will be better than the book.

...despite Tom Hanks being one of the stars.

I'll never forgive him for not going after Wilson.


oriana I hate Tom Hanks but I too have heard that the trailer is incredible, so I guess maybe I'll see the movie eventually. But glad I'm not the only one who thought the book fell waaaaaay short.


message 45: by R (new) - rated it 3 stars

R I saw the trailer for the movie today and was surprised at how good it looked. I didn't think this book could be turned into a movie any less than 6 hours long or any good. Your review echoed everything I felt about this book. The fact that I was too hyped before reading it, the fact that I discovered my dislike for certain genres (I nearly abandoned the book at the post-apocalyptic story because I was so bored), and the fact that the connections between the stories were tenuous, contrived and unconvincing. I almost think the book would've been better if they were standalone short stories.


oriana Thanks! And I totally agree they would have been better as standalones; it wouldn't have felt nearly so pretentious.


oriana Yeah, I did think a good portion of Mitchell's writing was pretty great. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I really was impressed by like half the book. It was when viewed as a whole project that it fell apart for me.


Misha I came to a similar conclusion--talented writing, but ultimately didn't coalesce satsifyingly enough for me.


message 49: by Greg (new) - rated it 2 stars

Greg I agree 100% Oriana.


Jeremy I will def check out the Calvino now! But I disagree about the lack of interwoven thematic unity in CA... To me the political and social implications and intent were clear and cohesive throughout, With each perspective reinforcing and shedding new light on the others. I felt somehow that I was following one mission to save the world that wound itself through a brief history and future projection of humanity


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