s.penkevich's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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's review
Sep 24, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: metafiction, literary-pulp, favorites
Recommended for: Humanity
Read from November 20 to December 02, 2011

“One may transcend any convention,” writes Mitchell’s 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher, “if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Cloud Atlas, the third novel by English novelist David Mitchell, is the author’s bare-knuckled blow to standard conventions and literature itself. Here you will encounter six stories, linked across time, that, like individual notes of a chord, each resonate together to form a greater message than just the sum of their parts. Using a style inspired by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, which I would highly recommend, and a constantly fluctuating set of language, diction, dialect, and form to flood each individual story with nuance, Mitchell delivers a work that is vastly impressive and imaginative without being impassive as each story takes on a life of its own in a perfect blending of literary musings and exciting page-turning plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

While explaining this novel to a friend, I labeled it as being “ literary pulp ”. He protested, saying that you can only have one or the other. I agreed with him that this is typically the case, yet I insisted that Cloud Atlas was the exception to this rule. While each individual story has an exciting plot full of unexpected twists, often incorporating a Hollywood action or sci-fi style, Mitchell manages to elevate the novel into a higher realm of literature. Mitchell, who studied English at the University of Kent, receiving a master in Comparative Literature (thanks wiki!), has learned enough tricks of the trade to pull-off this sort of “literary pulp”. Each one of these stories on their own wouldn’t amount to much beyond an exciting read with a few underlying messages, but when he stitches them all together in an elaborate tapestry of time and space, a larger more profound message comes out as the reader will notice overarching themes and a careful reading will reveal a sense of symmetry and repetition between the stories. There is also a sense of an evolution of language, showing past trends progressing into our current speech, and then passing forward where corporate name brands will become the identifier of an object (all cars are called fords, handheld computers are all called sonys, all movies are called disneys), and then even further forward as language begins to disintegrate. The themes of the novel also seem to move in a cyclical pattern, showing repeating itself.

As stated earlier, Mitchell was inspired by Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler in which the Reader is exposed to several different novels within the novel, each with a very distinct voice and style, only to be forever thwarted from finishing just as the action rises. Mitchell takes this idea and expands upon it, with each story ending abruptly yet still resonating in the following story, which then leads us to the next and the next until finally we reach the midpoint of the novel. I do not want to spoil too much of this novel, especially his way of each story being a part of the next, but by page 64 you will understand. There will be a paragraph that will drop your jaw and melt your mind as you realize Mitchell has something special here in his method of telescoping stories. Essentially, each major character leaves an account of a crucial storyline of their lives, which in turn is read or viewed later through history by another character during a crucial moment in their lives. An added flair is that many of the characters relate to their current events by comparing it to characters or ideas from previous stories, one character even becoming a deity figure to future generations. At the midpoint, which Mitchell describes as his “mirror”, the novel will then travel back out of the wormhole (or perhaps back in?), revisiting the previous stories in reverse order. There is a good interview with Mitchell in the Washington Post where he explains his methods.

Mitchell employs other metafictional techniques, such as having his characters each reflect on the style of the novel as would make sense for their unique world. For example, Frobisher’s masterpiece composition, aptly named Cloud Atlas, is described by Frobisher as being:
”a sextet for overlapping soloists”….each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?
Mitchell himself calls the style to the table, asking the reader if it is really a revolutionary idea, or if it falls flat as a gimmick. There are many instances where Mitchell inserts a bemused reflection on his own work, wondering if he is actually pulling off the magic trick.

Each story visited is as if cracking open the cover of a different book by a different author each time the switch occurs. There is everything from a dusty sailing journal, a hilarious English comedy, a sleek sci-fi thriller and to even an oral account of tribal warfare on the other side of the apocalypse, each with an equally intriguing cast of characters (fans of Mitchell will recognize some of them as they appear in other novels, most notably Ghostwritten which includes Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Ayr’s daughter). Mitchell does his homework and spent plenty of time researching each story to make sure the history, setting and language would all be realistic. As all but the spy-thriller story of Luisa Rey are told in first person, Mitchell has his work cut out for him to craft a unique voice for each narrator. And he pulls it off brilliantly. This attention to detail and nuance is what really sold me on Cloud Atlas. To go from Cavendish’s comical voice filled with English slang (and some hilarious instances of cockney and Scottish diction) to an oral language that shows the deterioration of speech two stories later is impressive. My personal favorite was the loquacious letters of Robert Frobisher, as Mitchell wrote this Nietzsche loving composer with the urgency and depravity of a frantic, brilliant mind that recalls characters such as Dostoevsky’s underground man or Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. Mitchell toys with his knowledge of literature, molding each story from the recipes of classic literature. Adam Ewing is clearly a product of Melville, Cavendish’s plight echoes Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Sonmi-451 will bring to mind Brave New World or Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Zachary’s islander tale uses a form of sight language drawing on the oral tradition of storytelling which reflects the traditional African American stories such as the Uncle Julius tales or Equiano’s slave narratives where much emphasis is placed on the passing on of stories about ancestors. There are even small events that trigger a memory of classic works; Frobisher is passenger in a car that runs down a pheasant which is described in a way that would remind one of a certain accident involving a yellow car at the tail end of a Fitzgerald novel. He even takes a jab at Ayn Rand in the Luisa Rey story.

Mitchell seems to intentionally build this novel from other novels, and highlights this to the reader most openly through Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher. “You’ll find that all composure draw inspiration from their environments” Ayrs tells R.F. in one of the many passages where Mitchell talks both about his storyline, but also about the novel itself. This honing of metafictional abilities is one of his greatest strengths and the second half of the novel is full of passages that speak on many different levels. Mitchell takes no shame in “drawing inspiration” from his literary predecessors, much as each subsequent character draws on the inspiration of the past characters. He uses this as opportunities to shamelessly quote, allude, and incorporate the ideas of other writers. Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power and Hegel’s theories on history make up some of the strongest themes within the novel, and he gives credit where credit is due. While allusions are used for thematic reasons, some are more deeply hidden, sometimes in plain sights as Nabokov titles are used frequently, and occasionally he simply alludes to authors of each stories present time (Luisa Rey's boss was mugged after having lunch with Norman Mailer) to make them feel more rooted to the literary culture of the time much as he does with the language and descriptions. He even pokes fun at the reader a bit, acknowledging that the casual reader will not be able to pick up on these allusions, speaking through Cavendish:
”I could say things to her like ‘The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid’ and, safe in her ignorance of J.D. Salinger, I felt witty, charming, and yes, even youthful”.
He may be using ‘youthful’ as a way of saying that he must come across as fresh and exciting and inventive, which is ironic since he openly admits to borrowing the whole novels concept from Calvino. Mitchell appreciates and rewards the well-read reader with many of these subtle ironic jokes which are sprinkled all through-out the novel. He leaves so many little gems for a reader to find if they only take the time to read in between the lines and pay close attention. One might notice how several different characters “fumigate” a foul smelling room with a cigarette, or how diamonds seem to play an important role, or which characters seem repeated throughout history beyond the main character. Bill Smoke (pure evil) and Joe Napier (an ally) seem to pop up in some form in every story. I have noticed at least four other souls that seem to migrate through time in this novel.

Like a healthy, well-balanced sense of self, Mitchell seems to be aware of his weaknesses as a writer and actually uses them to his advantage, making his weaknesses some of his biggest strengths. It is clear, as the point has by now been driven into the ground, that Mitchell has aims to be taken seriously as a writer of literature, but his plots are such rapid-fire excitement with twists and turns and high climactic conclusions that he felt it necessary to be as literary as possible in all other aspects. He compensates for any other shortcomings in a similar fashion. One of the ways the characters are linked together across time (read it yourself if you want to know!) made me groan the first time I read it. Mitchell accepts that it is a corny technique and has a character flat out dismiss it as ”far too hippie-druggy-new age” and as something that should be taken out entirely. I got a kick out of this and instantly forgave Mitchell for not being subtle enough with this technique of linking characters. There are several other moments when characters question the validity of other characters, often due to the same reasons a reader would criticize Mitchell. This ability to poke fun at himself and openly address his own shortcomings gave me a far greater respect for him. He accepts that his ideas are not entirely original and counters anyone who might complain it has all been done before. Cavendish speaks for Mitchell with
”as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber. As if Art is the What, not the How!
He wants to direct your attention to his form and writing, not just his plot and originality. He repeatedly bashes critics and the masses, essentially stating that if you don’t get this novel, then you’re not smart enough to deserve to read his work. It made me laugh.

With all his cleverness and metafictional genius, Mitchell does have a few flaws that should be addressed. The main one being subtlety. He does apologize for it and poke fun at himself, but some of the major themes in this novel did not need to be called out directly. They were easily detectable in between the lines, yet Mitchell has each main character spell them out in dialogue. He seems to want to reward the clever reader, yet at times pauses and hits you over the head as if he doesn’t think you can understand. It worked since he had each character do it, applying the message of The Will to Power and the strong killing the weak to each characters situation to create a sense of symmetry, but it was ultimately superfluous, but this being my only real criticism, Mitchell isn't doing too bad. The issue of subtlety is where Calvino gets an upper hand on Mitchell, as his novel was a bit more controlled in its message and layering of meanings. Cloud Atlas is a bit more accessible than If on a winter's... but the latter is a slightly superior work in my opinion. Both novels should enter your "to read list" however.

All in all, this novel is a brilliant puzzle filled with exciting characters, entertaining dialogue, and throws enough loops to keep you guessing. You will find it very difficult to put this novel down. Mitchell achieves his goal of transcending conventions and addressing the broad scope of humanity and is at times bitter, funny, frightening, paranoid, and downright tragic. Cloud Atlas is a must read, and although much of it may come across as “been there, read that”, he still keeps it fresh and unique. Plus this novel really rewards a careful reading and a bit of researching, as many of the jokes will be lost on those who don’t have a good grounding in the classics. Make sure to have a pen handy, as there are plenty of mesmerizing quotes to return to and ponder, especially in the second half of the novel. David Mitchell is most definitely an author to be read and admired.”Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime” writes Frobisher, and this novel envisions a plausible, horrific future that doesn’t seem all that much different than the past. Mitchell gives us this novel as a warning, and I do hope we take it to heart. I wish this novel had credits like at the end of the film just so Reckoner by Radiohead could blast my eardrums as final lines sunk in. It would be perfect.
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Reading Progress

11/20/2011 page 44
11/21/2011 page 76
15.0% "Page 64 blew my mind, Mitchell has something very special with this novel."
11/23/2011 page 162
32.0% ""so who's expired in an ending flat and inane beyond belief now?" Hilarious."
12/02/2011 page 509
100.0% "Finished! Amazing novel. 4.5/5"
02/03/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 146) (146 new)

Steve That was quite an insightful review. I like your analogy likening the stories to notes in a chord (a richly complex one, I might add). At first I didn't know how to take your comment about "literary pulp", but once it was clear that you meant nothing derogatory by it, I saw your point. It was a remarkable mix of genre formats, each with that extra bit of literary panache to it.

You pointed out a few winks that Mitchell seemed to offer through his Cavendish character that I hadn't picked up on. I can see them now in retrospect. With Frobisher I felt there was also that potential for Mitchell to be sending us a message. This was artfully done, I thought. Frobisher, through his first person narration, didn't seem to be in touch with his own feelings as much as Mitchell and his readers were. I'm not sure what that might portend, but found it interesting.

Now that you've mentioned the parallels with Calvino's classic, you've got me curious. I'm officially moving it to a prime spot on my to-read list.

s.penkevich Calvino is amazing. It isn't quite as exciting or broad as CA but he does a really good job of switching between voices and style. It is more self-concious and contained but doesn't have quite give the burning desire to keep turning the pages that Mitchell acheives.

This is a book I feel I will have to revisit someday as I'm sure each re-reading will extract more from the characters. Especially in the first half where I'm sure there is so much hidden that wouldn't present itself without knowledge of what is discussed later in the novel.

Thank you very much for you kind words!

s.penkevich Ha thank you. In Rainbows is amazing, I think it may be my favorite, but with Radiohead it all depends on the day for what album I want to hear. I hear the Wachowski brothers are making it into a film right now, if the credits come up and I don't hear those drums, I may be let down a bit haha.

s.penkevich Ooh yeah great track. I have King Of Limbs in my car right now, I've been revisiting that album a lot lately since I recently discovered I am obsessed with "Bloom". Ha I need to read all of Mitchell, I think that will be my goal for 2012. It's nice to find an author I admire as much as Mitchell and have them still be alive and publishing. The last living author like that was Saramago, and then he up and died from old age.

s.penkevich I need to read more Bradbury. I've been saying that ever since I read F-451 in high school so i should probably get on that. Good to know he is still kicking.

I agree, the songs that take a listen or two before clicking always end up being the best. Bloom and Mr Magpie are just so ugly and angsty feel that they scratch a musical itch you never realized you had until hearing them. It's as if each band member played parts irrelevant to what each other were playing in a deliberatly ugly fashion yet it all comes together in such a syncopated euphoria. I think I'm about to put on some Kid A now.

We should start a petition for a Radiohead soundtrack to Cloud Atlas. Or at least Johnny Greenwood score - the one he did for There Will Be Blood was stunning.

message 6: by Stephen M (last edited Dec 22, 2011 12:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M This is an amazing review. Very well written and loaded with info! I am returning to this when I read CA again.

I loved that you mentioned literary pulp because that's how I usually describe it. Or sometimes I say "high-brow hollywood".

The mixture of literary intellectualism and thrilling plot has seeded David as one of my favorite novelists and biggest inspirations.

Now that you point out all the meta-fictive elbow jabs throughout, I have to re-read to find them all. Because they almost seem to be in excess, as you've pointed it out. I don't remember being annoyed by so much self-consciousness, but I wonder if I will with this in mind.

I was feeling this for the end:

s.penkevich Scott: I will have to check out more Bradbury then, I love a good short story collection so that will be one of my first purchases with the extra xmas cash ha.

Stephen: Thank you very much! I rather like "high-brow hollywood", that is a very accurate description. I hope the novels self-consciousness doesn't take away from it, I rather enjoyed how often lines would be a double entendre of sorts speaking both of the plot and of the novel itself. Similar to Calvino, I think its amazing how he creates a novel that is as close to a living breathing thing as can be.
And All I Need would also be a nice touch. That song is so creepy, it would make a good overture during the Somni section as well!

message 8: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Brilliant review.

Michael Chabon might also constitute Literary Pulp.

s.penkevich Thank you very much Ian. I should check out some Chabon, I've heard good things.

message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I was too impatient with "Cloud Atlas" to understand much of its significance (despite my passion for the first two novels). Hence, it's on my to-re-read list.

message 11: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Delikat Wow, another great review and recommendation. Thank you, s.

s.penkevich This is one of those books where the more I think about it and discuss it, the closer to me it gets. I really loved this novel, so I am bumping it up to a full 5 stars. It will also help me in rating all the other novels of his.

message 13: by s.penkevich (last edited Feb 10, 2012 07:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Scott wrote: "Your review of Ghostwritten has me thinking the same thing. I'm bumping that one up to 5 stars as well. I was comparing Mitchell to Mitchell instead of letting his works shine among the stars that they are..."

Sometimes I feel like 5 stars aren't enough, especially without being able to give half stars. 10 would be more accurate. When I gave it 4.5, I was trying to be more stingy with 5 stars and didn't want to be so quick to rate it so highly. But I think about this book almost as much as I do anything Dostoevsky, and I find myself telling so many people to read it, that I had to bump it up.

Terry Great review. This really is a special book isn't it? I'll have to add the Calvino to my to-read list.

s.penkevich Dulac3 wrote: "Great review. This really is a special book isn't it? I'll have to add the Calvino to my to-read list."

Yeah, this book really struck me, especially as I went into it rather hesitant at first. If you enjoyed this, I think you would really enjoy Calvino. Although it is not as exciting as this masterpiece, it is still very deserving of 5 stars.

Richard Derus I've read your review, so now I don't need to read the book! Thanks!

s.penkevich Richard wrote: "I've read your review, so now I don't need to read the book! Thanks!"

Ha, my bad. I tried not to give too much plot away, but I was overly excited about this one when I wrote it.

Also, didn't mean to repost it. I went back and added it to my favorites list and forgot to not repost.

Richard Derus No, no, I'm not complaining! I'm *grateful* to have it off my list. I only wish you'd done more of this with Black Swan Green, which I now have sitting here glowering at me because of you.

Richard Derus Scott wrote: "Richard...I have a ton of books staring me down as well. but if you get a chance, this one is worth it. It's beautiful..."


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "No, no, I'm not complaining! I'm *grateful* to have it off my list. I only wish you'd done more of this with Black Swan Green, which I now have sitting here glowering at me because of ..."

I keep meaning to write a bloated, pompous review for that one, because I think it is my favorite of his and serves as a focus piece for all the novels much in the way that he always has one metafictional chapter that divulges some of the theory behind each novels style. However, school and work are keeping me from it. Perhaps tonight.

And thanks Scott!

s.penkevich And has anyone seen the production stills for this yet? Bill Smoke is played by Hugo Weaving. A reddish blonde Hugo Weaving.


message 22: by s.penkevich (last edited Mar 21, 2012 10:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Richard wrote: "Scott wrote: "Richard...I have a ton of books staring me down as well. but if you get a chance, this one is worth it. It's beautiful..."



Terry I don't know if I have the fortitude to see this. When I heard they were making a movie I was gobsmacked. I just can't see them doing it justice.

Terry Richard wrote: "I've read your review, so now I don't need to read the book! Thanks!"

Richard, I'm afraid you simply have to read this. While the review is awesome you just can't believe the full awesomeness of this book without fully engaging with it. Sorry.

Richard Derus I'm not going to see it. I'm waiting for Sven to, and then tell us all all about it.

Richard Derus Dulac3 wrote: "Richard wrote: "I've read your review, so now I don't need to read the book! Thanks!"

Richard, I'm afraid you simply have to read this. While the review is awesome you just can't believe the ful..."

No. Je refuse. Nix. Nein. Nyet. Nuh-uh. Any book that has a character who could, even in Hollyweird's bent little mind, be played by Hugo Weaving, is simply not going to assault my ocular units.

s.penkevich Dulac3 wrote: "I don't know if I have the fortitude to see this. When I heard they were making a movie I was gobsmacked. I just can't see them doing it justice."

Yeah, I just don't see how they could pull it off without enraging me. They say it'll be 3hrs, but even that seems like they will have to rush it. I'll grit my teeth and see it though, just so I can enjoy my righteous anger.

And you should probably read it. This book really blew me away, and I had put off reading it thinking 'f*** modern books'. But Mitchell changed that.

Terry Oh I've read this one...several times. I love it. we need to team up and make Richard see the light!

s.penkevich Dulac3 wrote: "Oh I've read this one...several times. I love it. we need to team up and make Richard see the light!"

Ha yeah, sorry I had intended to direct that at Richard. We need to spread the good word of Mitchell! And then have it tarnished by a film.

Terry At least George Lucas isn't directing.

Richard Derus Richard? Who is this "Richard" of whom you speak?

Stephen M You guys are all a bunch of naysaying critics. I'm excited to see it!

Terry nay

Terry Richard wrote: "Richard? Who is this "Richard" of whom you speak?"

Now, now Richard. Just take your medicine like a good boy. I swear it tastes great!

Stephen M David Mitchell gave it a positive plug, for what that's worth.


Terry That at least is not a bad sign.

s.penkevich Yeah, screw tie-in editions.

I want to see it, I actually haven't been more excited following a film production since I was 11 and they said there would be more Star Wars, but I just have a sinking feeling I won't like it. Who knows.
I do like that there will be different directors on different stories to keep each one with a unique vibe much how he altered form each story.

And I think it will be interesting to see their interpretation on which person is which reincarnation, and I wonder if Mitchell was consulted. They so far have announced Weaving as being six characters, including Bill Smoke, and that Hugh Grant will be six as well including Borhaave and a canibal in the Sloosha's Crossing story. But then it says that Tom Hanks is Dr. Goose. And I was always under the impression Smoke was Borhaave or possibly Goose, so who knows.

Stephen M Ha! Yeah, well the big down-side to any involving film is that it necessitates a marketing blitz to try to get a return on the investment.

Stephen M Ugh, Boerhaave. The most hated man in the Mitchell universe. I'm surprised Hugh Grant is taking up that role.

s.penkevich Perhaps Suhbataar is another Boerhaave reincarnation ha.

Yeah, he said he will have so much makeup and prosthetics for his characters he wouldn't be suprised if people didn't even realize he was in the film.

message 41: by Stephen M (last edited Mar 21, 2012 11:50AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M Oh, that's right. Suhbataar. I got the double a's mixed up. Maybe intentional?

I think that it's pretty cool that they use the same actors with the different stories since it plays into the reincarnation thing in the novel. I know that movie can never be the book, obviously. I also worry about the quality of the different stories, since different directors worked on it. But I think it has the potential to be the next huge epic movie. That, the new PT Anderson flick and the last Batman has me excited for the theaters this year. Much different from this horrible last year.

s.penkevich Yeah, this should be a good year for movies (fingers crossed). There's a Lincoln film with D-Day Lewis I'm looking forward to as well.

Richard Derus s.penkevich wrote: "Yeah, screw tie-in editions.

I've never understood why tie-ins make so many book people mad. I just don't care what cover the book has, it's the story that I'm buying.

s.penkevich wrote: "They so far have announced Weaving as being six characters, including Bill Smoke, and that Hugh Grant will be six as well including Borhaave and a canibal in the Sloosha's Crossing story. But then it says that Tom Hanks is Dr. Goose. And I was always under the impression Smoke was Borhaave or possibly Goose, so who knows. "

As one who hasn't read the book, that entire para sounds like something a guy who's had a stroke would say.

message 44: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Richard wrote: "As one who hasn't read the book, that entire para sounds like something a guy who's had a stroke would say."


Cecily Your "literary pulp" label made me wince, but I think you have a point. Great review.

s.penkevich Cecily wrote: "Your "literary pulp" label made me wince, but I think you have a point. Great review."

Thank you! Yeah, the two words really shouldn't go together, but I think Mitchell managed to make it work nicely. It is a technique I hope more people start using.

Stephen M Care to explain why it made you "wince"?

s.penkevich I'm guessing it was the 'pulp', when I first used the term discussing it with someone they were adamant that a book could not be both. Actually, they still disagree with me ha

Stephen M Are you talking about a person here on goodreads or in real life?

Perhaps we can direct them here for further discussion.

s.penkevich Just in real life (not as good as GR-life). I encouraged them to read it but they have yet to do so.

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