John's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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's review
Dec 22, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2010, historical-fiction, sf-fantasy, the-sea
Read from December 13 to 20, 2010

Cloud Atlas is a novel of novellas: six long stories set centuries apart that, on their own, would stand as dazzling, pitch-perfect prose masterpieces, but intertwined as they are here form a dizzying, and somewhat heartbreaking mosaic of disparate lives.

Structurally, there is a beautiful symmetry to Mitchell’s arrangement of these six tales. The first five of the six novellas are interrupted mid-way through by the subsequent novella, and only the sixth is given continuously in its entirety. After the sixth novella, we work our way backwards, reading the last half of the first five novellas in descending order, until we finally get to the completion of the first story. The novellas are arranged in ascending chronological order, starting (and ending) with the journal of Adam Ewing, a 19th century notary from San Francisco who is abroad in the Chatham Islands looking for the beneficiary of a will, and culminating with a post-collapse science fiction tale set in a neo-primitive far-future Hawaii.

There are subtler symmetries here, too: the name of the protagonist from the first story is Adam (get it?), that of the last story is Zach’ry (A thru Z). Hawaii features in a number of the stories, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so, as do characters with comet-shaped birth marks (coincidentally, the Hawaiian archipelago is comet-shaped, too). In addition to the overt connections between these stories (the protagonist of the second is reading the journal of the first, and the recipient of his letters precipitates the mystery of the third story, etc.), each story touches on the theme of human striving, overreach, and the predatory nature of humanity and our institutions (the corpocracy of the fifth story, “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, is probably the most overt instance of this theme).

Mitchell has a poet’s ear for language, and he has a deft sense of genre: the two science fictional sections successfully make copious use of well-established wide-ranging SF tropes (corporate totalitarianism, gene-ripped clones, post-apocalyptic society, etc.); one section (“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”) is written in the style of a contemporary paperback thriller (indeed, in a subsequent section one of the characters who runs a publishing house is reading the manuscript of it and assessing its commercial viability), and it is thrilling; and “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” has the feel of a 19th Century tropical adventure novel in the same vein as Typee and William Hope Hodgeson's Captain Gault stories.

I had some fun picking out the other writers who were clearly inspirations for some of these stories: “An Orison of Sonmi~451” is somewhat Philip K. Dickian (though way better written); “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After,” the post-collapse story, is reminiscent of Riddley Walker; and the second section, “Letters from Zedelghem,” is full of Nabokovian astringency that reminded me a little of Pale Fire. And the overall structure of the novel has its roots deep in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and Labrynths.

And, like Nabokov, it's hard to tell whether any of the narrators deserve your trust: all the stories, with one exception, are first-person narratives, either journal entries, letters, interviews, or monologue, and there are times when we are warned not to give too much credence to what we've just read (Sonmi~451 refers to hair-line cracks in her story, and indeed these cracks are everywhere). Reader: be on your toes!

Despite all the blurbs on the back of the book touting Mitchell as a master ventriloquist, these stories are more than just polished imitations of established masters; not only does Mitchell successfully summon a Nabokovian voice when he needs to, but he has produced a novel of Nabokovian heft: Cloud Atlas is every but the feat of raw virtuosity that Pale Fire is.
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Comments (showing 1-6)

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message 6: by Benjamin (last edited Dec 27, 2010 11:03AM) (new) - added it

Benjamin One possible influence for the structure of the nested tales might be Barth's "Menelaiad." (Or if not, it at least sounds similar.)

John Haven't read Barth yet. Is Menelaiad a good place to start?

message 4: by Benjamin (new) - added it

Benjamin It's a short story in Lost in the Funhouse, which I think is good. Though I haven't read his novels, so take that opinion with some salt.

Alan I wish I could enjoy Mitchell more, but I find he overwrites. Sure Nabokov overwrites too, but to more purpose. Also I find Mitchell's characters a little flat too. I appreciate he is a very good writer though, just not my type..

John Alan, I can see that. I think I was just overawed by the sweep and variety and flashiness of the stories. I'm eager to pick up his new novel, which seems to be more of a character-oriented work.

Alan aye everybody loves it

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