Ken-ichi's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Aug 14, 12

bookshelves: escape, snoot, favorites
Read in January, 2006, read count: 3

On re-reading in 2012...

I admit, the surpringsingly-and-terrifyingly-not-awful trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of this book sent me plunging back into its hexapalindromic universe to re-solidify my own mental renditions of Frobisher's bicycle, Sonmi's soap packs, and Lousia's imaginary California, among other things. I emerge even more impressed with Mitchell's mimetic acrobatics, the book's deft allusive integument ("Is not ascent their sole salvation?" p. 512), the acrimonious satire ("if consumers are satisfied with their lives at any meaningful level [...] plutocracy is finished" p. 348), and, ultimately, the nakedly deliberate messages about humanity's will to power and our capacity for empathy re-re-re-re-re-reiterated in the second half. I kept wishing Lousia or Cavendish or someone one would say "Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!" but not wishing in a snarky cynical judgy kind of way! Because I actually think Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is pretty... excellent (and come to think of it, is also a story set in multiple time periods with strong musical undertones and a message of peace, love, and happiness...). This book grants me one of the greatest pleasures a book can: it restores profundity to a hackneyed truth. If you're not into Mitchell's prose, characters, or fancy-schmancy structure, though, you might just end up with the hackneyed bit.

(view spoiler)

Old review from 2006

This, Sir, is a Novel. I don't think I've read anything so surprisingly excellent since Jonathan Strange Mr Norell. Actually, I have. What I meant to say is that I've read nothing so marvelously epic since then. As usual, my attempts to explain it to people have met with polite nods and changed subjects, but let me try: the book is like 6 perfect little novellas, arranged as Russian matroyshka dolls, and as you read, you bore in, and bore back out. Each doll is a different period in time, the outermost being in the early 19th century, the latest being somewhere around 2200 (I think). Four of the six are out and out genre pieces: historical maritime fiction, crime novel, dystopian scifi, and post-apocalyptic scifi, with all their various tropes rendered with loving affection. But they are just written, so, well that they are simply irresistible. I only wish I could find single genre novels that were as perfectly crafted as a single portion of this book. The pieces placed in the 1930s and the present day are also wonderful, but certainly aren't the type of fare I normally seek out.

But yes, exceedingly well written. What's it about? Well, there's the the journal of an American notary returning home from the Chatham Islands aboard a morally suspect ship in the 1830s; a young quasi-rake of a composer cuckolding an older colleague while helping him write new works, who documents his dalliances and mishaps in letters to his former lover; there's a true-story thriller about a Californian journalist in the 1970s attempting to out a corrupt and deadly energy company for squelching a safety report damning their new nuclear energy plant; the soon-to-be-filmed chronicles of a publisher in the present day whose attempts to escape the extortionist cronies of his gangster star author land him in a Draconian nursing home from which he cannot escape; there's the not-too-distant future testimony of a Korean clone bred for service in a fast food joint but who, via the machinations of forces many and penumbral, gains full consciousness; and finally (in the sweet and creamy middle) the Huck Finnish tale of a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian "primitive" and the "civilized" researcher sent to study his society. Whew! The characters of each story find themselves reading their predecessor, and sometimes characters overlap a very, very little. Each story features a character with the same birth mark, and they all seem to experience deja vu from characters in other stories. See? Now it sounds corny. But I swear to you, it is cool.

I guess the book is primarily about the will to power. Slavery and subjugation, small personal cruelties, corporate greed. It's sort of like the anti-Fountainhead, except much more fun to read. I don't know. Dissecting fiction about giant apes comes much more naturally to me. Please read this book so, at the very least, you can explain it to me.
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Reading Progress

06/06/2010 page 307
58.03% "I woke up this morning excited about the fact that being conscious meant I could continue reading this."
06/10/2010 page 508
96.03% ""The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat""

Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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Crystal This book is fantastic.
NOW I know why I added you - for some serious insight!


Ken-ichi Glad you liked it! Don't know when Mitchell is coming out with a new one, but I can't wait.


message 3: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda Hmm. Aren't we giant apes ourselves?

Thanks for the review. I've just begun Cloud Atlas and am looking forward to the rest of it.


Abby Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite books EVER. Mitchell has a new book coming out this month, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I have an ARC on my bedside table that I haven't gotten around to reading yet. You might also want to check out Black Swan Green if you haven't already. One of the characters from Cloud Atlas makes a cameo appearance.


Abby Oops, I see you have already read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Never mind!


Ken-ichi Yeah, I'm kind of obsessed with Mitchell's books. Reading De Zoet made me want to re-read Cloud Atlas. I'd forgotten how funny Frobisher was!


Steve I hope all of my friends read this review.


message 8: by Jane (new)

Jane Matteis I will re-read Cloud Atlas while I wait for the new one to appear on this side of the Atlantic


Shawna i've had this book on my shelf for awhile but haven't gotten around to reading it. i guess i will start now :)


Julie Franki The "anti-fountainhead": your insight would make the perfect two word review of this book.


Ameet david mitchell is the greatest living novelist. i just finished the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet, and it confirmed this fact to me. Cloud Atlas has to be my favourite. like you I want to reread it but have lent it out...


Donald Brilliant and the segment in the British Assisted care had me peeing myself with laughter; then, whip around to such thoughtfullness of what is self? freedom? So many metaphors rich very rich.


Corey So happy to find so many like-minded admirers of David Mitchell here. I also reviewed Cloud Atlas. Ken-ichi, you hardly need anyone to "explain it" to you, as so many of these comments confirm. Not only do you "get" Mitchell, you articulate with clarity what he's all about. BTW, I believe the journalist in the 21st C. section of Atlas has a cameo appearance in Ghostwritten.


message 14: by Pat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pat Fantastic book and I agree with Ameet's comment that David Mitchell is the greatest living novelist. His command of the language is beyond belief and his imagination soars. I discovered him with "Black Swan Green" which I think is a small gem. I wept at both the endings of BSG and cloud Atlas because of the beauty and hope for humanity Mitchell envisions, despite our cruelty and follies.


Shane_finnie You have put down in words what I was not able to do.


message 16: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl Your review along with that of another friend have convinced me to buy this book. Thanks!


message 17: by Pat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pat Carl, I don't think you will regret it. It's a dense, concentrated reading experience, but all the the separate stories do hang together and I think the ending speaks for itself...please post after you read.


message 18: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex "As usual, my attempts to explain it to people have met with polite nods and changed subjects, but let me try: the book is like 6 perfect little novellas, arranged as Russian matroyshka dolls, and as you read, you bore in, and bore back out. Each doll is a different period in time, the outermost being in the early 19th century, the latest being somewhere around 2200 (I think). Four of the six are out and out genre pieces: historical maritime fiction, crime novel, dystopian scifi, and post-apocalyptic scifi, with all their various tropes rendered with loving affection. But they are just written, so, well that they are simply irresistible."

Nailed it.


message 19: by Greg (new) - rated it 2 stars

Greg ooh! Big words!


Brice Meerman I've been searching the web for this book and couldn't find anything for less than $50 bucks. I was so depressed. But then I almost fell to the floor when I found a sole copy in my local book store. After I purchased it, I immediately began to devour it. I've only just begun, but I can already tell just by Mitchell's prose that I'll be adding all his books to my list of must-reads. Your review is very, VERY well stated. I'm adding you to follow your reading lists for sure.


Craig Beckett The anti-fountainhead HA!


message 22: by Tabasco (new)

Tabasco In this review you say: "ultimately, the nakedly deliberate messages about humanity's will to power and our capacity for empathy re-re-re-re-re-reiterated in the second half". May I highlight here that about 90% of all stories ever told have a message about human will to power and capacity for empathy? This book is "posing" as a profound book when it is not, it is simply what it is, 6 stories put together, the sum of which is not better than each of them.


Ken-ichi Ok, two critiques there. The first is that the themes of power over and empathy with other human beings are almost universal in fiction and therefore not profound, or at least not interesting. My response is that while 90% of books can be *read* from the perspective of these themes, there are relatively few books that address them explicitly, especially in contemporary literature. I find most contemporary novels hardly even have any distinguishable subjects aside from "life sucks" and "relationships are complicated," which are fine but not quite the same as power and empathy. Visit from the Goon Squad is very much about empathy and connection, but doesn't really address the idea that petty con jobs and genocide might arise from the same instincts. I admit that I'm not as well-read as perhaps I should be, but in my experience there are very few novels address these themes directly. Maybe you can provide some counterexamples?

Your second critique is that the structure of this novel doesn't serve a narrative or rhetorical purpose, which I think is pretty interesting. Is it *just* 6 stories stuffed inside each other turducken-style (thanks for the image, A.O. Scott), or is this oven-roasted chimera something more? Ok, stretching the turducken a bit far there. So I think the fact that there are multiple stories serves a few purposes. It forced me to think about how they relate, aside from the pseudo-mystic stuff like the birthmark or reading stuff from the last story. How does some guy on a 19th century boat relate to an old folks home or a cloned fast food slave? It also demonstrates different kinds of dominance and empathy, and the different scales at which they operate: personal, institutional, racial, global. Regarding the structure, I think it emphasizes that these themes transcend the gulfs between each story. Mitchell's novel ghostwritten is *very* similar to Cloud Atlas but is a linear sequence of sort-of-related stories. By the end I had sort of forgotten what had happened in the beginning, or at least didn't see how it connected. By comparison, in the second half of Cloud Atlas I kept remembering the future, so to speak, which lead to a lot of fun, simple "aha!" moments ("that's where the orison came from!") and the more important thematic connections.

Even if grouping these stories didn't create something greater than their sum, I thought they were all individually awesome. When I was reading The Windup Girl, which also involves an Asian clone slave, I was *praying* that it would eventually get half as good as the Sonmi chapter in this book. It didn't. At least not for me.

Anyway, to each his own!


message 24: by Tabasco (new)

Tabasco I guess. Well you are giving me food for thought, which is always nice. I have the Windup Girl on my to-read list, sounds intriguing. Later


Ms.pegasus Thank you for such an insightful and yet succinct review. Love your writing -- "mimetic acrobatics," x6 reiterated...


Tatiana I absolutely loved how you compared the stories to the Russian matroyshka dolls. That is a really good point! Tomorrow I have to present this book in my english class in university. I'll use that term, hope you don't mind. :)


Ken-ichi I sincerely doubt that was an original metaphor, so use away. I think A.O. Scott's turducken comparison might be my new favorite way to describe this book, though.


message 28: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Mcwhirter I strongly agree with the themes mentioned above and in your review. This was one of my favorite books first and is now my favorite movie. When I read it the first time, the main theme that I connected through out the book was the predatory nature of humanity, not only to those around it, but to itself. So in response to your 'spoiler' comments, I think that Frobisher ultimately was consumed by Ayrs, music and himself. (This section also had the most change in the movie from my perspective but I really liked it still.)


message 29: by TS (new) - rated it 4 stars

TS RE: your spoiler comments. The Frobisher/Ayrs relationship is still an exploitative one, albeit mutually so as others have commented. It's still the same theme, just modulated differently.

And this modulation, or degree of exploitative asymmetry, if you will, really drives the ethos of each story: everyone using each other (Frobisher/Ayers/Jocasta) vs abject evil (Goose, Sonmi's discovery of Xultation), vs true humanity (Auta), vs compassion under duress (Zachry and Meronym; Luisa Rey and her luck).

Can't wait to the see the movie when it's out on DVD.


Josiah And here in New Zealand the movie isn't even in theatres....


Linda About the spoiler/Ayrs-Frobisher section - because, war. Right? I mean, he wants to be creative (music) instead of destructive (marching off to war like his brother) and he gets kicked out of the family and rejected by great swaths of humanity. (I paraphrase.) War is the subjugation. Slavery, corpocracy, war, same-same?


Ken-ichi Hm, hadn't thought of that. I'm sure Mitchell appreciated the backdrop of the war, but he never went so far as to demonize Frobisher's brother or give Frobisher some kind of anti-war motive that superseded his self-interest and love of music, which is sort of what I would expect if he was trying to cast that story in the same harsh moral light he used for the Sonmi story, where the good guys and bad guys are unambiguously good and bad. The war's an interesting wrinkle, though!


Linda No, not to demonize the brother, certainly. It wouldn't be the brother demonized, it would be the corporations/governments/powermongers who make war. Soldiers as fabricants, you might say... not as much about criticizing people who are just trying to live & survive or who get drafted (lots of humanity) but rather to criticize the system that sets up such destruction and lauds it as good or productive, like slavery and the corporate evils as well. It's another way to think about the wasting of a life, and then with all those gravestones and he can't find for sure which grave to lay the flowers on -- that kind of parallels the fabricants in the "womb," a kind of nameless group being used for the benefit of others.


Cynthia I like to read when traveling on a bus or train but not this book. -- i would miss my stop Once picked up its difficult to extract myself out of it


Rachel I think your last two sentences (of the updated review) summed it up absolutely perfectly and explain why it's kind of a love/hate book. I loved the characters and the writing, so the tendency towards preachiness didn't bother me at all, but I can see how if you weren't buying the characters the whole thing would just be annoying.


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