Cloud Atlas: A Novel


David Mitchell




Date Reviewed:

March 8, 2007

may have rated this book too harshly, it is probably deserves better than a three star ranking, but my expectations were sky high - it was a highly regarded bestseller, short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize - but it wasn't really that great.

The title of the novel comes from a work of music titled Cloud Atlas that is composed by the protagonist in the second narrative. He says: Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists" : piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe and violin, 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? Shan't know until it is finished.... The structure described by the composer mirrors the structure of the this book. Cloud Atlas is a set of six stories. Halfway through each story, Mitchell interrupts the narration and jumps to a new tale. The tales are linked only in that each story will make a reference to the previous story, but not in any significant manner. Each story is told in a different voice, from a character living during a different era of human history - the first story is told several hundred years ago, the last in the (distant?) future after an apocalyptic event has destroyed most of civilization.

The laudatory reviews for Cloud Atlas call it a puzzle novel, but it did not seem there was any puzzle to be solved to me. The six stories really are stand alone and are independent (other than the fact that each stories make some gratuitous mention of the its predecessor.) I was hoping that each story would shed some light on the previous one, that story told by one narrator would be seen in a different light in another story. Remember how the ending of the Life of Pi made you go back and rethink everything you had read up to that point? I was expecting a series of surprises like that, but it doesn't happen. If not for the gimmick of partitioning his six novellas in half and arranging them in nested fashion, Cloud Atlas would be a collection of novellas. The structure doesn't add anything, in my opinion.

Of the six novellas, I liked four of them. The first two were disappointing. The opening tale concerns Adam Ewing, a man in the South Seas during the 1800's. Ewing is a passive man, observing the brutality of the missionaries toward the island natives, and then, during his sea voyage, the brutality on board the sailing ship. The only man sympathetic toward Ewing is Dr Glass, who volunteers to treat him for a rare parasite. Ewing writes in his journal about his life.

The second novella is told by a cad named Frobisher, who is a musical composer and wastrel. The story is told via a series of letters written by Frobisher to his friend Sixsmith. The time is after the first World War, and while there are some nice sections about the war and the loss of his brother, the majority of Frobisher lettter's are full of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. Frobisher has travelled to Belgium to try and swindle an aging composer out of some money, since he has run out of friends and relations who will loan him further funds.

The third novella is written in the tone of a spy thriller (remember, each solo of the Cloud Atlas is written in a different color and voice); it is the story of a plucky journalist named Luisa Rey who tries to expose a massive cover up at a nearby nuclear power plant. This section is set in America in the 1970's, Luisa Rey meets the Sixsmith who received all of Frobisher's letters in part two. There are bombs and bullets, assassinations and suspense. This story is told in the form of a manuscript, which is submitted to a publisher, who is the protagonist of the fourth novella.

The fourth novella is titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. It is meant to be a madcap tale of an aged publisher who is mistakenly(?) confined to a nasty old-folks home. It is a parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, it is meant to be a comedy. Timothy Cavendish imagines his ordeal being made into a movie, and often makes comments to a hypothetical director. This story is set sometime around the turn of the century.

The fifth story makes a passing reference to the Cavendish movie. This story may be the best one of the sixth. It is a futuristic science fiction tale told as an interview between a clone and an interagotor before the clone is executed. The story paints a wonderfully gruesome future society where extreme capitalism has enslaved most everyone in society. The clone, Sonmi, has become sentient, aware that there is more than her endless drudgery serving food at Papa Song's. Sonmi attracts the attention of some revolutionaries, who long to overthrow the corrupt system - Sonmi will be used as a symbol of all that is wrong with the present society. This tale could easily have been expanded into a novel on it's own, Mitchell does a great job with this story line.

If the fifth story isn't the best one, then the sixth one is. It is an oral history told in broken English by Zachry, a semi-civilized man living on the island of Hawaii after a biological event has destroyed most of the world. Society has degenerated into barbarism - the brutal tribe from Kona tries to enslave it's neighbors. To the island comes a ship of wonderous technology, it's crew still retains marvels that have been lost most every where else. One the crew members, Meronym, announces that she would like to stay on the island and study it's inhabitants. Meronym is 50 years old, but she looks no older than a woman in her late twenties. Zachary distrusts her. This is an interesting adventure story, we understand a lot more of Meronym than the half-savage Zachary does. This novella also could have been expanded into a full length novel.

Six stories, each is more or less interesting on it's own. (The protagonist in each novella has a birthmark in the shape of a comet on their collarbone - what are we to make of that - reincarnation??) But don't expect an intricate interwoven set of stories - in my opinion, the structure of Mitchell's book is just a gimmick.