Cloud Atlas

This book is Exhibit A in weird marketing. Its fuschia and metallic-blue cover is misleading; its relatively slim size is misleading – everything it claims ostensibly to be, it is not. A few posts back, I referred to David Mitchell’s prose in this book as ‘smug’ without having even read it, and I assumed it would be so because of all the gushing praise I’d heard about it. Oh yes, I was a cynic – and I can’t say I’ve been entirely convinced of Mitchell’s ‘genius’. What I can say is if you can pause for a moment and consider Cloud Atlas as anything other than the pompous brainchild of a writer who likes immensely to pretend at cleverness, then you’ll be able to appreciate it for all its charm – and yes – its cleverness.

Okay, now the gushing praise begins. The thing I love most about this book isn’t that it is perfect, flawless etc etc, but that it maketh me think. I love that it is layered, not only in structure, but in meaning. At times, Mitchell makes himself visible from behind his wall of prose and presents his opinions on metaphysics and the artistic value of literature. I think to myself ‘puh-leez‘ at those times, but most of the time he is well-behaved and very subtle. Also, Cloud Atlas is no Soul Mountain, because nothing could be more intangible and fleeting and volatile than Soul Mountain, but there is certainly an elegant, yet playful, ethereal & dreamlike quality to its structure.

I’ll admit that I had my reservations about the structure when I first heard about it. I’ve long been fascinated by matryoshka dolls – i.e. those Russian nesting dolls – but how can you not be deeply suspicious about a novel which claims to have six (almost completely) unrelated narratives halved and arranged symmetrically in one book? Of course, now that I’ve read the book, I see that it’s not even remotely like a set of matryoshka dolls – although Mitchell seems to think it is:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future

– Isaac Sachs in Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery

(Since then, I’ve learnt that Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller was the actual inspiration behind Cloud Atlas’ strange structure)

but more like clouds crossing skies, to quote another of Mitchell’s characters. It irks me that Mitchell feels the need to explain himself/the novel throughout the entire thing, but at the same time, I also appreciated the insights. For instance, I’m pretty thick-headed, but I didn’t realise the characters were reincarnations until Mitchell pointed it out in one of the later stories- very overtly, too. I’d assumed they were somehow related (as in, through family ties), but turns out they are reincarnate versions of each other.

Says Mitchell of his own clever little characters:

All of the [leading] characters except one are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark. … The “cloud” refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the “atlas”, which is the fixed human nature… The book’s theme is predacity … individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations

The quote above is from Wikipedia (of all the reliable sources in the world) but Cloud Atlas is pretty much doused in a liberal sprinkling of this sort of thing, thinly veiled as dialogue, or whatever.

On the whole, Mitchell’s writing is witty and light-hearted, though perhaps a little smug. His excursions into ‘experamentative writing’ aren’t  exactly what one would call revolutionary, but he does transcend the usual boundaries of genre, time, language, etc. At times, it did feel as though Mitchell reached out of the book,  grabbed my brain and gave it a solid shake – particularly in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, when the protagonist of that story (an editor) received the manuscript of the previous story in his mail. It caught me completely off-guard, and my my thought trail went from linear to mobius-strip, trying to figure out what the three previous interlocked narratives became, if one of them was purely fictional. All of a sudden, Cloud Atlas was not merely a set of interlocking narratives, but the story of fictional characters reading about and creating fictional characters in other peoples’ fictions.

Unfortunately, while this was quite clever of Mitchell, it was also precisely the point where the entire book began to fall apart. The first few narratives until then were fascinating, and were quite masterfully interwoven. Then, a little while after I had recovered from the shock of fictions within fictions within fictions, Mitchell finally broke the fourth wall. In a completely lame way, might I add?

pg 164: I opened my briefcase for a bag of Werner’s toffees but came up with Half-Lives. I leafed through its first few pages. It would be a better book if Hilary V. Hush weren’t so artsily-fartsily clever.

That was the first disappointment; the first inserted half-joking,  trying-hard-to-be-casual defensive commentary on his own writing (they increased in frequency after this). Afterwards came An Orison of Sonmi~451, a dystopian story set in Korea, which I quite liked despite my not normally being a fan of dystopian fiction. What I didn’t like was the post-apocalyptic piece that came afterwards, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After where through th’ hole story M’tchill rote words funny  – like Ha-Why instea’ o’ Hawaii an’ Hole World instea’ o’ Whole World – n’ thought it ter’bly clever to speak jus’ loike a pos’-Fallen bogen [transl: “where throughout the entire story Mitchell spelt words funny, and thought it terribly clever to speak just like a post-apocalyptic bogan”]. Hold on, luckily for me, Sloosha’s Crossin’ finished and it was back to Sonmi~451. And after that, the story progressed rapidly, rather like falling dominoes; I was so caught up in the story that I almost missed my bus stop.  Going uphill is harder work than running downhill, and to be sure, the first half of the novel was more of an effort to read than the second. By the second half, I was familiar with the characters and with Mitchell’s style, and it was smooth sailing. (Do I find it funny that I always complain about writers using cliches, when I  use so many of them myself? Why yes, I do)

It’s an ambitious book, to be sure, and the execution was far from perfect.  Yet that didn’t matter much to me, because  Mitchell was never too serious with himself. Cloud Atlas is stylish because it’s playful. In structure, in tone, in plot. There are so many moments where I literally LOLed, because he’d used some cliche plot device when I was least expecting it. A small example: in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (my least favourite of the narratives), Cavendish has this total schmexy fantasy about a hotel encounter with Hilary V. Hush, the author of Half-Lives, only to find that Hilary ‘Vincent’ Hush is some obese man. Although I normally grumble about these sorts of cheap writers’ tricks, I quite liked how every story had an unexpected surprise at the end, and I quite liked how the stories flowed seamlessly into each other.


28 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas

  1. First, I thought this was an excellent review. I think you really gave a great sense of what reading this book was like and what one could expect in reading it. I think this is a great example of how one need not spend time belaboring plot summaries in order to effectively discuss a book.

    However, I’m still not sure if this is something I want to read! I know that overall you appreciated/enjoyed it, but every time you discussed something that Mitchell did that was annoying/pretentious, I could feel my blood start to simmer. I wonder if reading this would be like when I tried to read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and hated it so much because obviously Eggers thinks he is hot stuff, and I was so put off by his smug “cleverness”. I found his book so self-important and really painful to read that I eventually did give up about halfway through. I love the idea of interlocked narratives, but I am not certain that I would be able to keep myself from flying into a rage at all the other things… what’s a girl to do?!?!

    1. Hahah, thanks Steph. ERr, I’m glad it’s comprehensible (?) To be honest, these days I feel like an incredibly verbose and long-winded word monster. It’s frustrating me to no end, because I have all these essays due at the end of the week and no matter how much I edit them, they seem so far from concise and lucid.

      Anyway, hmm. I’m not quite sure what induced your blood-boiling as I’ve never read Eggers. But I think I actually don’t mind writers who think they are hot-stuff if they’re ‘cool’ about it. Take Salman Rushdie, for example. He so obviously thinks he’s all that, and he’s so stuffy and smug about it. Can’t stand it. But Mitchell (and maybe your Eggers too?) has this sort of laid-back confidence in himself, and he’s tongue-in-cheek, so it’s easier to forgive. Also, while it’s possible to say that this entire book – just by being ‘experimentative’ etc – is ‘smug’ and pretentious, most of the time it’s just an incredibly absorbing novel. The only thing that almost had me flying into a rage was when the stories abruptly stopped and the next one began. But that was because they were so good that I couldn’t bear to part with them.

      I think you mentioned before that you detested the first 20 pgs of the Adam Ewing story. I can (almost) promise that it gets better. I liked the second and third stories a lot – the music one, and the Luisa Rey mystery one. Maybe you should approach it cautiously? Like, open it up to a random page and see if you like it any better than the Adam Ewing bit? :)

      1. I don’t think your posts are verbose… then again, I also have a penchant for longwinded dissections of whatever I’ve been reading! What can I say: I have a lot of thoughts and feelings!

        I have never gotten the vibe from Rushdie that he thinks he is God’s gift to literature, but then again, I know nothing of the man apart from the one book of his that I’ve read (Grimus). I also don’t really know anything about Eggers outside of his writing, and maybe it was because Heartbreaking Work is a memoir, but he just came across as so in love with himself and his brilliance that I found it really offputting. He kept breaking the fourth wall, and I just found it so painful to read. Admittedly, I did not get that vibe from Mitchell, as I just thought he purposefully picked ridiculous words which was annoying because I prefer when people write for clarity rather than to show off how extensive their vocab is… I think I would like his stories, I was just so put off by the first few pages. But that was at least 2 years ago when I tried to read Cloud Atlas, so maybe I’m in a better position to read it now. I don’t think I will risk buying it, but I could probably handle borrowing it from the library, in which case even if I still cannot make it past page 20, it’s not a big deal! Just my luck, I’ll probably read it and love it! ;)

        1. Oooh Rushdie. He called John le Carre ‘an illiterate pompous ass’, which I think is pretty pompous. I haven’t read his greatest of greats, Midnight’s Children, but last summer I read The Enchantress of Florence – which was a shocker. Overrated beyond belief. It was littered with cliches (‘sea of molten gold’, ‘his chains weighed on him like an unfinished story’ – did not expect those from a writer of his supposed cadre), Rushdie-Philosophy. Plus, he seemed so convinced of his own gifts to mankind that you could just SEE him manoeuvring strings behind the scenes. He couldn’t bear to make himself (as the writer) invisible. No, the narrator was just Salman Rushdie in another one of his carousel fantasies.

          As for Mitchell, that first story might have been unbearable for you because of the actual character. He’s this idiot who allows him to get mis-diagnosed and poisoned by a quack doctor, etc. – but Mitchell even hints that the diary might be a fake. One of the characters in the next story says the language is contrived & unauthentic …
          I don’t know what annoys me more, the fact that it’s true, or the fact that he felt the need to tell me.

          1. I think I won’t have any problems with Mitchell. Based on this conversation, haha. FOr one, Rushdie is indeed so full of himself (especially in FURY… grrr.. it’s my least fave of all his books. He made me so mad! Really, you are right, in that book he feels like he’s God’s gift to literature.) STILL.. I loooooove him! And I in fact know I’ll get that sort of language (what you pointed out, Tuesday) from Enchantress, but am still eager to read it. To be honest, his short story collection (East, West) is his least verbose that I’ve read and really excellent. It showcases his talent without being the pompous presence he is in his other books. That said, he remains a favourite of mine. :)

            Another thing, I love Dave Eggers. I also agree with Steph that he thinks he’s hot stuff, but I really enjoyed A Hearbreaking Work (well, the first third anyway). But, really, if you get to read WHAT IS THE WHAT (which I’m always shamelessly plugging), you will know the extent of his talents. Yes, you still get the cleverness and all that, but not in the typical “Heartbreaking Work” way. The voice of Sudan refugee Valentino Achak Deng is center stage in that book and it was really wonderful how Eggers managed it. It’s one book that’s so poignant and funny at the same time. Anyway, I’ve also read Eggers’s How We Are Hungry and it didn’t do anything for me at all. So yes I love him but not everything by him. What I really liked with A Hearbreaking Work was his relationship with his little brother. It was the highlight of that book for me.

            1. Hmm yes, I think I’ve heard quite a lot about ‘What is the What’ from you. The title alone makes me LOL. One day I shall try to get my hands on a copy… As for Rushdie, I won’t say whether or not I like his writing since my experience of him has been limited to ‘Enchantress’ – my judging him as a pompous ass is based more on his public profile. Abominable character of a man; shame considering that he does have talent (again, speaking from knowledge of his extremely wide fanbase)

  2. I came to this novel with almost NO expectations – like, I’d never heard of Mitchell before, and just picked it up in a bookstore or something – and I think I enjoyed it a lot more because of that. I did find it a bit over-clever at times, but mostly I just had fun with the structure and the pastiches of different writing styles. But I think most of your criticisms and appreciations are right on the money. Nice review!

    1. That probably helped! In my standards, though, this review is basically a love confession. I really really liked it (probably a lot more than I let on) and I thought it was really ‘fun’ too.
      To be honest, can’t remember the last time I picked a book up at the book store without knowing a lot about it, because they’re so well-publicised these days. Esp. ones on the Booker shortlist. And, well, Dickens.

  3. [This is in response to the conversation about pompous writers (I guess we reached the limit on the threaded replies!)!]
    Maybe I didn’t feel like Rushdie was so full of himself when I read Grimus because that was his first novel, so perhaps he hadn’t had enough time to have his head swell! Also, from what I’ve read, I think Grimus is a very different novel from everything else he has ever written since then (both in terms of style and Rushdie’s more current outlook on literature), so there is that too.

    As for Eggers, I read the first half of the book, and felt that was enough… By the author’s own admission, he says that everything gets shakey and uneven after that point, and I fully believe that. The first part of the memoir where he’s talking about the death of his parents was quite well done, but then it went so downhill that it brought out my rage! I haven’t read What’s The What (Claire, I know you love it!), I think because I was so put off of Eggers from AHWOSG… That might be another one I would try borrowing from the library, but I will never try AHWOSG again!

    1. [LOL, sorry Steph – I extended the limit to 10 comments (the max) so we can have longer conversations] :)

      Oh, in that case I think I’ll give Grimus a go.

      p.s. hahah! At first I thought AHWOSG was an actual title, then I realised it stood for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

    2. Steph.. I so agree! The first part was really only what I loved about AHWOSG, about his parents’ death and his taking care of his brother. It was really touching. The middle part was all about his job so it was quite boring. The end was better than the middle but don’t actually remember much of it haha. Anyway, I still liked the book overall and enough of the first part to make me like it. That said, I may reread the first part but never the mid and last. Still, What is the What is SOOOOOO different from AHWOSG!

      I must read Grimus then. My first encounter with Rushdie was THe Moor’s Last Sigh and I fell in love. Although that was aeons ago and I had no discernment as to what was good writing then lol! In any case in my mind I still love it. I also loved Midnight’s Children.

  4. “nothing could be more intangible and fleeting and volatile than Soul Mountain”

    For someone who has never read Mitchell, this excellent review is also a bit overwhelming. I sense that the interlocking narratives, which I am sure are brilliantly and smartly executed, constitute a fiction within fiction.

  5. The US cover is nicer than the Australian cover. It feels more “cloudy”

    I’ve read the book twice. The first time was for book club; I skimmed over the middle part (with the horrid English in the post-war world) because I didn’t have time to concentrate on the writing. I read it in the order that it was written.

    When I read it the second time, I read it in order of time. So, I was able to get another sense of the book. I took the time to read the middle section and finally understood what was going on.

    I enjoyed this novel. It felt like each story was written by different author.

    I hope to read it again soon, when I am in a dystopian mood.

    1. Oh yes, I agree. I’ve seen pictures and it is indeed more swirly and dreamy-looking than the UK/Aus cover (btw I ordered my copy from The Book Depository, so I haven’t actually seen the Aus cover, but I’m assuming they are the same).

      Hmmm, yes, the middle section. It took me about ten pages before I could ‘get into it’; then it started to make sense and I had to go back and read it again from the beginning. But I like that Mitchell doesn’t bother with making it easy for the reader; there’s no annoying flashbacks and back-story, his main concern is clearly just telling a good story. Very refreshing of him, don’t you think? :)

      I think the next time I read this book, I’ll read both halves of each narrative, and move in towards the middle. Is that what you meant by in order of time?

      1. Yes, I meant that I read the first story and the last one (the guy on the sailing ship), second story and penultimate story, until I reach the middle.

        If I read it again, I might start from the back and go to the front.
        Or start in the middle…

  6. Egger’s latest book is Zeitouin. I am not reading it yet, because I am weary of the Katrina. Here’s a description of the book:


    When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like “What Is the What,” “Zeitoun” was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

      1. P.S. What is the What is autobiographical fiction. It’s taken into account the life of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, but since the story was most of the time set during his childhood, his memory couldn’t have been that accurate so they tweaked here and there. And probably so as not to effect the same outrage that Frey’s A Million Little Pieces provoked, they classified What is the What as fiction. The story is still true, though.

    1. I really want to read Zeitoun, too, but because Tuesday here influenced me, I’ll be waiting for the paperback, lol.

      By the way, Tuesday, re If ON a Winter’s Night a Traveler I really loved, forgot to mention. And what’s wonderful is that Calvino doesn’t sound smug about his cleverness.

      1. Hm, yeah that’s a hard one. I dont think it should be called ‘autobiographical’ fiction just because it’s based on someone who existed in real life… because then how do you classify all those works of literature which are ‘based on the life of’ whoever? On the other hand, sometimes it’s such a fine line between biography/memoir and fiction, esp. fiction based so extensively on one person’s life…

  7. I’ve tried to read Cloud Atlas twice. I never manage to get very far. I still want to read it though…and your post has piqued my interest in it again.

    And I have to confess, I loathe Rushdie. After about 100 pages of The Enchantress of Florence I gave up on him and his ridiculous sentences.

    1. Hmmm, I realised that with the books I’m always trying to read, I never get far because I keep reading the same pages over and over again. Sometimes it helps just to open up at a random page and start reading :)
      Maybe you should do that with Cloud Atlas? Esp. since it’s got several stories inside it, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you skip a few!

    2. I notice that people who start reading Rushdie with Enchantress of Florence never seem to like him. It might be better to start with something better by him.

      1. Agreed. It was my first Rushdie, the cover was gorgeous, it had just been nominated for Booker ’08. I was excited, and then shocked, and then disapppointed. I was all: “this is the famed Rushdie whose name has so much bearing in the highest of literary circles?! I HAVED BEEN DUPED MY ENTIRE LIFE. THIS IS A LIE!! And then I considered that his head might be too swollen by now for him to write, and it was somewhat of a consolation for me, though not much.

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