Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.

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37 Responses to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, a sensational book and the first time you read it is a once-in-a-lifetime surprise.
    What a brilliant mind he has to have put it all together the way he has.

  2. Colleen says:

    What’s really amazing about Cloud Atlas, besides all you enumerate here, is that it’s even better on the second read!

  3. Amy says:

    This one has a pretty firm hold on my all-time top-five list.

    • Kerry says:

      I shudder whenever I imagine limiting my all-time favorites to only five, but this one is in there (with To the Lighthouse, Pale Fire, and The Fall). The last spot is occupied on a rotating basis by one of about twenty other books, depending on mood.

  4. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Kerry, I’m a HUGE fan of Spinoza. Thank you for drawing my attention to an allusion I flat out missed. On the basis of Spinoza’s authority, I wonder if we can’t make a soaring claim about a condition that must be met in all realistic fiction. It might go something like this: (1) The world is a closed causal structure, i.e., it abhors a vacuum. (2) The mind isn’t a kingdom within a kingdom; it’s part of nature. (3) Being part of nature, the mind abhors a vacuum, i.e., it understands things by grasping causal relations. (4) Because the mind abhors a vacuum, a good novelist presents a story with characters and actions that are causally related, with plausible connections between events, between motives and action, etc. (5) Lack of causality is a form of dissonance. (6) Dissonance sucks.

  5. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    Interesting concept.

    I have read some of Spinoza, but I can tell already not nearly as deeply as are you. Dissonance does suck. I think that is one reason Mitchell is so great, there is so little dissonance in his work. He fits his novels together tightly.

    I do believe human minds are, in large part, “causal connection” detection machines and, therefore, hungrily seek links between events, people, things. Pynchon has exploited and examined this aspect of humanity and its tendency to create individual and group paranoia. I think Mitchell is exploiting it to make points that may not be directly about causal connections, as such, but about the unchanging nature of change (including that there are always oppressors, oppressed, and “heros” struggling against the oppressors and for the oppressed).

  6. Heartfelt (selfish) thanks for a superbly-timed review. I’m planning on writing my review of Mitchell’s The Thousand Aurumns of Jacob De Zoet tomorrow. I have read all his books and loved Cloud Atlas but I don’t care for the new one at all. So I woke up this morning thinking I had to find Cloud Atlas (no easy thing, I might say) and figure out why.

    Fortunately, I did a blog check first and here in all its glory were all the reminders that I needed. I agree with your assessment and rationale completely — and will be using aspects of it when I sit down to write tomorrow.

    Many, many thanks.

    • Kerry says:

      I can think of no higher praise. Thanks! I am looking forward to your review of the new one, though I may wait until after I finish The Thousand Autumns as I am on within a couple days of starting it.

      I am almost happy to hear you did not like it, that helps lower my expectations after having been blown away by Cloud Atlas.

  7. nicole says:

    having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them

    This is something I wish I had done, and I’m rather envious. I don’t care about this with all authors, but I think Mitchell would really benefit from it (not that there’s anything wrong with him otherwise, mind).

    Also, like Kevin, I want to thank you for bringing me closer to Cloud Atlas again after some disappointment with Jacob de Zoet. I mean, it was still good, but. I really do need to read this one again sometime soon.

    • Kerry says:

      I, of course, absolutely agree that Mitchell benefits from reading his prior material first (though I am about to violate that by reading Jacob de Zoet before Black Swan Green. But my eagerness to read his latest outweighs my commitment to the continuity plan.

      You are quite welcome if anything I wrote brought you back to Cloud Atlas. And you could always read his first three works in order the second time around…

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. anokatony says:

    ‘Black Swan Green’ is my favorite David Mitchell novel. I attempted to read ‘Cloud Atlas’ but gave up early on. It looks like I should try again.

    • Kerry says:

      I really think you might enjoy it if you give it another go. Each section is quite different than the one before it and none are particularly long. Some take getting used to the voice (a made up pidgin English for the farthest in the future section, for instance), but I found all of the stories intriguing and the characters well-developed.

      I am in the middle of Fortress of Solitude by Lethem, so I want to get to Black Swan Green as a sort of comparison of the two. Your (and KfC’s) praise only makes me more eager to do so. But Jacob de Zoet has to come first because, well, its here and its on the Booker longlist and I want to read the shiny new one.

  9. […] Mitchell does eventually set the active part of the novel going for the last 100-150 pages and, when he is in a go-forward mood, he is quite good at action. Again, I am out of step with most of the people who like the book — they admit the ending is weak, I found it the best part of the book. Perhaps I was just relieved at approaching the finish, but when Mitchell did get into an active voice here, he reminded me why I liked his previous books. (For a recent, excellent discussion of how he makes all this style work successfully check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Cloud Atlas here.) […]

  10. I read this earlier in the year, and had a huge feeling of achievement. Unlike you, I didn’t read Mitchell’s works in order. I’d only read number9dream before I started with this. Black Swan Green is next in line.

    It was an easier read than I’d expected, although I didn’t quite enjoy the pidgin english chunk. Your review does remind me of why I enjoyed it, and why I really should read Black Swan Green soon.

  11. Oh dear, you know I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it but I can remember almost nothing about it. I think this means that it’s one of those books I liked but that didn’t really get a hook into me. Not sure why that is. Black Swan Green is on my TBR. I will be reading his latest soon – I want to like it, partly because of its setting – but am starting to worry with all the so-so and negative comments I have sensing.

  12. Kerry says:

    Yes, some books are like the Whispering, they just float away. I do not think this will be one of those for me, but I have them. If I remembered them better, I would name them….heh.

    I am looking forward to Black Swan Green, but I am reading the new one first. Shame on me, perhaps, but I am too eager to follow my previous protocol.

  13. Fascinating Kerry. A marvellous writeup that really makes me want to read this. What an achievement by Mitchell!

    Still, I’ll be following your advice and reading them in order. Looking forward to it.

  14. Trevor says:

    After being disappointed in Mitchell’s new book, your review inspires me to go back and reread his first four again, in order. It’s been a while since I read them, and you’ve reminded me why I loved them so much. Plus, I want to set the record straight on my blog, which at the moment seems to suggest I don’t like Mitchell.

  15. Kerry says:

    Max, Thanks. It is a great book. I think, given your interest in and knowledge of science fiction, you will really enjoy Cloud Atlas, specifically, and Mitchell, generally. I do think reading the three in order provides pleasures above and beyond reading them in another order. Cloud Atlas, particularly, benefits, I think.

    Trevor,
    I am happy to have inspired a revisit of Mitchell’s work, if only because the revisit will produce a blog post and I always enjoy reading what you have to say about books. Thank you.

  16. […] the way I’ve approached the works of David Mitchell – Unlike some book bloggers (e.g. Kerry), I haven’t read his works in any kind of order; just as and when I got my hands on one of […]

  17. Monique says:

    Silly question: I’m reading it now and after the first story (Adam Ewing) ended mid-sentence, I skipped to the end of the book to finish his story. Would I have a better experience if I don’t do that with the rest of the stories? Or am I reading it how it was intended? Silly, I know. But I’m enjoying this book so much I want to squeeze every drop from it I can. Thanks!

  18. Kerry says:

    Monique,

    Thank you for stopping in, for commenting, and for asking my opinion. I really enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas the way it was published, waiting to read the second half of each story until after finishing the remaining stories. My impression is that the advantages are (a) some natural suspense that lingers given the unfinished portions of the stories that dissipates if you have already read, for instance, Adam Ewing’s story through to the end), (b) there are slight spoilers in that some of the middle sections are written with the expectation that the reader doesn’t know the end of the earlier begun stories, and (c) reading the first half of each miniature story, then moving on, creates a feeling and atmosphere unique to Cloud Atlas that, I think, is one of the pleasures of the experience. You only get one chance to read it without knowing what is going to happen, so I would recommend reading the pages in order.

    However, the stories do hold up well on their own, so if you can’t resist…

    Thanks again for the question, and I am thrilled you are enjoying the book, however you read it.

  19. Martin Paul says:

    Hi Kerry
    Am currently on my second reading of Cloud Atlas and first of Jacob de Zoet. The consumption of anything illicit or licit is always at its zentih on first tasting. Although CA reads well a second time, the sense of discovery that one rarely gets is obviously missing this time around. Jacob de zoet is a fine tome but of a different kind to CA and whilst immensely enjoyable it lacks the the roller coaster sensaions of CA.

    I am interested to know what you think of Black Swan Green. This is my second favourite book from DM.

    Let me know

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for the comment and the question. I can definitely see how a second read of Cloud Atlas would be different, would lack that “sense of discovery” that was so amazing the first time through. I look forward to reading it again to compare experiences.

      And, yes, I do agree that Jacob de Zoet is not in the same league with Cloud Atlas. It is different in kind and, not, I am thinking even more now, quite as internally coherent. Still very good, but not his best, or even second best.

      Speaking of, I have not read Black Swan Green, but am quite keen to do so as that will put a nice cap on my Mitchell project until he publishes again. I should have a couple or three years between as I plan to read Black Swan Green in 2011. I hope you don’t get bored with me in the meantime.

      Thanks for the comment!

  20. […] Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell […]

  21. stef7sa says:

    Cloud Atlas doesn’t really leave you after you’ve read it, there are just so many little interconnections and riddles. I especially liked the modern story about the editor of a failed author whose book becomes a bestseller: pure slapstick and really very very funny!

    • Kerry says:

      I absolutely agree on the staying power of Cloud Atlas. Each of the stories is uniquely gripping yet irrevocably intertwined with all the others in ways that make, for me at least, extremely entertaining reading. I liked the Orison of Somni-451 section too…and the ship journals…and the “Half-Lives” mystery…

      If I had to choose 10 books from the last 20 years, this one would be on the list.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • stef7sa says:

        Any ideas on the meaning of half-lives in the title? Why half?

      • Kerry says:

        “Half-lives” refers, at least on the surface, to the phenomenon that nuclear (and other) materials decay at a rate that is measured by “half-lives” (for instance, Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,715 years making it useful for dating formerly living matter that died many, many years ago). The reporter is working on a story about a nuclear power plant.

        It is also the sort of title thrillers often have (or had) being, as it is, something of a pun: characters will die, living only “half” a life, (which makes a pun given the more common meaning described above) upping (potboiler publishers hope) the adrenaline quotient.

        It also suggests the characters are given to us, sort of, in “half-lives”. We get half their story first, then wait, then the other half.

      • Stef Smulders says:

        Aha, thx! That’s just the kind of thing you tend to miss out on as a foreigner 😉 I had another rather less plausible idea about this story being the middle one, nr 3, of the five stories that are split in two. And so this one is central in an analogous way to the 6th story. There exist two axes of symmetry, one vertical, in which the two halves of the stories 1 to 5 are mirrored, and possibly a horizontal one, in which stories 1 and 5, resp 2 and 4 are each others mirror image. I thought of this as a result of the play with the nrs 6 and 9 with which the author seems obsessed, 6 and 9 being mirror images of eachother, with a diagonal as the mirror, diagonal being the combination of horizontal and vertical. Still there?
        To investigate this further one would have to look for analogies between the stories 1&5 and 2&4. Am I mad?

      • Kerry says:

        “Am I mad?” Yes. Yes, you are. You’re a mad genius! Really, I like your “less plausible” idea with the two axes of symmetry because the author is obsessed with the number 6 and 9 and it makes lots of sense to me. So your idea is great, unless I’m a bit cracked too, which I probably am.

        Yours is the type of theory that native speakers may miss because we just think “half-lives, nuclear, hah” and we’re almost done. Thanks for sharing the theory. I like it and may try to popularize it later.

      • stef7sa says:

        😉 As long as the author is cracked as well, we are all in there together! Another thing is the image of the egg in the novel, as the starting point of all the stories right in the center of the novel (“Look!”) and as the structure again of the book with a base story and the others rounding it off, without a top story, making it not an oval but eggshaped, like the matrushjka dolls mentioned in the novel itself.

      • Kerry says:

        Definitely the matrushjka dolls are an important image and structural device. The nesting of stories is done incredibly well, the stories standing alone solidly, but also inextricably linked. Beautifully done.

  22. stef7sa says:

    Mitchell is sort of obsessed with the numbers 6 & 9, not only in this novel but the other ones as well. Why? Well the author was born in ’69 !

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