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Cloud Atlas: A Novel [Paperback]

David Mitchell
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,699 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At once audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating, Mitchell's third novel weaves history, science, suspense, humor and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives. Like Mitchell's previous works, Ghostwritten and number9dream (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), this latest foray relies on a kaleidoscopic plot structure that showcases the author's stylistic virtuosity. Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. Among the volume's most engaging story lines is a witty 1930s-era chronicle, via letters, of a young musician's effort to become an amanuensis for a renowned, blind composer and a hilarious account of a modern-day vanity publisher who is institutionalized by a stroke and plans a madcap escape in order to return to his literary empire (such as it is). Mitchell's ability to throw his voice may remind some readers of David Foster Wallace, though the intermittent hollowness of his ventriloquism frustrates. Still, readers who enjoy the "novel as puzzle" will find much to savor in this original and occasionally very entertaining work.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Mitchell's virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy. There is a naïve clerk on a nineteenth-century Polynesian voyage; an aspiring composer who insinuates himself into the home of a syphilitic genius; a journalist investigating a nuclear plant; a publisher with a dangerous best-seller on his hands; and a cloned human being created for slave labor. These five stories are bisected and arranged around a sixth, the oral history of a post-apocalyptic island, which forms the heart of the novel. Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novel's themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present. Against such forces, Mitchell's characters reveal a quiet tenacity. When the clerk is told that his life amounts to "no more than one drop in a limitless ocean," he asks, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

From Bookmarks Magazine

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic rave over Cloud Atlas, British novelist Mitchell’s third novel. Many of the accolades focus on his flair for setting and character. He seems just as comfortable in far-future Hilo as in contemporary England, and he crafts believable voices for characters as different as the rakish Frobisher and the simple tribesman Zachry. One reviewer found the Luisa Rey storyline less convincing than others, while another got bogged down in Zachry’s tale. Mitchell may jump around in time, but his skill remains consistent.

This skill—the technical expertise that allows Mitchell to adopt a different genre for each of his six storylines—gets him into a little trouble. The New York Times Book Review complains that Mitchell’s writing “too often seems android,” that his chameleon-like shifts render his work coldly impressive rather than “fallibly human.” However, most reviewers found Mitchell’s unorthodox structure captivating. After an initial period of confusion, Cloud Atlas becomes a challenging puzzle most were eager to solve. When the storylines finally coalesce, the result is a novel that stands above its peers in both emotional impact and philosophical import. As the Los Angeles Times notes, “Cloud Atlas offers too many powerful insights to be dismissed as a mere exercise in style.” By all accounts, Mitchell has produced in Cloud Atlas a wholly original work. For most, it is also wholly satisfying.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Review

“[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“One of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt is—and should be—read by any student of contemporary literature.”—Dave Eggers
 
“Wildly entertaining . . . a head rush, both action-packed and chillingly ruminative.”People
 
“The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book, and yet—not just dazzling, amusing, or clever but heartbreaking and passionate, too. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I’m grateful to have lived, for a while, in all its many worlds.”—Michael Chabon
 
Cloud Atlas ought to make [Mitchell] famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer whose fearlessness is matched by his talent.”The Washington Post Book World
 
“Thrilling . . . One of the biggest joys in Cloud Atlas is watching Mitchell sashay from genre to genre without a hitch in his dance step.”Boston Sunday Globe
 
“Grand and elaborate . . . [Mitchell] creates a world and language at once foreign and strange, yet strikingly familiar and intimate.”Los Angeles Times


From the Hardcover edition.

From the Inside Flap

From David Mitchell, the Booker Prize nominee, award-winning writer and one of the featured authors in Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists 2003" issue, comes his highly anticipated third novel, a work of mind-bending imagination and scope.

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified "dinery server" on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation -- the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity's dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

About the Author

David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.


From the Hardcover edition.

From The Washington Post

Marx warned us that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. British novelist David Mitchell suggests a few more iterations: grade-B pulp thriller, creepy dystopian scifi, Hobbesian nightmare. Mitchell has already earned high praise for his previous novels, Ghostwritten (1999) and Number9Dream (2001), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest effort, Cloud Atlas, revises Marx's quip to meet the demands of contemporary fiction. Hopscotching over centuries, Cloud Atlas likewise jumps in and out of half a dozen different styles, all of which display the author's astonishing talent for ventriloquism, and end up fitting together to make this a highly satisfying, and unusually thoughtful, addition to the expanding "puzzle book" genre.

Novels whose plots hinge on intricate puzzles -- e.g., The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four -- are all the rage these days, but the puzzle of Cloud Atlas isn't in the book, it is the book. What appears at first glance to be a novel is in fact six novellas whose interrelatedness is only hinted at during the book's first half, then revealed fully and splendidly after the book's middle, which is really the book's end. Confused? You're supposed to be, at least for a little while: It's from this starting point of dislocation that Mitchell begins a virtuosic round trip through the strata of history and causality, exploring the permanence of man's inhumanity to man and the impermanence of what we have come to call civilization.

Mitchell begins his chronology of our fall from grace with a character named Adam, naturally. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" presents us with the diary of a seafaring 1850s American notary, killing time on the Chatham Islands off New Zealand as he waits for his homeward ship to set sail. Engaging in the amateur anthropology of the visitor, the morally upright Ewing struggles to square his belief in the civilizing, beneficent aspects of colonialism with what he sees before him, "that casual brutality lighter races show the darker." He also befriends an English doctor who diagnoses Ewing with a rare, brain-destroying disease, and who begins treating the American immediately with a cocktail of powerful drugs.

Then, in mid-sentence, Mitchell whisks us away from the scene, and suddenly we are reading the letters of one Robert Frobisher, a charmingly louche, happily bisexual British composer of the 1930s whose tendency to skip out on hotel bills has finally caught up with him. As he recounts his ambitious plan to evade creditors and gain hitherto elusive fame by exploiting an elderly maestro, we merrily follow his rake's progress and almost forget the plight of poor Adam Ewing -- until, that is, Frobisher mentions in passing that he has serendipitously found and read one-half of a bound copy of Ewing's journal. (The second half is damnably missing.) Shortly thereafter, we take our leave of Frobisher just as abruptly as we were introduced to him, and Mitchell drops us down in 1970s California, at the opening chapter of a crime-fiction potboiler whose heroine, a plucky magazine journalist named Luisa Rey, is on the verge of uncovering a nefarious conspiracy.

And so it goes, again and again: a cycle of starts and stops that vectors through past, present and future, linked by buried clues and the twin refrains of deceit and exploitation. What all these stories have in common is that each draws its lifeblood from the same heart of darkness. Cloud Atlas is a work of fiction, ultimately, about the myriad misuses of fiction: the seductive lies told by grifters, CEOs, politicians and others in the service of expanding empires and maintaining power. Soon we meet Timothy Cavendish, the curmudgeonly editor of a London vanity press, who is tricked into incarceration by his vengeful brother. We meet a wise, world-weary clone from 22nd-century Korea, where hypercapitalism and biotechnology have fused into absolute tyranny. And finally, in post-apocalypse Hawaii, we meet a storyteller who enthralls his listeners with the tale of a suspicious visitor from a far-off land, echoing the account of Adam Ewing that opens the book.

At this point the novel's action rapidly reverses course, going back through time and picking up the abandoned narrative threads, weaving them together to craft a fascinating meditation on civilization's insatiable appetites. Even Mitchell's characters seem to voice uncertainty about their creator's grand plan. "Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished," admits Frobisher of his own "Cloud Sextet," a musical composition whose ambitious six-part structure mirrors the novel's. And Cavendish, the editor from the old school, has his qualms, too: "I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory," he harrumphs.

But sometimes novels filled with big ideas require equally big mechanisms for relaying them, and it's hard to imagine an idea bigger than the one Mitchell is tackling here: how the will to power that compels the strong to subjugate the weak is replayed perpetually in a cycle of eternal recurrence. Rarely has the all-encompassing prefix of "metafiction" seemed so apposite. Here is not only the academic pessimism of Marx, Hobbes and Nietzsche but also the frightening portents of Aldous Huxley and the linguistic daring of Anthony Burgess. Here, too, are Melville's maritime tableaux, the mordant satire of Kingsley Amis and, in the voice of Robert Frobisher -- Mitchell's most poignant and fully realized character -- the unmistakable ghost of Paul Bowles. Here is a veritable film festival of unembarrassed cinematic references and inspirations, from "Soylent Green" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "The Graduate" to the postwar comedies of England's Ealing Studios. Here is an obviously sincere affection for the oft-maligned genres of mystery, science fiction and fantasy.

All of these influences, and countless others, gel into a work that nevertheless manages to be completely original. More significantly, the various pieces of David Mitchell's mysterious puzzle combine to form a haunting image that stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. Cloud Atlas ought to make him famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer whose fearlessness is matched by his talent.

Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 7th November—

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.

Had the doctor misplaced anything on that dismal shore? Could I render assistance? Dr. Goose shook his head, knotted loose his ’kerchief & displayed its contents with clear pride. “Teeth, sir, are the enameled grails of the quest in hand. In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth, they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture sets for the nobility pays handsomely for human gnashers. Do you know the price a quarter pound will earn, sir?”

I confessed I did not.

“Nor shall I enlighten you, sir, for ’tis a professional secret!” He tapped his nose. “Mr. Ewing, are you acquainted with Marchioness Grace of Mayfair? No? The better for you, for she is a corpse in petticoats. Five years have passed since this harridan besmirched my name, yes, with imputations that resulted in my being blackballed from Society.” Dr. Goose looked out to sea. “My peregrinations began in that dark hour.”

I expressed sympathy with the doctor’s plight.

“I thank you, sir, I thank you, but these ivories”—he shook his ’kerchief—“are my angels of redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental fixtures fashioned by the afore- mentioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors’ Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals’ gnashers! Sir Hubert will challenge me, predictably, ‘Furnish your evidence,’ that boor shall roar, ‘or grant me satisfaction!’ I shall declare, ‘Evidence, Sir Hubert? Why, I gathered your mother’s teeth myself from the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir, here are some of their fellows!’ & fling these very teeth into her tortoiseshell soup tureen & that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction! The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in their news sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a Poorhouse Ball!”

In haste, I bade Henry Goose a good day. I fancy he is a Bedlamite.

Friday, 8th November—

In the rude shipyard beneath my window, work progresses on the jibboom, under Mr. Sykes’s directorship. Mr. Walker, Ocean Bay’s sole taverner, is also its principal timber merchant & he brags of his years as a master shipbuilder in Liverpool. (I am now versed enough in Antipodese etiquette to let such unlikely truths lie.) Mr. Sykes told me an entire week is needed to render the Prophet- ess “Bristol fashion.” Seven days holed up in the Musket seems a grim sentence, yet I recall the fangs of the banshee tempest & the mariners lost o’erboard & my present misfortune feels less acute.

I met Dr. Goose on the stairs this morning & we took breakfast together. He has lodged at the Musket since middle October after voyaging hither on a Brazilian merchantman, Namorados, from Feejee, where he practiced his arts in a mission. Now the doctor awaits a long-overdue Australian sealer, the Nellie, to convey him to Sydney. From the colony he will seek a position aboard a passenger ship for his native London.

My judgment of Dr. Goose was unjust & premature. One must be cynical as Diogenes to prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues. The doctor has his eccentricities & recounts them gladly for a dram of Portuguese pisco (never to excess), but I vouchsafe he is the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso. I may even compose for him a letter of introduction for the Partridges in Sydney, for Dr. Goose & dear Fred are of the same cloth.

Poor weather precluding my morning outing, we yarned by the peat fire & the hours sped by like minutes. I spoke at length of Tilda & Jackson & also my fears of “gold fever” in San Francisco. Our conversation then voyaged from my hometown to my recent notarial duties in New South Wales, thence to Gibbon, Malthus & Godwin via Leeches & Locomotives. Attentive conversation is an emollient I lack sorely aboard the Prophetess & the doctor is a veritable polymath. Moreover, he possesses a handsome army of scrimshandered chessmen whom we shall keep busy until either the Prophetess’s departure or the Nellie’s arrival.

Saturday, 9th November—

Sunrise bright as a silver dollar. Our schooner still looks a woeful picture out in the Bay. An Indian war canoe is being careened on the shore. Henry & I struck out for “Banqueter’ s Beach” in holy-day mood, blithely saluting the maid who labors for Mr. Walker. The sullen miss was hanging laundry on a shrub & ignored us. She has a tinge of black blood & I fancy her mother is not far removed from the jungle breed.

As we passed below the Indian hamlet, a “humming” aroused our curiosity & we resolved to locate its source. The settlement is circumvallated by a stake fence, so decayed that one may gain ingress at a dozen places. A hairless bitch raised her head, but she was toothless & dying & did not bark. An outer ring of ponga huts (fashioned from branches, earthen walls & matted ceilings) groveled in the lees of “grandee” dwellings, wooden structures with carved lintel pieces & rudimentary porches. In the hub of this village, a public flogging was under way. Henry & I were the only two Whites present, but three castes of spectating Indians were demarked. The chieftain occupied his throne, in a feathered cloak, while the tattooed gentry & their womenfolk & children stood in attendance, numbering some thirty in total. The slaves, duskier & sootier than their nut-brown masters & less than half their number, squatted in the mud. Such inbred, bovine torpor! Pockmarked & pustular with haki-haki, these wretches watched the punishment, making no response but that bizarre, beelike “hum.” Empathy or condemnation, we knew not what the noise signified. The whip master was a Goliath whose physique would daunt any frontier prizefighter. Lizards mighty & small were tattooed over every inch of the savage’s musculature:—his pelt would fetch a fine price, though I should not be the man assigned to relieve him of it for all the pearls of O-hawaii! The piteous prisoner, hoarfrosted with many harsh years, was bound naked to an A-frame. His body shuddered with each excoriating lash, his back was a vellum of bloody runes, but his insensible face bespoke the serenity of a martyr already in the care of the Lord.

I confess, I swooned under each fall of the lash. Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye & shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box and, undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition. A tattooed “blackfella” approached us & flicked his nephrite dagger to indicate that we were unwelcome. I inquired after the nature of the prisoner’s crime. Henry put his arm around me. “Come, Adam, a wise man does not step betwixt the beast & his meat.”

Sunday, 10th November—

Mr. Boerhaave sat amidst his cabal of trusted ruffians like Lord Anaconda & his garter snakes. Their Sabbath “celebrations” downstairs had begun ere I had risen. I went in search of shaving water & found the tavern swilling with Tars awaiting their turn with those poor Indian girls whom Walker has ensnared in an impromptu bordello. (Rafael was not in the debauchers’ number.)

I do not break my Sabbath fast in a whorehouse. Henry’s sense of repulsion equaled to my own, so we forfeited breakfast (the maid was doubtless being pressed into alternative service) & set out for the chapel to worship with our fasts unbroken.

We had not gone two hundred yards when, to my consternation, I remembered this journal, lying on the table in my room at the Musket, visible to any drunken sailor who might break in. Fearful for its safety (& my own, were Mr. Boerhaave to get his hands on it), I retraced my steps to conceal it more artfully. Broad smirks greeted my return & I assumed I was “the devil being spoken of,” but I learned the true reason when I opened my door:—to wit, Mr. Boerhaave’s ursine buttocks astraddle his Blackamoor Goldilocks in my bed in flagrante delicto! Did that devil Dutchman apologize? Far from it! He judged himself the injured party & roared, “Get ye hence, Mr. Quillcock! or by God’s B——d, I shall snap your tricksy Yankee nib in two!”

I snatched my diary & clattered downstairs to a riotocracy of merriment & ridicule from the White savages there gathered. I remonstrated to Walker that I was paying for a private room & I expected it to remain private even during my absence, but that scoundrel merely offered a one-third discount on “a quarter-hour’s gallop on the comeliest filly in my stable!” Disgusted, I retorted that I was a husband & a father! & that I should rather die than abase my dignity & decency with any of his poxed whores! Walker swore to “decorate my eyes” if I called his own dear daughters “whores” again. One toothless garter snake jeered that if possessing a wife & a child was a single virtue, “Why, Mr. Ewing, I be ten times more virtuous than you be!” & an unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person. I withdrew ere the liquid was swapped for a more obdurate missile.

The chapel bell was summoning the God-fearing of Ocean Bay & I hurried thitherwards, where Henry waited, trying to forget the recent foulnesses witnessed at my lodgings. The chapel creaked like an old tub & its congregation numbered little more than the digits of two hands, but no traveler ever quenched his thirst at a desert oasis more thankfully than Henry & I gave worship this morning. The Lutheran founder has lain at rest in his chapel’s cemetery these ten winters past & no ordained successor has yet ventured to claim captaincy of the altar. Its denomination, therefore, is a “rattle bag” of Christian creeds. Biblical passages were read by that half of the congregation who know their let- ters & we joined in a hymn or two nominated by rota. The “steward” of this demotic flock, one Mr. D’Arnoq, stood beneath the modest cruciform & besought Henry & me to participate in likewise manner. Mindful of my own salvation from last week’s tempest, I nominated Luke ch. 8, “And they came to him, & awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, & rebuked the wind & the raging of the water: & they ceased, & there was a calm.”

Henry recited from Psalm the Eighth, in a voice as sonorous as any schooled dramatist: “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep & oxen, yea & the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air & the fish of the sea & whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.”

No organist played a Magnificat but the wind in the flue chimney, no choir sang a Nunc Dimittis but the wuthering gulls, yet I fancy the Creator was not displeazed. We resembled more the Early Christians of Rome than any later Church encrusted with arcana & gemstones. Communal prayer followed. Parishioners prayed ad lib for the eradication of potato blight, mercy on a dead infant’s soul, blessing upon a new fishing boat, &c. Henry gave thanks for the hospitality shown us visitors by the Christians of Chatham Isle. I echoed these sentiments & sent a prayer for Tilda, Jackson & my father-in-law during my extended absence.

From AudioFile

The foppish English composer living abroad in the '30s, the vanity publisher imprisoned in a Scottish nursing home, the flinty female journalist exposing corporate malfeasance--these are three story lines from the six tales Mitchell weaves together in a sequence of literary forms (journal, letters, testament, first-person narrative). Each performer reads a section, but the packaging gives no clue as to who does what. The tales are tenuously connected, and each but the last futuristic episode is interrupted, only to be continued later in reverse order. Confusing? Yes, but the narration is uniformly excellent, and somehow it all hangs together. There's no going back; individual episodes are unidentified on the discs. The publisher gets kudos for bringing this fine, puzzling, and original novel to the audio format. J.B.G. © AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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