This goes down as one of my favorite books of the year.
Story in a nutshell (without spoilers):
Cloud Atlas consists of 6 [slightly] interlinking stories, told from the viewpoint of 6 different individuals at different points in time. The first story consists of the letters of Adam Ewing, and his fateful trip on a ship in the Pacific in the mid 1850's.
From there we go to the second story, which takes place in the 1930's and is told from the viewpoint of Robert Frobisher, a talented disinherited muscial composer who visits an infirm maestro and his family in an attempt to get work and advantage. His story is told through his letters to a scientist friend/lover named Rufus Sixsmith.
The next story takes place in the 1970's, and has to do with reporter Luisa Rey, and her exposure of corporate malfeasance that could result in disaster. Sixsmith is a scientist there, and plays an important part of the story.
Next, (and my personal favorite), is the story of Timothy Cavendish, in present day England, and the tale of his (mis) adventures as a book publisher. Utterly hilarious and poignant.
The second to last story becomes a sci/fi read of future corporate controlled Korea, complete with cloned humans. And the final story is one that takes place in post apocalyptic Hawaii.
And then we go back to each story, in opposite order, and put the pieces together and complete the cliffhanger endings from the first half.
I think this book is brilliant. I often found myself rereading various sections because I found them so ingenius and profound. I think David Mitchell is one of the most talented new writers around.
My only complaint? Sometimes I think that the author was a bit taken with his own writing, and was too clever for his own good. At points the writing became tedious, although never to the point that I wanted to throw in the towel.
Note...I personally had trouble getting through chapter one, but then I was hooked by chapter two. If you find yourself getting impatient, hang in there.
Highly recommended, with the reservations expressed above.
on September 25, 2004
Cloud Atlas is a series of six interlocked tales - encompassing a wide array of eras, locales, and genres -in which the protagonist in each story is impacted in some significant manner by the tale told in the preceding section (or the following section, as the book's tales wind out in reverse order in the second half).
So...the stories we tell, and the sense we make of things, have meaning. I'm not sure if Mitchell intended this a straightforward(ish) reincarnation tale, or if the larger theme has something to do with the idea that the stories we tell survive us, perhaps at least partially define what it means to be human, or enable us to retain some vestige of humanity in the face of forces (imperialism, slavery, corportization, or just our own worst impulses) designed to strip that away. The centerpiece of the book does take place in a future world in which civilization has been literally reduced to the ability to remember, and relay that rememberance forward in a sort of verbal folklore.
This is a good, moving, well-written, and entertaining book. One's patience for it is probably dependent on one's degree of exposure to genre fiction - I think someone approaching this from the perspective of classic "literary fiction" might find it off-putting - part of the fun here is the manner in which Mitchell plays with the tropes and cliche of various genres (sci-fi, hardboiled crime fiction, belles lettres, etc) across the six tales. That said, there's lots of "high literary" enjoyment to be had here - the writing is stellar, and there's lots of good thematic linkage (boats, bridges, musical themes, etc.) that add quite a bit of depth.
I would also like to dispel the notion that this is a "difficult" book in the style of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, etc. It is just extraordinarily fun to read. The novel's overarching themes are challenging and profound, but it is also a page-turner of the highest order, and in that sense a real celebration of the various genres it exploits and parodies. Highly recommended.
on September 14, 2006
I've just finished this phenomenal book by David Mitchell, a present from a friend who recommended I read it immediately.
So glad I did. It has aspects of the dystopian future scenarios that I so loved in The Handmaid's Tale, Dune, and The Sparrow coupled with recent past and long-past stories. It addresses basic questions of where we are going as a species, following one soul reincarnated through six lives. That soul is on a trajectory that traces the basic human desire for domination, the often-myopic thinking of the powerful, and the fate of the powerless. It is on a grand scale, beautifully told, and quite enthralling.
The structure is what had me hooked to start--it is a mirror of itself. Rough breakdown: The first and twelfth chapters are "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," a story of subterfuge, gullibility, and poison on a ship bound from the South Seas to London.
Second and tenth chapters are epistolary, taking place in 1939 through the correspondence of Frobisher--a bit of a cad and scammer--to his friend Sixsmith. Frobisher is a brilliant musician but the family shame, in the process of writing his great masterpiece while apprenticing under a syphilitic genius composer.
Third and ninth chapters follow the efforts of investigative journalist Luisa Rey to uncover serious evil at a soon-to-be opened nuclear facility in the mid-70s. One of her primary sources in the mystery Sixsmith, Frobisher's correspondent from the last chapter, but now 35 years older.
Fourth and eighth chapters are the disturbing and frequently funny tales of Timothy Cavendish, a bumbling, arrogant, failure of a publisher in London during roughly our current times, maybe a little later.
Fifth and seventh chapter are my favorites--here Mitchell hits the sci-fi, dystopian future part with full gusto. Sonmi~451 is a human clone of sorts, grown in a womb tank (like all "fabricants," as they are called) and born into service to Papa Song Company. The world as we read about it is governed and shaped around corporate structures and the economy is based on the slave labor of these fabricants.
This chapter is her testimony about her ascension from fabricant to full human thinking and feeling. She observes the world outside Papa Song restaurant and ventures into the broader culture (a scary place, indeed).
I don't do these chapters justice. Sonmi~451 weaves a wonderful tale about this future world, using neologisms and appropriated words that make perfect sense based on how we are using language now. The links and connections to life in the 21st century make it compelling.
The peak chapter, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," describes a fallen world, one that has collapsed in on itself leaving the vast majority of humans in a new Dark Age where violence and predatory actions are the way of those who want to live very long. The strong dominate and destroy the weak. The protagonist, a goat herder, refers to the "Civ'lized days before the fall when people was ler'nd." It's written in this dialect and he tells a hard-wrought tale of lawless times.
But it's all believable. Mitchell never stretches his story in any part of the book beyond what we can imagine. He begins with a tale of dishonesty in the 1800s and spins it into the future, following some of our baser instincts to their logical, if stunning and frightening, conclusion.
This book is complicated and ambitious--it's a little over 500 pages of teeny, tiny print and plot lines that crisscross over chapters, lives, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
The reincarnation theme is only hinted at in the vaguest of terms--it's not even a central part of the book, but it does weave the narrative thread from character to character. I can't begin to fathom how many Post-it notes and spreadsheets it took Mitchell to keep track of all this.
Cloud Atlas was the most thought-provoking novel I've read in years and I found myself meditating on the lives of the characters long after I'd put it down and moved onto something else. Extraordinary work.
on February 3, 2012
I came upon this book through the recommendation of a friend. He warned me that it would be unlike any novel I had read before, so I entered this story with excitement and curiosity. In Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell has proved that he has the technical capabilities to write anything that his heart desires. A master of construction and dialect, Mitchell combines six separate stories into a fascinating novel that spans from the 19th century to a distant future.
The novel begins with the story of Adam Ewing, an American notary who is on a ship, headed home. Presented as Ewing's personal journal, Mitchell wonderfully captures the voice of a homesick man, full of religious zeal. When a black, foreign stowaway is discovered on board, Ewing fights to keep the man away from the harm and racism of the captain and crew. When Adam begins to feel ill, his only friend on the boat, Dr. Henry Goose, begins to treat him for a "poisonous worm" living inside of him. With the threat of death, Ewing struggles to maintain his morality in the seemingly sinful environment of the ship.
Abruptly, the novel jumps to the early 20th century with the letters of a young aspiring English composer, Robert Frobisher. He finds himself in Belgium, short of financial stability and a clear musical direction. He seeks out local composer Vyvyan Ayers, whose music he sees a revolutionary, to become a kind of understudy to the ailing composer. Ayers accepts the offer and begins to have Frobisher assist him in writing new music. Unfortunately, Robert finds himself in the middle of a forbidden affair, and begins to feel that Ayers is taking advantage of his own musical ideas.
The story of young American journalist Luisa Rey, reads like a fast paced thriller. The year is 1975 and Luisa, who is struggling to overcome the shadow cast by her famous journalist father, believes she has found the story that will provide her with her big break. As she attempts to uncover the reported corruption of a local nuclear company, she finds herself entangled in a web of conspiracy, love, and murder.
Timothy Cavendish is a sixty-something publisher who finds unexpected success after his client, a gangster who recently published his memoirs with Cavendish's company, murders a critic at a local event. The client, of course, is sent to jail, and the novel becomes a bestseller. With his newfound wealth, Timothy seems to be living the high life. When the brothers of his client attempt to violently persuade Cavendish to give them the money from their imprisoned brother's book, he flees the city. Unfortunately, he mistakes a nursing home for a hotel and finds himself unable to escape.
Sonmi-451, a genetic fabricant, created to serve food in a fast food restaurant of the dystopian future, is being interviewed about her escape and rebellion of the established society. She tells of how she was able to leave the restaurant, and discover how she, and others like her, have been taken advantage of by the established society. As she amasses knowledge she was never supposed to posses, she begins to feel emotions and make human connections that were never intended to be possible.
In the very distant future, we find Zachary, a primitive member of a tribe who is learning to face his fears in this strange world. After the death of his father and the capturing of his sibling, he blames himself for not preventing the attack. When a woman, a visitor from another group of people who seems to have more "knowledge" than Zachary's tribe, moves in with his family, he must face new threats to his tribe's beliefs and ways of life.
The stories, except for the one about Zachary, are all interrupted in the middle, giving the novel a kind of ABCDEFEDCBA arc. Mitchell ties this all together by making each new character the witness, mostly through reading, of the previous character's story. I think that each character could also be interpreted as a reincarnation of the previous because they all seem to share a similar birth mark. With each story, the author adapts to a different style of narrative, making some of the tales read easier than others. Notably, the strong dialect of the middle character makes his story nearly impossible to comprehend. Despite his ingenious presentation and construction, I couldn't help but feeling a bit disappointed at this end of this. The novel can be such a chore to read, that I didn't feel that I got some revolutionary message at the end of this, otherwise, expertly crafted story. Despite being glad that I took the time to read this unique novel, I can't help but wonder if my time would have been better spent reading something with a deeper meaning.
If you've read other reviews, then you know the way the book is constructed: six narratives in different times and places from the 19th century through a post-apocalyptic future spin out from the earliest to the latest and then back down again. As author Mitchell explains it, the construct is an attempt to illustrate what it would look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning.
So the question is, how do the individual stories stand up, and do the connections work and enhance the overall storyline? For me, the individual stories were variable. The first, featuring Adam Ewing, a San Francisco lawyer on a difficult 19th-century ocean journey that shows him the evils of slavery and oppression of native people by colonizers, is overly earnest and, in its second part, marred by an unbelievable plot twist.
After the first part of the Ewing story, it's a pleasure to move on to the tart comedy of the 1930s tale of Robert Frobisher, a ne'er-do-well young musician with an omnivore's sexual tastes. Then there's an unexpected jump to a crusading journalist in 1970s California named Luisa Rey. This story is written in a thriller style, as Luisa attempts to uncover corporate wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant.
Back to acerbic comedy, British style, as we move to the 1990s and Tim Cavendish, a struggling publisher whose life is transformed when one of his authors commits a spectacular public murder. The fifth and sixth stories are completely different; one set in a 22nd-century authoritarian corporate-controlled state (apparently Korea) where people live to consume and all real and practical work is performed by replicants, and the other in a far future post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the same evils of slavery and oppression from the Adam Ewing story seem to be beginning yet again.
While there is some intriguing storytelling, the preachiness is often annoying and the messaging downright ham-fisted. Corporations, materialism, racism: all bad; thanks, got it. Is that all there is? Well, no. There is also a vague suggestion that the protagonist in each story is a transmuted soul from the previous tale(s). But this theme isn't developed and its point is never made clear. Is it that souls can change over time? Well, maybe so, if you believe in reincarnation, but nothing is made of this. So the connections between the stories end up being tenuous and not particularly compelling. Each storyline just evaporates into the next. The connection ends up being Mitchell's oft-repeated lesson that human beings' natural striving makes us civilized, but ultimately destroys us. For me, that was a lukewarm proposition to float these stories on.
I had a bigger problem with the bad guys in the book. I'll try to talk about that without being spoiler-y. In sum, the bad guys are just too over the top and do things that don't make any sense in their context. A man is imprisoned and abused in a nursing home in a fashion that is inexplicable if the operators wanted to stay out of prison, let alone keep operating. Executives in a corporation go on a killing spree to avoid a story coming out, but they go after their multiple targets in spectacularly sloppy and attention-getting ways. Another bad buy decides to fleece a victim without knowing what assets the victim is carrying. That would be fine if the fleecing was a quickie job, but this one requires a dangerous journey, a lengthy time period and risky methodology. These aspects of the plot required way too much of a suspension of disbelief and made serious stories just seem silly.
The expectations built in round one of each of the six stories were dashed by each story's round two, and the letdown feeling just increased with each successive resolution.
on August 17, 2004
There are several levels at which one can appreciate David Mitchell's fantastic novel, Cloud Atlas, and like the novel's narrative, they unfold out of each other. The first level is the novel's construction. Cloud Atlas is made up of six narratives. Each narrative begins, is interrupted by the next, and then they resume in opposite order. Like a child opening a matrioshka doll, the reader delves deeper and deeper into Mitchell's world, and is sent careening back out. This device might sound difficult or confusing, but it is fascinating, especially as echoes of earlier narratives appear in the later ones. The book becomes a treasure hunt - an active exploration.
The second level is Mitchell's artistry. Each narrative is told in a different style - diary entries, letters, a mystery, a farce, an interview, and a tale told around a fire. Mitchell's ability to mimic each voice is so perfect that it is difficult to credit that he is the ventriloquist behind these six souls. He captures perfectly the vivid and memorable protagonists (and, in all but one case, narrators) of his six stories. At turns witty, hilarious and heartbreaking, they remain indelible in the reader's mind, thanks to Mitchell's facility with language.
Up until this point it might be possible to dismiss Cloud Atlas as clever and fun, but Mitchell truly has something to say along with a clever way of saying it. Mitchell touches on so many themes and ideas in this relatively short book. Cloud Atlas is a kaleidescopic view of kindness and cruely, civilization and barbarism, enslavement and release. Through it all, the power of art, of history and of faith endures.
Cloud Atlas combines three qualities that any devoted reader should be looking for - clever and challenging narrative, excellent writing, and heart. I highly recommend it to any reader looking for an unusual, thought-provoking book.
on April 30, 2016
Folks, Amazon has pulled a big goof here: I don't know how many of these reviews are for a different novel entirely: Cloud Atlas (the one they made a movie out of with Tom Hanks and an ensemble cast.)
This book is The Cloud Atlas.
Yes, easy to be confused but if you read any reviews about multiple storylines broken in half, then you're reading about Cloud Atlas, not this book, which is The Cloud Atlas.
I hope Amazon in time realizes its major goof because these two books of course deserve their own accurate reviews...as it is, we have no idea based on these reviews, unless you read them all and try to find the ones for The Cloud Atlas, of the relative merits of both books.
This is one book where I honestly can't wait for the movie version, as author David Mitchell has a cinematic sense of narrative that juggles with time like a Quentin Tarantino and sprawls vividly amid exotic locations like a David Lean. This would be an impressive achievement even for the most accomplished writer, much less one as relatively new to the literary scene as Mitchell, as he interweaves six individual stories, each one set in a unique time and locale, into amazingly, one cohesive novel. The discrete stories are told in parts and sometimes out of order, but they tie together through intersections, coincidences and the clever notion that every central character is a reincarnation of a previous character. Perhaps that concept borders on being contrived, but somehow the ploy works beautifully due to Mitchell's full-blooded commitment to his themes. Spanning times, continents and cultures, Mitchell focuses on the follies that would subjugate humanity - slavery, corporate greed, and of nationalistic politics.
The utterly nonlinear novel begins with the 18th-century diary of Adam Ewing, a San Francisco notary who is traveling by ship in the South Pacific (story #1). Story #2 follows in 1931 when a sexually indecisive, aspiring composer named Robert Frobisher serves as amanuensis to an older, more accomplished composer. Story #3 jumps to the 1970's where a reporter named Luisa Rey investigates a cover-up at a nuclear reactor (think of Karen Silkwood), and Story #4 focuses on a 60-ish book editor named Tim Cavendish who finds himself accidentally imprisoned in a home for the elderly. A near-future vision of Korea is the setting of story #5 where a genetically engineered ''fabricant'' named Sonmi-451 is interrogated for her crime of wanting to be fully human, and finally, story #6, the most devastating of all, a Hawaiian ruminates on a post-apocalyptic life. Mitchell is particularly strong in describing the Hawaiian landscape, populated by primitives, tribal warfare and brutal violence. Somni returns here as God for the tribesman protagonist Zachry. Then all the unfinished stories are completed in backward order, a creative stroke at once maddening and fulfilling.
Through birth, death and rebirth, Mitchell raises some tough questions that give the reader pause. This is a dense work driven by an appropriately dark vision, and one could certainly get caught up in the plot convolutions if a full commitment is not made to the audacious concept he has presented here. The title of this book is apt, as this is a map of ever-changing clouds alternately revealing and hiding a world that evolves on common paths. Make sure to concentrate when you read this complex book because it's a winner for the patient among us.
on February 4, 2004
I loved this book. It was haunting and moving, while at the same time telling a fascinating and exciting story from our country's wartime past. It's clear that the writer very thoroughly researched many elements of the novel, including its setting, Alaska, and the audacious attempt by Japan to float bombs to U.S. soil. But Callanan knows another subject even more intimately -- the human heart.
on February 9, 2004
It's refreshing to read a first novel by an author who isn't trapped in his own insular world. This isn't yet another novel about a confused twentysomething trying to make it in the big city. It's a big, brainy, heartfelt novel, set during World War II, that is unashamedly exciting and fun to read. Big ups to Liam Callanan.