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Cloud Atlas Paperback – August 17, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Edit: Oh and another thing: for a man as learned as David Mitchell, I found his moralizing a tad sophomoric (not that I disagree with the spirit). For example, the Henderson Triplets (blue eyed and “gilded”) seem to serve no purpose other than to be racist straw men for Luisa Rey to demolish with a few pointed retorts. Much like Dixie Carter’s character in “Designing Women” as she allows the buffoonish white racist to go on, as if commiserating with a fellow racist, only to savagely turn on him with a devastating put down, to the delighted howls from the studio audience. No argument with the sentiment, just the cringe-worthy triteness of the scene.
Or Preacher Horrox’s dissertation on “Civilization’s Ladder” (Dixie, enter stage right!!). Again, trite and predictable. And finally (spoiler alert) if you want the moral gist of the book, just read the last two pages.
The book takes a nested narrative structure, a bit like the dream diving within dreams scenes in Inception (or the "Lawnmower Dog" episode of Rick & Morty), but with different characters. We get the first half of each story and then proceed on to the next until the sixth story, whereupon the order is reversed until the end. In essence, they were cliffhangers with varying levels of intensity. This was annoying. Not only did I have to wait hundreds of pages to resume the earlier stories, but each transition into the new story felt like I was starting over. And on the resumption of the stories, I had to go back to the first halves to recall some of the characters and plot points. The first half of the first story ended so abruptly—mid-sentence—that I thought I had a corrupted file on my Kindle!
Each story is told with a different style. We have journal entries, personal letters, a standard mystery thriller manuscript, a fourth wall breakdown, an interview, and a campfire tale. Each story is referenced by the one that comes after it, while clever, it opens up a potentially fatal flaw. The fourth story refers to the third as being fiction, but with all the references to the two preceding stories, I'm left wondering how much that story's "author" made up and what she incorporated from the "real" world of this novel. I have too many questions and to properly ask them would be spoilers, so I won't.
I appreciated the changing of the narrator's voice from one story to the next. There was a good deal of playing around with language, too. You've got Victorian English in Adam Ewing's journal. The letters are written with Frobisher's shorthand abbreviations, formal continental vocabulary stocked with antique words, and sprinkled with French and Latin. After the two contemporary stories, Mitchell subjects language to further modifications. Our Korean tale is filled with shortened words, the phonetic spellings taking over (ex- to x-, -ight to -ite). And with it being a corporate dictatorship, brand names are substituted for everyday words (ford for car, nikes for shoes). But I absolutely hated the Huckleberry Finn dialogue style used for the last story. While certainly a possible outcome, it made the last story practically unreadable for me.
The characters, while they were all unique, were a mixed bag. I had trouble making a connection with or caring about most of them. Sonmi and Luisa Rey were the two I rooted for (honorable mentions to Sixsmith and Napier). Frobisher was a foppish fool at first, but improved with time. Ewing was dreadful. Don't get me started on Zachry. Cavendish was the worst. He was an insufferable jerk in the first half of his story. While he was still an ass in the second half, there was enough growth in him to warrant finishing his story.
I'm going to give Mitchell credit that he can write in any style he chooses, but I'm not sure about the choices he made here. Journals and letters, interviews and fireside storytelling, just don't work for me these days. The first two are dated. The latter two aren't strong enough to carry entire stories. One hundred page interviews require a recollection of minute details that only computers have, but apparently Sonmi did. Fireside storytelling for 70+ pages, especially in that dialect and without any back and forth conversation, is tiresome.
I don't want to go into too much about the messages or the reincarnation bits. I'm too tired and have spent too much time finding the right words for my complaints. Quite simply, I found the reincarnation thread to be lacking, and the execution of the messages heavy-handed and pedestrian.
No, I haven't seen the movie, though that's probably less likely now. Maybe with the right direction and proper editing, these stories will reach their full potential.
2.5 stars begrudgingly rounded up to 3.
The structure of Cloud Atlas involves six nested stories, each covering a different time period and type of writing. Each story is only told halfway, starting with Adam Ewing's pacific travelogue in 1850, then going to Robert Frobisher's period piece in 1930's Europe, Luisa Rey's action thriller in 1973, Timothy Cavendish's 'ghastly ordeal' in the early 2000's, Somni's sci-fi stry from 2144. and Zachary's more mystic island life tale from the far future. Each of these stories is written wonderful prose, who infuses humor, suspense, and horror as the plot calls for. Once all six stories reach the halfway point, they are finished in reverse order.
All six of these stories are quite good in their own right. That isn't to say they don't have problems. The chief issue is pacing, with many of the stories feeling like they would have been better if given another 40 pages. Even with this, I would likely give each individual story a four-star rating, with my favorites earning a five on their own.
However, it is the interplay between the stories that really put Cloud Atlas over the top. Like the Bone Clocks, all of these stories take place in the same universe, and connections abound, some obvious, a fair few more subtle. Themes are developed across the entire read, and the end result is a thing of beauty. I would recommend this book to any reader.
Top international reviews
No doubt this author can write - each story in this book is beautifully constructed and written. However his use of exaggerated writing styles, culminating in the middle section of the book of a nearly indecipherable pidgin English, destroys any flow which makes for an unsatisfactory read.
The author seems more interested in displaying his cleverness than in telling a good story. A disappointing book from an author I've enjoyed reading previously.
That said, it is a beautifully and sensitively written book, even if the author's prognostications about the future and human nature are somewhat cynical and gloomy. I like how the writing style changes from 19th century floral to present day functionalism, which not only allows the author to more fully exploit the joys of the English language, but gives a chronological identity to each of the stories.
The book came as a surprise to me, as I was expecting something quite different; it was quite hard to get into, but well worth the effort.
An absolutely fantastic, well written, creative masterpiece? That will have to do!
For me I cannot talk about the book without first mentioning the film based on it. It was through the movie that I cam to the book. Cloud Atlas was not received that well, and despite looking superb and boasting a stellar cast was considered average by most people who saw it. In this day and age of spectacle and action it was not surprising really. It is a film that you have to sit and watch, to concentrate on and perhaps watch a couple of time to really appreciate the complexities it holds.
I loved it, it seemed to be suited to the way my brain works and it was enough to make me want to read the source material.
The author has likened the book to matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls, each time you remove an outer layer there is another beneath. I can see what he means. Each shell reveals another until you reach the middle then put the whole thing back together again. You could equally claim it is like climbing a step pyramid. Each step takes you to the summit, before descending the other side, ultimately ending where you began.
What seems like a series of individual stories slowly becomes something more as you make your way through the words. Starting with Adam Ewing, a notary sent out into the Pacific to deliver legal documents in the (I guess) 1800's, each story moves through time, to the 1930's, the 1970's, Modern day, the near(ish) future and the post apocalyptic Earth of a distant time.
Each part is told in a different style, be it letters, Journal Entries, a recorded interview. The language changes with the time and the character, to something that is readable but has evolved from our own.
Each character is just that a character, a personality that leaps off the page, while the different stories flit within different genres keeping the pages turning with a life of their own.
Not only is each individual story gripping in their own right, the more you read the more obvious it becomes that they are linked in a multitude of different ways. From a recurring birthmark, to the use of the words Cloud Atlas, to character quirks that might be related to previous stories, and the way each story is enfolded in the next. I could list them all, but to avoid spoilers I'll just mention the first. In the second story, main character Robert Frobisher discovers a batter book, torn in two. It is the Journal of Adam Ewing from the opening part of the book.
There are also little tells, I'm aware of picking up two, but there are countless more, I'm sure waiting to be seen on second, third or fourth readings. (One I spotted is Frobisher has a seeming irrational hatred of doctors, by the time you finish the book it makes sense.)
It is a remarkable achievement of style and the imagination, well written, inventive and not in a manner that might alienate a reader. It is a story of wonder, mundane, of adventure and life, a story of what was and what might be, of lives intersecting, moving apart and coming together again through the generations, it is a story of loss and redemption, over generations. It is a book that looks seriously at the subject of reincarnation, and never once drops the ball.
For me, at least, a modern masterpiece and one of the best books I have ever read.
In my list of all time favourite books (and this list is not intellectually high brow, I warn you, but personally significant to me -to my mind that's the best basis for book ratings - importance to me on a personal level) I can place Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of G.R.R Martin, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien and, now, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. As you can see I rarely become truly invested in single novels. In fact, as of Hilary Mantel writing a sequel to her Cromwell vehicle, Cloud Atlas is the only one on that list to stand alone. So the question I asked myself was this; why did Cloud Atlas leave me feeling so profoundly connected by its final page, in one five hundred page offering, whilst others take entire series of thousands of pages and millions of words, to achieve the same thing?
I think there are many answers to that. Cloud Atlas is vast; spreading across five different time lines, arching from the eighteen hundreds to a far flung, dystopian future, featuring a breadth of characters connected in infinitesimal ways, telling stories which are in turn banal and fascinating, complex and the essence of simplicity, harrowing and heart-warming. The depiction of humanity, of human thought as a whole, is there in all its glory and misery but accompanied by, at its root, good fiction and well told stories. I think that to call Cloud Atlas profound is only to take my own view and give it to you, the reader. Another person might find it merely to be a compilation of fantastical stories, whilst others still might find more fitting fare in the recent film version.
Which brings me to a comparison between the word and the screen. The Cloud Atlas film is undeniably an interpretation of the source. The film makers inject more romance into the cinematic version (in fact after seeing the film first and then the book I was surprised at how little a part romance plays in the novel). Both, I think, are majestic in their own ways. While the film portrays the reincarnations of lovers meeting again and again through different time lines, sometimes achieving togetherness whilst at other times missing one another, occasionally by moments, the book is more about the inevitable intertwining of people and how lives can effect one another, even once long finished. The film takes the bold option of using the same actors to play multiple races, genders and roles across various time lines. That, the acting itself and the cinematography is admirable. The book excels at enlarging the cast of characters, enriching each individual beyond the film's capability, and giving more strings to grasp whilst trying to plait everything together, simultaneously referencing the source of each piece. It was a challenge I found both compelling and enjoyable to see the fruits of. I would therefore recommend both film and book with no overwhelming preference for either over the other, merely adoration for the whole.
I write nothing about the plot here because I think it is something, whether through reading or watching, which should be experienced without spoilers or inference, but as a whole. Suffice to say that David Mitchell takes risks, reaches further with each turn of the page, and is a genuinely compelling author. Therefore we are left with a work of fiction which pertains more to fact than you might at first suppose. A true work of art and undeniably my read of the year.
I read for both pleasure and for study, and I can say that this book is worth both reading by scholars looking at dystopian and utopian literature, the commentary on which is pointed and poignant, as well as the everyman. Beyond it's significance in the literary canon, Cloud Atlas is also an excellently written, luxourious, and entertaining read that masterfully strings together numerous tales and characters across centuries. Is it an easy read? No. But it's definitely a rewarding one, and if you can give it the time of day, it's a book that thoroughly deserves it.
The film tells six stories in parallel and it is genius how the scenes switch back and forth between different stories and times. The book is arranged as a Russian doll. The first half of the oldest story is told, then the first half of the next oldest story and so on. half way through the book it changes and you get the last half of each story. I personally found that this did not work well and it seemed that too long was spent on each story and the many connections between them were lost.
The four stories that happened in the past were almost identical to the film, but the two stories that are set in the future are very different to the movie - strange that. On the whole I think the stories in the book were better but I can see why they had to change them and simplify them to make the movie.
The standard of writing is excellent.
The book is well worth reading, particularly for anyone who has seen the film and wants to get more detail and back story. If you can only get one then I would recommend the film, which for me at the moment is the best film I have every seen and I find myself drawn to watch it over and over - always finding something new in it.
There seems to be a lot of unnecessary narrative in some of the stories and overall found the book quite difficult to read at times and disengaging. Not what I was expecting and disappointed especially as a lot of people rave about it.
A book desperately trying to be something it's not and requires - no, demands, commitment from its reader but gives little back. I see what the author is trying to achieve but wish he'd cut to the chase a bit more. You simply cannot classify this book as science fiction, murder mystery, post-apocalptic futuristic or a thriller because it's trying to be a bit of everything. Personally, all a bit too much for me and couldn't wait to finish it.
I think I understand why some might might find it gloomy or pretentious but to use a hackneyed expression, it blew me away.
I am always fascinated to read the 1 star reviews after I really love a book and in a significant proportion of those reviews here, the reader did not get past the 1st section of the book, well you all missed an absolute treat.
I confess to having watched the film first and pretty much got to the end of the film and felt like I needed to replay it immediately to have some kind of understanding of the whole thing, I have watched it more than once since and it does always leave me feeling a bit befuddled. The book helped a bit with this feeling but I still feel like I need to reread (probably more than once)
And yet despite this general sort of fog of confusion about who these people all are and what the heck is going on I do really quite enjoy the journey.
Definitely recommend it if you like a challenging read.
I'm a big believer in not drawing too distinct a line between "genre fiction" (fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi etc) and more high-brow, literary novels. This book is one of the best examples of the idea that it's possible to write a novel that both tells a fantastical story and does amazing things with prose, structure and narrative. The fact that it was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the X prize tells its own story.
The book is almost a collection of seven short stories. With the exception of the one in the middle, which runs straight through, each gets to a halfway point and is then interrupted by the next story, which follows a character who is reading the text the reader has just read. Halfway through the book, it then starts working it's way back through the stories, completing each of them in turn. Throughout, there are hints that all of the stories' main characters may be reincarnations of each other (most obviously, they all have the same comet shaped birthmark, but there seem to be some overlap of memories and fears), but the author doesn't make it simple - the timeline doesn't quite seem to allow it, and some characters seem to be fictional within other character's universes.
It's the intricate way that the stories fit together that I really love about this book, especially the little clues and the self-references, whether its a piece of music composed by one character that has the same structure, a character dreaming about something that happens to another protagonist centuries in the future, or a character wondering whether the journal he is reading (which readers have also just read) is a forgery, on the basis that some of what is said seems to convenient. This is definitely a book that benefits from a re-read and some close scrutiny of the text.
That said, it's not just structure over substance. Each of the individual stories are beautifully plotted and written. The brilliant thing is that they are not only set in wildly different time periods (the earliest is in the 1800s, the latest in a far distant post-apocalyptic future) and geographical locations, they are also very different genres and written in a corresponding style. So the first story is meant to be the journal of a nineteenth lawyer on a sea voyage - it's written in diary format, and in the very mannered, formal language of the time, while a 1970s thriller is written like a pulpy novel, and so on. Mitchell masters all of these styles beautifully and has a bit of fun playing around with them.
Most fundamentally, however, when all the stylistic cleverness and post-modern twistiness is stripped away, there are still seven good, strong stories. Inevitably, in this sort of book, each reader, even if they love the whole thing, is going to find themselves enjoying some sections more than others. For me, a story (told in the form of letters) of a debauched 1930s musician and another focussing on a rebel clone in a futuristic Korea are up their with my favourite stories in their own right. In particular, I found the latter story reminded my of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole. The seventies thriller and the modern day tale of a hapless literary agent were also genuinely enjoyable reads. Despite my love of the book, I have to admit that I found the sea journal and in particular, the post-apocalyptic tale (told as an oral history, in a made up pseudo-English reminiscent of that in A Clockwork Orange) to be rather heavy-going. In those cases, while I still admired the author's talent and the contribution they made to the whole, I struggled to actively enjoy them. Interestingly, I've seen other people who feel exactly the opposite way about which stories do and don't work - they are all extremely well written and imaginative, beyond that, it's really a matter of personal taste. I would, however, suggest that if the first story doesn't grab you, you still push on and see whether you enjoy the others more.
Finally, not content with both the stories and the metaphysics, the book as a whole has a lot of quite deep things to say about human nature, especially the destructive will to dominate others. As one characters puts it, "the weak are meat, the strong do eat." Various other interesting themes also flow through the book, enriching it without it ever starting to feel like a lecture.
It's by no means the easiest read. You'll have to work a little just to get through it, and to get the most out of it and make all the connections, it's worth going slowly and/or re-reading. There are also likely to be some sections that readers don't enjoy as much as others. Nonetheless, I'd hugely recommend this to anyone who wants to try something different, to have their mind twisted, and ultimately, to enjoy a good story and some seriously impressive writing.
What it slightly loses in this (for me) is the truely great plot which i had expected from a novel this size, and with this much acclaim. Writing 5 stories with almost no character overlap, at five different times limited the connection i could feel to the characters and limited the direction each plot could take.
That said, this inherent structure of the book is also what made it so good. You can't have it all i suppose!