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Cloud Atlas Paperback – August 17, 2004
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From The New Yorker
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- Item Weight : 14.4 ounces
- Paperback : 509 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780375507250
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375507250
- Product Dimensions : 5.52 x 1.15 x 8.5 inches
- Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks (August 17, 2004)
- Language: : English
- ASIN : 0375507256
- Best Sellers Rank: #10,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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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 reviews from other countries
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.