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Cloud Atlas: A Novel Paperback – August 17, 2004
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|Product Alert: This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.|
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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
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
I have mixed feelings about this book that have mostly to do with its technical execution. The success of the different accounts, for instance, varies greatly: some of them are quite dull in the first half, but pick up measurably in the second, and it is for this reason that the first-time reader should be somewhat patient with this book. It does drag at first, but as more connections start to appear, it definitely gets more interesting. Two sections in particular stand out for me: the Luisa Rey section is hilarious if you are familiar with 1970s culture, especially because of the hyperbolic way in which Mitchell frames the narrative as a knee-jerk reaction to the times, from the Three-Mile Island accident to Watergate. But the best parts of the book belong to Sonmi, both because she is the most sympathetic character and because Mitchell's technique seems at its smoothest here.
Mitchell is a very good writer, but he still has some polishing to do before he becomes truly great. Like many other readers, I did not appreciate the silly flourishes he gives to the English language of the future, and my reading speed noticeably slowed in that sixth story because of it. However, the greater technical flaws lay for me in two other areas. First, Mitchell's characters are not always as interesting or developed as they might be, so that they sometimes seem to be ciphers for ideas rather than complex beings. Second, Mitchell's use of literary allusions can sometimes be *really* clumsy. When Cavendish is waking up from his apparent stroke, for instance, he thinks the words "speak, memory" in a very unsubtle allusion to Nabokov's autobiography. Similarly, there is Mitchell's decision to call the faceshaper Madam Ovid after the Roman author of The Metamorphoses because, you know, she *metamorphoses* people. Such references are too unrealistically close to the surface of the text, and as such they are jarring. I really wish authors would trust the intelligence of their readers rather than using such clumsy devices.
Where Mitchell's novel really hits home, though, lies not so much in the writing, but in the probing questions it asks about human existence. The shifting time periods of the narratives is a calculated tool designed to push readers outside the received political and philosophical assumptions of our time. When we strip these away, Mitchell shows, what remains are the ineradicable differences between weak and strong, which express themselves in different ways throughout human history. Through a logic that is explicitly informed by Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Mitchell argues for a qualified version of eternal recurrence: not that history repeats itself literally, but rather that it follows a cycle of birth, strength, decline, and fall in a way that applies equally to individuals, civilizations, and ideas. Mitchell aligns these ideas in the Timothy Cavendish story, which pointedly overlays Cavendish's decrepitude, both in terms of his physical weakness and his out-dated ideas and slang, with quotes from Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In terms of its ideas, Cloud Atlas delivers a brilliant, incisive blow to the modern reader's assumptions, a potential for greatness that, unfortunately, is not quite matched by Mitchell's technical skills as a writer.
I started this as a wwII military historical novel. Of course it is that. But this work is rich and a pleasure to read. Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt that transforms the narrator and many readers. This is that kind of hunt..