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Cloud Atlas: A Novel Paperback – August 17, 2004
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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..