Cloud atlas : a novel

by David Mitchell

Paper Book, 2004

Status

Available

Publication

New York Random House 2004

Description

Recounts the connected stories of people from the past and the distant future, from a nineteenth-century notary and an investigative journalist in the 1970s to a young man who searches for meaning in a post-apocalyptic world.

Media reviews

It felt like reading multiple stories from six different authors all on a common theme, yet all these disparate characters connect, their fates intertwine, and their souls drift across time like clouds across a globe.
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Cloud Atlas is powerful and elegant because of Mitchell's understanding of the way we respond to those fundamental and primitive stories we tell about good and evil, love and destruction, beginnings and ends. He isn't afraid to jerk tears or ratchet up suspense - he understands that's what we make stories for.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
David Mitchell has been called a genius by more learned individuals than me. This novel is certainly proof of that. Is it post-modern? Dystopian? Historical fiction? Crime fiction? Well, yes, all of that. It is filled with symbolism, stories nested within each other, major and minor common themes among the stories, and it goes to enormous strides to help to characterize the cruelty of man to his fellow man over hundreds of years from the distant past into the far future. He even gets in ridicule of the rampant consumerism that has engulfed our world. The fact that he is able to do this while telling a rip-snorting tale only adds to the perception of his genius.

The book begins with the story of Adam Ewing, who in 1849 is traveling in the South Pacific and recording a journal of his voyage. His journal ends abruptly (in the middle of a sentence!) and the next story begins which takes place in Belgium in 1931. At one point in this story, the author mentions Adam Ewing’s journal, a part of which has been located on the book shelves of the estate in Belgium where the story is set. This story continues until it, also, ends abruptly. And so it goes. Each of six stories, all set in different times and places, with entirely unique characters, is connected somehow to the story that precedes it. One of the stories is told from beginning to end, uninterrupted. But each remaining story is concluded in a later chapter in the book. This provides for an absolutely fascinating read.

The amazing thing for me was Mitchell’s uncanny ability to provide a unique voice for each story. With dialects to match the period in history and the location on earth, and although the plots, theme, voice and setting vary greatly, he is able to weave them together and move the reader along through a mesmerizing narrative. Mitchell’s signature humor shines in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”:

“I asked for a loan of eighty thousand pounds. He began with a thoughtful, ’Right…..’ I lowered my ceiling to sixty. Elliot pointed out that my performance linked credit stream still had a twelve month flow horizon before resizing could be feasibly optioned. Oh, I miss the days when they’d laugh like a hyena, tell you to go to hell and hang up.” (Page 156)

With Mitchell’s heavier themes, though, he doesn’t mince words. Dr. Henry Goose reveals his Two Laws of Survival in 1849:

“It runs thus, ‘The weak are meat the strong do eat.’ It upsets me that a dedicated healer & gentle Christian can succumb to such cynicism. I asked to hear Goose’s Second law of Survival. Henry grinned in the dark and cleared his throat. ‘The Second Law of Survival states that there is no second law. Eat or be eaten. That’s it.” (Page 489-490)

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this novel. Mitchell was brilliant and “Cloud Atlas” is not to be missed. It will make you think….a lot. That thinking will continue after the book is completed and probably for some time to come. Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
Cloud Atlas combines hugely intelligent insight with gripping readability. Once fairly started, and conversant with the way this book works (similar to most other David Mitchells, but probably not like any other book you've read), it's exceedingly difficult to put it down.

Beginning in the days of Pacific colonisation, each story cuts off abruptly and is replaced by another, further forward in time, completely different in style and involving a completely new set of characters. But oh, how they link up. Just how much they link up is a slow reveal that trickles out to us as we read on, and isn't fully revealed until the very end. This slow reveal and our resulting increase of curiosity is just one of the many levels on which this book can be read. It could even just be read as a set of short stories, all - and I do mean all - of them fascinating and compulsively readable.

It's also an exploration of human greed and its quest for power, money, and things. It's about the way civilisations rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall; and how each rise and each fall is brought about by that same greed. It's about how little an honest individual can achieve in the midst of all that corruption, and yet shows the worthwhileness of so doing. On a large scale, this book is about the repetitiveness of history, and the near-hopeless need civilisations have for their inhabitants to overcome the baseness of being human. But don't get me wrong - this is not a grim, bleak or depressing book, despite those themes. The styles and characters are abundantly alive and fascinating.

I've seen another reviewer describe Mitchell's style as 'virtuosic', which is a perfect description. Each new story could have been written by a totally different author, and each style is flawless. My personal favourite was the letters from Robert Frobisher, a young British composer in Belgium, to his friend and lover Sixsmith. Frobisher is a cad: a thief, an easy liar, a sensualist and an adulterer - but he's the most charming and loveable character I've met in a long time. He's charming in that between-wars British young man sort of way - I can almost see his long, thin face, the veins in his translucent hands and his nervous air of languid restlessness - though none of these things are actually mentioned. We as readers of his letters can absolutely see what Sixsmith sees in him, and we fall for him ourselves. (Or at least I did.)

There are two sections set in the distant future: one at the height of technological and 'corpocratic' civilisation, and the next is post-apocolyptic. The pre-apocolypse section is terrifyingly possible in its surface glamour, its wondrous science, and the incredible filth and greed and corruption behind it. I only wish all the big-name companies could read this book... except then they might go getting nasty ideas.

This is a big book, and in some ways perhaps an important one. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Reading Cloud Atlas is like doing a jigsaw puzzle: bits and pieces, fragments, clues coming together to create a surprising whole when completed. The trick is to scrutinize each puzzle piece and yet not lose track of the big picture. So I felt with David Mitchell's "nesting dolls" book, a collection of six stories that interlock one within the other. I had to analyze the text for clues and at the same time hang on for the ride that was the plot. Not a book you polish off in a single sitting, but a satisfying and thought-provoking read that you can't leave behind when you close the book on the last page.

The structure of Mitchell's book is unusual. In the first half of the book you climb a mesa a step at a time as you read the first half of each story. The middle chapter is the only one to not be divided. The second half of the book you descend back to ground level, reading the second half of each story in reverse order. Thus the analogy of matroyshka's or nesting dolls.

The book also seems to be divided in terms of the author’s focus. In the first half, the question is one of "ascension", the name given to the process of becoming civilized through the acquisition of increasingly complex language. The first story is a diary excerpt, a written form intended for oneself. The second is a series of letters: correspondence being the written communication between two people. Each story increases its scope to include an increasingly wider audience until we reach the recording of history itself. In addition, each chapter uses successively more difficult language, until we read a projection of what language might look like in the future. This section was of the most interest for me because of the questions it raised, questions about the linkages between both language and intelligence, and language and civilization. The second half of the book is about the effect of power on microcosms and on civilization as a whole. I found the passages about truth in history to be interesting, but found the message about absolute power corrupting societies absolutely to be a bit heavy handed, especially at the very end of the book.

The interlocking plots of the six stories are by turns interesting, humorous, and depressing. Although I enjoyed the stories, it is the ideas and the language that will remain with me. Some of the images invoked in the first half are perfect, and I found myself reading them again just to enjoy the language.

The stationmaster's whistle blew on time, the locomotive strained like a gouty proctor on the pot before heaving itself into motion.

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Overall, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for the clever structure, interesting plot line(s), and above all for the questions it raised about language, power, and civilization.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
There was a big hoopla about this novel when it came out and, as I often do when that happens, I put it aside to read when things had quieted down. Sometimes those volumes fall through the cracks but, I'm quite happy to say, this one didn't. This may not be the best book I read this year, but it has a good chance of making the Final Four (as it were). Not only is it entertaining, it's captivating; it's the type of book you don't want to put down. Sure, part of this is that there are chapter cliffhangers, but most of it is simply good writing portraying characters you care about with themes that engage your attention.

There has been a lot of talk about the matryoshka doll structure of the book: six novellas nested inside each other, the first five split in half to contain the succeeding ones. This was interesting but, evidently, less so to me than to many other readers.

What I found much more thought-provoking was the structure's fractal nature. Each novella could stand in its own right as a story about greed and lust for power. Then, each novella referenced the chronologically preceding one as a side plot to tie them together into a larger novel that enriched those themes by adding a dimension of time and recurrence. Finally, there was a meta-story that Mitchell told, not in the plot lines themselves, but in the patterns drawn by those plots, that drove home Santayana's maxim about the fate of those who do not learn from history.

By speaking to us on so many levels simultaneously...by having each protagonist's tale echoed in the larger whole...Mitchell's message hums in the background of our minds even as we move between characters, stories and eras. It's very intelligently done.

If I have any quibbles about the book, it's that Mitchell got a little heavy-handed by the end. He seemed to lack confidence that the reader would catch what he was trying to say and resorted to having his first/last protagonist speechify to us. I felt a little let down and a little put off by this. I would rather he had just trusted his own, considerable powers of writing and a measure of intelligence on the part of his reader. What he wanted to say came through loud and clear long before that point.

Absolutely recommended.
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LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
It’s slightly daunting sitting down to write a review of this brilliant book. Just trying to describe the structure and how the six stories that make up this whole are intertwined is quite a task. Still, I’m sure most of you know the basic idea already: Cloud Atlas starts out as a travel diary from a 19th century voyage to the Chatham Islands. This is then interrupted (mid-sentence!) and is presented as a book read by the main character in the next part, which are letters written by an obnoxious musical genius exiled in Belgium in the 30ies. Said letters are keepsakes of one of the main characters in the next story, set in the San Fransisco area in the 1970ies. And so on. Cloud Atlas is a maruschka doll of a book, working it’s way inwards and through time, to a central story, set in a haunting post-apocalypic Hawaii – and then out again. The six stories are very different, in style, tone and genre. And they are all really good, so good I have a hard time picking out favorites.

But there’s still more to this book. Apart from the fact that each story makes cameo appearances in the next one (often, but not always, being significant to the main character of it – in one instance it’s the last wish of a character to find out how it ends) there are also things that connects them. Someone recognizes a piece of music. Settings recur. Names recur. A birthmark shaped like a comet makes many appearances. And strong themes of freedom and slavery, human dignity and imprisonment create a red thread through time and space. I’m sure one could feel that stronger links between the stories could have been created, making the weave seem more intricate. For me, thses touchstones and hints are perfect the way they are.

This is a funny book, a thrilling one, a tear-jerker and a taste of places and histories new to me (must learn more about the Moriori!). It’s a page turner like you wouldn’t believe, and one of those rare books where I kept hoping there was more pages left than it seemed. A truly wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member solla
Robert Frobisher is a young composer in Cloud Atlas, and he describes one of his music pieces:
"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragment into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clirinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor. In the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order."

This is equally a description of the book. It begins with "The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing", occurring approximately mid nineteenth century. It is interrupted by "Letters from Zedelghem", the Frobisher piece, set in 1931 and in the form of letters to his friend, Sixthsmith."Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" happens in the 1970's, and concerns a newspaper reporter (working for a celebrity rag, but daughter of an investigative reporter), who by chance meets the physicist, Sixthsmith, just as he is deciding to reveal the details about an unsafe nuclear power plant about to be built. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a tale of a vanity publisher set in the 1980's. "An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451" is set in the future in an earth that has evolved into an place of industrialized, mechanized society with all the pollution and haves and have nots of present gone to an extreme. Clones without rights are used for labor. The story at the middle, "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After", is after the breakdown of that society into a place of outlaws with enclaves of various forms/levels of something else.

As with the Luisa Rey mystery connecting with the Frobisher piece through the character of Sixthsmith, there are connections throughout between one story and another. Frobisher is selling old books that he finds in the library of the washed up musician that he has decided to work for. Likewise, the vanity publisher stumbles on the Luisa Rey mystery. Zachery of the last story belongs to a group which worships a deity called Somni.

Some formal experiments detract from the story, but that isn't the case here. The stories, aside from that of Zachary, are all interrupted, but then they are resumed, and nothing is hard to follow. It is just that all the other levels are there as well. I didn't find it hard to move from one to another, although the first interruption of each left me in some suspense. Actually, I was a little perturbed by the first one when I didn't realize that the story would be resumed later, but a quick thumb through cleared that up.

Taken separately, I don't have a feeling that any of the stories are great. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" was good in a straight narrative old style type of way. The style reminds me of something like [Robinson Cruso], or [Kidnapped], though more meditative than an adventure story. "Letters from Zeddelghem" could also be an example of a type of literature, in this case, more of the romantic, individualistic tale. "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" is not exactly a mystery story, but it could fit into the genre of something like [The Pelican Briefs]. It was hard to take the "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" very seriously. He is simply too superficial a character, although he is in a very serious situation. Still, the resolution, also was not seriously believable, but then neither was the whole situation really. My strongest response was to "An Orison of Sonmi~451." In some way it felt more pure than the other stories, and more emotional in that purity. The final story of "Sloosha's Crossing' An' Ev'rythin' After" fits solidly in a genre of stories of a more primitive society after the breakdown on a more advanced one, with lawnessness in the absence of strong authority, and with the presence of a small enclave of people with more advanced technology. It is on a par with the better of these, but not the best.

Overall, the stories are not charicatures, but to me they felt clearly representative of types. I don't know if that was part of the plan.I'm not sure of what the structure contributed to the impact of the book, but I do know that I feel like I could gladly start again with it, reading with more of a lookout for the interconnections and reverberations of one story into another. Definitely an enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member catherinestead
Cloud Atlas presents six lives in six nested narratives, each distinct and yet all linked. Each has its own literary style, each has a very strong protagonist, each is superbly written, and each supports the others to create a magnificent whole.

In the nineteenth century, Adam Ewing fills his journal with detail of his time in Polynesia and his voyage home. In the 1930s, the louche, opportunistic and cynical musician Robert Frobisher writes letters from Belgium to his friend Sixsmith in England - and in 1975 the scientist Sixsmith appears in a thriller as the author of a report on a nuclear facility which looks likely to get journalist Luisa Rey and others killed as they try to bring the story of its suppression to the public gaze.

The manuscript for the thriller falls into the hands of publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose unfortunate experience of incarceration is eventually made into a film, which is watched by the genetically altered 'fabricant' Somni after her escape from slavery in a dystopian future. And generations from then , Somni is worshipped as a deity and become a figure of hope to a post-apocalyptic society over whom the spectre of despair and slavery hangs.

The themes of truth and falsehood, freedom and slavery, hope and despair, and what precisely makes one person different from (and the same as) another, appear and disappear from the narrative - interweaving, foreshadowing, echoing through the stories.

Not one of these threads is dropped, not one of these narratives is weak, not one of these characters is anything but convincing. The use of six different narrative styles is effective - each works individually, none becomes a stereotype, and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. The interweaving of themes and motifs is subtle and highly effective, and the nesting of the stories one inside another supports this beautifully.

Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
An excellent book, the kind you wish you could read more often, rocketing straight into my top ten favourites of all time. Cloud Atlas consists of six separate narratives, ranging across time and space from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, to a dystopic sci-fi Korea, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story cuts off halfway through until the "final" one, which is whole, and then the arc swoops back down again and finishes every narrative off, like a mirror image; a more complete and satisfying version of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller," if you will.

The stories, in order, are:

The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
The diary of an American notary circa 1850, returning home from a business trip to Australia, who makes a brief stop at the Chatham Isles and then sets off again bound for Hawaii; the diary cuts off in mid-sentence as we are sent to...

Letters From Zedeghelm
... a series of letters written by a Robert Frobisher, a young, bankrupt English composer in 1931, fleeing debt collectors by hopping a ferry to Belgium and offering his services as an amanuensis to a reclusive, eldery composer. Frobisher ends up stealing books from the library to pay off his debts and sleeping with the composer's wife, but before things are wrapped up we find ourselves in...

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Written in the style of an airport novel, featuring a determined young reporter taking on a corrupt nuclear power company in 1970s California. This was my least favourite of the stories, but that's okay, because it's not long before we're reading...

The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Set in early 21st century Britain, in which a man in his 60s, perfectly sound of mind and capable of living, is accidentally sent to a nursing home from which he finds himself unable to leave. Unjust imprisonment is a favourite theme of mine, so I was somewhat disappointed when I was yanked away and sent to...

An Orison of Sonmi~451
Dystopic, futuristic Korea, where an archivist is interviewing a "fabricant" on death row, tracing her life voyage from worker in a fast food outlet to champion of clone's rights and freedom for a secret rebellion group. One of the best science fiction stories I've read in a long time, fully realised in technological, social and political dimensions, but the creeping sensation of humanity's march towards destruction culminates with...

Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After
Set in a rural post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii, where young Zachary relates the story of his visitor Meronym, a woman from an advanced culture across the ocean (tones of John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids"). Written in the spoken style, as a campfire story told by someone with a rough accent, which means a lot of apostrophes and phoenetic words, annoying at first but I soon grew used to it. This is the middle of the story, the mirror, and following this we retrace our steps through Korea, through Timothy's nursing home, through 1970s California, through 1930s Belgium, all the way back to the lonely trade ship on the South Pacific in the 19th century.

These stories can easily be read on their own, but they share three common threads. The first is that each one is, ostensibly, read by a character in the next; Frobisher finds Ewing's journal in the library at Zedeghelm, one of the characters in Half-Lives is the man Frobisher was writing to, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who receives a manuscript for Half-Lives, etc. The second thread is that a character in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark; suggesting reincarnation, I suppose, although that doesn't quite work out, as Timothy Cavendish was most certainly alive at the same time as Luisa Rey.

The final common thread is the theme of the book itself - one of dominion, of slavery, of power and predation and the vicious heart of human nature. Each individual story contains dozens of miseries, of humans forcing their will upon others, from the invasion of the Chatham Isles by Maori, through to the more civilised but no less malevolent imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, right back to savage brutality in Hawaii centuries from now, as Zachary's home valley is pillaged and his friends and family slaughtered by the brutal tribes on the other side of the island. Almost every major interaction between human beings in this book reveals, upon closer examination, the will to exert one's influence over the other - whether with intimidating words over drinks at a formal luncheon, or with sword and spear on the battlefields of the barbaric future.

The writing itself is perfect; Mitchell paints pictures with words and constructs sentences with elaborate care, resulting in one of those few books you can pick up and read again at any point, any page or sentence, and enjoy. The simple aesthetic pleasure in seeing words strung together so well, even outside of any greater narrative scope - that's a real accomplishment, and I could count the number of books that achieve it on one hand. I absolutely love this novel, and now I really have to read "Vernon God Little" - because to have beaten Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, it must be staggeringly brilliant.
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LibraryThing member Tid
SPOILER ALERT : This review will not give away plot details, but does describe the very unusual structure of the novel.

This is not so much a novel as a series of six short novellas, each progressing forward in time, from the early 19th Century, to a far distant future. The stories are not connected except by a very tenuous link : for example, Story 1 (a journal) links to Story 2 by the central character finding the published journal in a library; a piece of music from Story 2 is found in a record shop in Story 3, and so on.

The individual stories are not told in completion, but are left 'hanging', to be returned to and completed later in the book (the exception being the futuristic Story 6 which forms the centre of the novel). The structure of the novel, giving each individual story a letter, is : A B C D E F E D C B A. The novel therefore progresses from the 19th Century to a far-off future, and then returns by stages, ending back in the 19th Century.

The central theme (if there is one) is 'imbalances of power' : Western expansion over indigenous tribes, and of one tribe over another; the clash of youth and old age, new ideas and new money versus the old (aristocracy and musical composition) and traditional; big business over anything seen to be standing in the way of profit and expansion; institutions over the individual; conscious intelligence over a cloned and drugged fantasy life; civilisation versus brute force and superstition.

Each story is told in the form of a pastiche of a different literary form, including "Victorian explorer's journal", "episodic cliff-hanger thriller", "satire", "science fiction". Some are eminently more readable and successful than others. In particular I found Story 4 - set in the modern era - an unsuccessful satire, as it painted a picture of Britain that didn't really convince (who on earth says "ruddy" as a swear word these days?), though it does contain some laugh-out-loud moments.

I would have liked to see three of these novellas turned into full length novels - Story 2 took us part-way on a tense psychological journey, but ultimately dumped us out of it at rather high speed; Story 3 was the quintessential exciting "long" short story and although seemingly complete, could equally have made a thrilling and successful full length novel; Story 5's nightmarish vision of a future dystopia was an original and thought-provoking triumph, but had probably the most potential for satisfactory expansion.

The structure of "Cloud Atlas" is uniquely original, and it seems likely that its ABCDEFEDCBA stories are intended to form the literary equivalent of a piece of music; a sextet, or fugue (statement and recapitulation). However, what works with music does not necessarily translate into a literary form, and my overwhelming feeling as the tale lurched back from the far future towards its 19th Century inception was "Yes, very clever ... but so what?" I would say that it's better read by jumping forward to finish each individual story, then returning to start the next one.
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LibraryThing member invisiblelizard
Cloud Atlas is in a special category of novel that I feel requires (almost demands) that the reader go in with certain knowledge. I knew absolutely nothing about the book when I started it, and it confused the hell out of me. I wrote this blurb (below) for a friend of mine who I introduced to Cloud Atlas by way of my ecstatic ravings almost immediately after I'd finished. This does not contain any real spoilers. Let me share it with you:

Brief Summary Begins

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. You're going to love this one. Let me give you a little summary so you'll know what to expect. (You'll thank me for it later.) This book is basically six stories in one novel laid out like little Russian nesting dolls. Confused? Let me explain:

The first story starts out in 1850 on a ship sailing from the Pacific islands. The main character writes his story in a journal. (This was the slowest and hardest to read because Mitchell used word and spelling choices prevalent to that era, but it's also the story that ties the rest together, thematically, so I ended up going back and reading it closer after my initial run through. Just giving you a heads-up there.) Half-way through this story, it abruptly ends and launches into the second story, which is about a composer in 1930's Belgium who tells his tale in the form of letters he writes to a friend in London. During the course of his own story, he mentions finding a book which is the published journals of the main character from the first part. The book has been torn in half. He reads the first half but cannot find the second. In his letters he asks his friend if he can find him a copy so he can read the second half. (You see what Mitchell is doing here. The main character in the second part has "read" exactly how much we read ourselves of the first story.) Then, just as abruptly, in the middle of his story, it ends and we move on to the third part, wherein the main character reads the letters from the second part, but only half of them, and so on.

Each part takes place later (sometimes significantly later) in time. Part 3 is written like a detective/suspense novel and takes place in 1970's California. Part 4 is written almost like a British dark comedy and takes place in modern day (early 2000's) England. Part 5 takes place quite some time in the future (and thus reads like a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel). Part 6 takes place in a dystopian far future after civilization has all but destroyed itself.

The main character from each part "finds" the story (in various forms) from the previous part but only the first half of the story, before their own story is interrupted and we move on. Then at part 6 (the middle part of the book, in the dystopian future) we get a complete story, beginning to end, no breaks, where of course the main character "finds" the first half of the story of the main character in part 5, but this time, at the end of part 6, we are left with the protagonist finding out what happens in the second half of part 5. Thus, in the next chapter, we step back into the sci-fi story of part 5 and we read the rest of that tale. At the end of part 5, we find out what happens in part 4, etc., until you get down to part 2 where the composer in Belgium finally finds the second half of the published journal (of the sailor in 1850) and at the end of his (the composer's) own story in part 2 he reads the rest of the journal, which leads us to the final chapter which is the remainder of the sailor's story in 1850.

Clear as mud, right? Good. Now go have fun.

Brief Summary Ends

I'm not sure if all of that was completely necessary, but had I gone in with that minimal knowledge, I wouldn't have been scratching my head at the end of the first chapter, which literally ends mid-sentence, and jumps right into a completely different story in chapter two.

And now that I've used up all this space, let me give you my thoughts on Cloud Atlas. It's quite possibly the best novel I've read in ages. Dare I say, the perfect novel? That might be a stretch. But considering my own criteria of (1) good voice, (2) good characters and (3) good story, this is nearly a trifecta.

(1) Mitchell shows off his virtuoso command of voice by crafting each of the 6 parts in a different voice and style, down to spelling choices and flow. For instance, the 70's detective novel clips along at a fast pace (reminds me of James Ellroy). The 1930's composer writes in a Dickens/Austin style (if either Dickens or Austin were charlatan grifters). My comparison of the sci-fi futuristic story to Philip K. Dick still resonates. Mitchell bounces around between voices with remarkable ease.

(2) The characters are perhaps the weakest of the three, which is not to say they are poor. Just consider that each (main) character only had 1/6th of the novel to be fully formed and fleshed out. Given the other 5/6ths, it's possible he could have done even more impressive things with them. As is, each character is crisply defined and stands out amongst all of the rest, distinctive and unique.

(3) Good story? Heck yes. Six good stories. Some stronger than others. They tended to gravitate between being more plot driven and being driven more by the theme. I found the first and the sixth to be the latter. The middle four stories flowed quicker and were more fun to read. Again, all very unique and distinctive.

And if I were to add a fourth element to my criteria for a perfect novel (which I admit I've thought about a lot but I rarely formally include because this is so hard to qualify against most novels) is form. Take Roberto Bolaño's sublime 2666 for instance. I wrote a lot about how the form of the novel played an important part in its effectiveness, but really Bolaño just wrote five novels that got published together. Take Murakami's 1Q84. His alternating POV chapters, revolving between the two (and sometimes three) main characters helped drive a riveting narrative forward and give us, the reader, an excellent vantage point. Form is important. But I've never seen it used so cleverly as the nesting doll technique here. Was it original? I don't know. I've never read anything quite like it, but wider read critics than I will surely point out Mitchell's references. Was it gimmicky? I don't think so, but again I bet someone inclined to criticize would call that out. Was it overdone? Absolutely not. 7 parts might have stretched a reader's patience (and memory) a bit. 5 wouldn't have been enough. 6 was perfect.

There, I've used that word again. "Perfect." I should qualify my previous statement. It's quite possibly the perfect novel for me. It's certainly one of the few I will find myself recommending to friends for years on end, buying for Christmas presents, talking about and re-reading. It's been a long while since I read a novel that was amazing and accessible, all at the same time. (Unlike 2666, which was amazing, but good Lord I won't be sending that out for Christmas presents any time soon, if ever.)

P.S. As of this writing (late September 2012) the movie version of this book has not been released. Of course I finally broke down and read it because I heard there was a movie in the works by the Wachowski siblings. I actually bought it several years ago, and it's been sitting on my shelves ever since. Shame on me for not getting to it sooner, true, but it's always a treat to find an undiscovered gem in your midst. Having said that, I'm very glad I read the book first. I have no idea how anyone could make a movie of this. I'm curious but not 100% certain I even want to see it. Of course, I can always re-read the novel afterward if I need a palate cleanser.
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LibraryThing member camillahoel
Think of a Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Now think of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that David Mitchell) is not their secret love child, but I have a sneaking suspicion that those two books are its crazy aunts (at opposite ends of the family tree) at least.

It takes the experimentation with different forms of narrative and different forms of language from the one, and the overarching idea of travelling souls as a way of holding together a (set of) narrative(s) spanning a long period of history from the other. The combination, of course, makes something new and very different from both (do you look like your crazy aunts?), and it is a strange thing to read. In a nice way.

I don't feel that I am giving away anything important in pointing out the travelling souls concept. In part because it is so blatantly obvious from early on, in part because it is mentioned whenever and wherever the book is reviewed elsewhere (everyone else does it!), but mainly because it is something the book sets up only to puncture enthusiastically in its sequence of narratives. Not only does at last one character comment on it as a preposterously clichéd device, it is complicated by the types of narratives that link the time periods: as one of them is fiction, that breaks the chain and undermines any illusion that this is a portrayal of historical sequence.

It is an odd book, but I keep thinking it wasn't quite odd enough. It seemed to restrain itself from going off into crazy land. And its main problem are the first and last narratives. Allow me to explain.

The structure of the novel is as follows: There are six narratives. The first five break off half-way through. The sixth is told in its entirety, and is then followed by the first five, starting with the one closest to the sixth in time and going backwards. The first and last narratives are therefore the same. A visual aid, you say?

Pacific Journal | Frobisher | Luisa | Cavendish | Sonmi | Sloosha's Crossing | Sonmi | Cavendish | Luisa | Frobisher | Pacific Journal

Most of the other narratives were wonderfully enjoyable. The language of Frobisher was delightful (1930s dandy, musician and conman), the story of Luisa (a thriller about an intrepid journalist fighting an evil company) light but exciting, Timothy Cavendish (old man landed in bad circumstances) was grumpy and funny (even if it took its funny a little far at times), the dystopian Sonmi-section had be thinking it was just an annoying satire using old tropes until it convinced me it was not and it became a fully fledged story of its own (I loved how Orwell and Huxley were described as ``the optimists''), and then the middle part...

I said the language changed, and while that is true of the first four, it is more a matter of a variety of styles that are recognisable to us. In the Sonmi-section language became different (simplified spelling and brand names as general nouns, mainly), and in ``Sloosha's Crossing'' it was taken even further. This is the main reason why I am reluctant to recommend the book to people who are not fluent in English. I had trouble getting into this part of the book in the beginning, as it seemed to be based on Hawaiian dialect and then taken to extremes in isolation over hundreds of years. It would be very interesting to get a linguist to comment on that particular bit -- is it realistic in its development of language?

At any rate. The first and last bits were the weakest of the book, I thought. It did not catch my interest terribly in the beginning, and it didn't blow me away with its moralising at the end. I am torn on this, however. On the one hand, the moralising is weak. On the other, it is again put into play by the fact that we ``know'' how the world was to develop. If this is taken as a worst case scenario that we should learn by, then the book becomes weaker because of its harping on message. If it is taken as an ironic twist to the hope of betterment, the book somehow feels better.

That said, the first narrative had to be there, as it lays the ground for the development of the Nietzschean idea of eternal return, which ties the narrative together on a thematic level (an in a much more convincing way than the travelling souls device).

One would be right to call it a tour de force, and it is a very enjoyable read. But while I really liked it, I have this nagging feeling that something is out of place. Perhaps that is the point.
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LibraryThing member msf59
Six loosely linked stories, spanning the mid-19th century to hundreds of years in the future. All told in different writing styles, contrasting voices, a serpentine blend of genres and like magic, it somehow all works. Yes, this book is a puzzle, a mind-bender. Yes, it’s a challenge but the rewards at the end of this literary rainbow are bountiful.
“Air in the chateau clammy like laundry that won’t dry. Door-banging drafts down the passageways. Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying good-bye.”
This is my first book by Mitchell and what an impressive introduction. He has just landed another happy disciple.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
One of the most extraordinary and creative books I have ever read! I had much difficulty getting through the first third of this book but was richly rewarded for my perseverance – many thanks to the strength of encouragement from my LT friends. As soon as I started “getting it” I knew I needed to go back and re-read what I knew I must have missed. That will have to wait for another day. But that day will come!

This is an all time favorite of mine now. Many writing styles, characters, and genres are meticulously structured to produce an opus of extravagant scope. Jam packed philosophical ponderings on human nature, power, knowledge and slavery are woven throughout this masterpiece. The related stories sweep the reader through centuries of the rebirth of souls in their many forms and the eternal struggle of good and evil.

What are your beliefs? Mitchell’s last pitch is found on the last two pages.

“…history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind’s mirror, the world…"

"A life spent shaping a world I want… [my son] to inherit, not one I fear [he] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.”
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LibraryThing member jorgearanda
This book absolutely blew me out. It’s not just that the six stories in the novel, each with its own narrative style and voice, are all compelling in their own right. It’s not just realizing that they weave in mysterious ways, forming a whole much greater than its parts. And it’s not just that the underlying theme is so universal. The real kick comes from understanding that, above all of that, Mitchell is playing a game with you: Through subtle tricks (self mockery, metaphysical reflection in the midst of pulpy action, etc.) he admits his book is an ambitious, elaborate artifact, and he’s going to go ahead and do it whether you think it’s possible or not.

I won’t spoil it for you. But by the time I got to the end of chapter 6 (of 11), I had the same feeling I got as a child when watching circus performers do their crazy, risky acts: The man is going to kill himself. This should be the book’s ending. It’s been great so far, but it can only go down now, and when it falls it will be really painful. But it was almost as if Mitchell heard and replied “oh yeah? Well watch this…” and proceeded to get himself out of the traps he built, one after another, with perfect execution, while telling a story with a fascinating message that actually had to be told in the contrived Russian-dolls structure of his novel. And all along the higher-level game continued, with my jaw dropping further and further, my mind thinking the man is bluffing himself out of proportion, and Mitchell smiling, looking back at me and raising the bet anyway. When we finally reached the end I had to surrender, both to the virtuoso performance and to the powerful thematic conclusions. Very rewarding stuff for those with the patience to listen.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I regret having to rate this book so low, because some parts I really adored, and some aspects of the writing I really admired, but I also hated some parts so much, found so much annoying and incoherent, that I had to abandon the book before I tore my hair from my scalp. A blurb by Michael Chabon describes the book as a "series of nested dolls" and it's the perfect description. There are six different tenuously connected storylines, told in various ways: diary format, letters, memoir, third person narrative, question and answer interview... I thought the way Mitchell connected each up and structured the novel quite clever at first, one of the things I was really enjoying.

The first section, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" stops mid-sentence and I went huh??? Especially when we then shifted from mid-19th century South Pacific to the seemingly unrelated 1931 Belgium "Letters from Zedelchem." But flipping through the section titles and reading on I saw things would connect up eventually, that the second half of every part would be continued after the central story. And that second section was such a joy to read. The first sure had its pleasures--the period style of the journal entries and playful parody of an exotic adventure tale with echoes of Defoe and Melville was fun. But the Robert Frobisher of the letters is just delicious. A horrible person, but a wonderful character. (And not incidentally, said to be the composer of the "Cloud Atlas Sextet.") I didn't like the next installment, the first part of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" a hard-boiled thriller set in 1975 California. Had I been reading that part as an independent story, I would have ditched it mid-read, because I thought the plot cliched and stupid. I knew I was in the midst of something akin to a parody, and as usual Mitchell was displaying a virtuoso sense of period and genre style, but at one point I was finding it so eye-rolling I skipped to the next section--then sheepishly turned back and forgave it when when I saw a mention of it as a manuscript novel that made me grin. And that next section? "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," set in present day England, was laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and it's even rarer for a book to make me laugh out loud then it is to make me cry. I thought then I'd wind up loving the book and decided to have a little faith. The next section was just as strong, a story that reminded me very much of Brave New World and set in the future in Korea, but with elements that made it its own story. I would have loved to read "An Orison of Sonmi~451" as an independent novel. It was the next section, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," the central portion before we connect back up to the unfinished stories, that caused me to abandon the book mid-read. Here's a sentence from that part:

Now, a herd o' visitors bleated to our dwellin' that night an' some nights after, from up'n'bros'n'lastlife family'n'half-strangers what we only met at bart'rin's, yay, ev'ryun from Mauka to Mormon came knockin' to see if Old Ma libber spoke it true, that a real'n'livin' Prescient was stayin' at Bailey's.

I hate this way of indicating semi-literacy, which strikes me as particularly phoney in a first person narrative rather than just someone depicting how someone spoke aloud. I mean, honestly, if someone were that uneducated or the language had changed that much in the far future, how would they even know where to put in the apostrophes to indicate elided letters? They would just think "o" and "dwellin" is the way it's spelled. (And if your response is that this narration is just "as spoken" then why are there such touches as inconsistent spellings?) And this was just beyond painful to read and try to comprehend--and it was the longest section of the book yet--about 70 pages. You could say Mitchell knew what he was doing putting it in the middle, so that many might forgive him because after being hooked on the earlier stories and knowing the worst was over they'd stay with the novel to find out how it all ended. But the fact is about that time I lost trust in Mitchell, lost my suspension of disbelief and interest in how this all connected up. It probably didn't help that I was simultaneously reading Joyce's Ulysses and presently have little patience with authors who think they're being oh so clever in giving us the near unreadable.
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LibraryThing member MelmoththeLost
An extraordinarily rich book and, as BlossomU comments, one in which threads and themes carry over not only between the two halves of each of the constituent stories, but also between those stories themselves. For example, San Francisco's Silvaplana Wharf is not only mentioned in both halves of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" but also in the second half of "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"; Ewing's journal ends in Hawaii which is also the venue of the entire sixth story, and so on. "Cloud Atlas" is not so much a series of stories as a series of eddies and whirlpools in which ideas swirl around and somersault over each other. BlossomU is right though - this is a book which would probably need to be read several times to pick up all the threads and eddies, and it's more than good enough to warrant the re-reading.

I suggest it would also be fair to describe "Cloud Atlas" as an extended and complex parable which opens in the colonial era when corporatism was born and proceeds via a society in which corporation and state have become as one (essentially McDonalds under North Korean management) to a distant future in which the ultimate outcome of corporate greed and the intellectual laziness and complacency of consumers has destroyed the planet and led to the complete collapse of civilisation, and then meanders all the way back again. In short, it is a warning to us, now, today, about the actions and attitudes which afflict us and the future we are creating. It is, perhaps, best to leave on a prescient comment by Adam Ewing on the second to last page:

"Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword."

I don't imagine it's coincidence that the name given to the Devil, the Tempter, the Adversary, in Mitchell's post-Apocalyptic remnants of human society is "Old Georgie".
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LibraryThing member clfisha
It's a hugely ambitious book: Mitchell takes multiple short tales that span centuries and genres, then packs them together like Russian dolls and on top of all that, tenuously links them. It is almost like watching a man juggling 7 flaming chainsaws whilst blind-folded and standing on one leg, it looks great but you are pretty sure it's all going to end horribly. But no Mitchell astoundingly and seamlessly pulls this off: there are no bad stories, no hiccups in flow, no irritating transition between stories. It is an extremely satisfying book.

So how to actual summarise the story? well.. (warning contains minior spoilers).

The book opens as diary, written in 17th century in a Caribbean back water, by an American traveller stranded and waiting for ship repairs. We read of his prudish horror at the godlessness of sailors, his is musing on natives, his awfully polite Victorian dinner conversation and follow his adventurous misguided wanderings. All slightly tongue in cheek and much fun and I was thoroughly enjoying his naive adventures until the tale stop abruptly. In mid sentence no less and we realise this is just a referenced text in a series of 19th century letters from a poverty stricken composer to his old lover, which is enjoyable decadent romp until it stops and we realise these letters are being read by an investigative journalist involved in a deadly conspiracy in the 60s which in turn stops and we realise .... and on and on marching into further and further into the future.

It is a giddy, dizzying novel and one that makes you actually feel time stretching out all around you, which for me was the highlight of the book. In addition because of the nature of the structure a mirror effect is created as the stories are reflected and reframed in each other and later on themselves, enhancing and renewing the story. If you also consider the beautiful unreality gained by each tale being solely a story found in the next and the book becomes something special. A surreal house of cards that could almost be true but isn't.. a musing on possibilities and legacies. Of course post-modern techniques and philosophical ponderings aside this book works from a pure piece of great storytelling and because of that I highly recommend this book to well absolutely everyone.
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LibraryThing member AHS-Wolfy
When is a novel not a novel? When it's comprised of six inter-linked novella length stories. Coming into this book I didn't know what to expect. I knew the author was generally well regarded but I hadn't read anything of this book or his work prior to picking this one up, I had it tagged as science fiction and while it certainly fits that category for a couple of parts of the stories (post-apocalyptic and dystopia) it also belongs under historical fiction, contemporary fiction and mystery/thriller too. The book starts in the past with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and relates a voyage of a 19th century notary as he leaves Chatham Isle for his home in San Francisco. Told via entries into a diary the idiom is very much of the time period and takes a little while to get into the swing of the narrative style. But just as you do, it's cut-off mid-sentence and the second story begins. Letters from Zedelghen tells the tale of Robert Frobisher, a disinherited former music student at Caius College as he escapes some ruffians attempting to reclaim a debt. He makes his way to Belgium with the intent of seeking the position of amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive composer who, due to illness, hasn't produced any new work in some time but is still held in great esteem. We have moved forward to the 1920's and the writing style has also moved with the times. I mentioned that the stories are inter-linked and one of the ways here is that Frobisher finds half of a journal and is disappointed that he is unable to complete it. Yes, you've guessed that it was the earlier journal of Adam Ewing. This part of the story is related via letters sent to Rufus Sixsmith, a friend back in London. Part three of the story, Half Lives, a Luiza Rey Mystery, has an investigative reporter chasing a story of a potential nuclear disaster when rumours surface of a report written by one of the scientists involved in developing a power plant which advises that it might not be as entirely safe as most people seem to think it is. The scientist in question just happens to be Rufus Sixsmith. We then move to a modern day setting for The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. A publisher needs to hide out after relatives of an author who want a cut of the already spent profits from a surprise blockbuster. His brother sends him to a safe house in Hull which turns out to be a nursing home for the elderly where he promptly has a mild stroke. After a brief convalescence he sets about plotting an escape along with a couple of the other residents. The only worthwhile thing Cavendish has to read during his ordeal is a manuscript for the first Luiza Rey mystery. A future dystopian society is the setting for the next instalment and features a fabricant, Sonmi-451, as she relates her ascension from a near-mindless server in a fast-food outlet to a revolutionary figurehead as related to an archivist who records this on a device called an orison. Sonmi's last wish is to be able to finish watching the tale of Timothy Cavendish. This device then features in the only segment which completes without interruption. Sloosha's Crossin and Everthin After is set in the far future after a cataclysmic event has ripped the world apart. Meronym is a member of the Prescients, a group of people that have retained some of the knowledge of the old world, who comes to spend time with the Valleysmen, a farming tribe, to learn and document their ways. She uses an Orison as a type of multimedia device to record her findings and communicate with her people. We then complete the preceding five stories in reverse order culminating with the second half of Adam Ewing's journal.

Six different stories told in differing styles and use of language sounds weird but when read as a whole works surprisingly well. The connections often seem tenuous but what I've listed above isn't the only way in which they are linked as there are constant themes that are touched upon in each tale. While there is nothing amazing about any of the actual stories (though none are badly written either) I think the accomplishment of bringing them all together is a triumph. Some wonderful characters narrate each of the stories and even when it's not so easy to read within the language of the time that is being used I still wanted to turn the page and find out what happens next. I am quite intrigued as to how they managed to make a coherent movie out of this book though and will be taking a look sometime soon. I'll also be seeking out more of David Mitchell's books to add to the tbr pile as well.
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LibraryThing member lenoreva
This is a challenging and rewarding book that is ambitious and yet not pretentious. I loved the unique structure (a nod to Italo Calvino perhaps) and the way the author mastered all those different genres. The only part I could do without was "Sloosha's Crossing" but still, this book near perfection for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member lycomayflower
A fascinating novel, mostly made so by its intriguing structure and deft handling of many writing styles. Cloud Atlas consists of six different narratives, each taking place at a different time in history (and some in the future), dealing with different characters, and employing different styles and methods of narration. The novel begins with the narrative furthest back in time (call it Narrative A), continues with the next narrative in chronological succession (Narrative B), and keeps going through its several narratives until it arrives at Narrative F, then works back in time through each narrative once again. So the structure looks something like this: ABCDEFEDCBA. Eventually it becomes apparent that there are connections among these seemingly separate narratives, and Mitchell's skill in handling this structure becomes increasingly clear as he works his way back down his narrative ladder (on the EDCBA side, if you will). Working the hints of connections into the first half of the novel strikes me as something not overly difficult; backing out through the second half of the narrative and picking up all those disparate threads to make the whole create sense and answer questions seems like it must have been mind-bogglingly difficult. For manipulation of this structure, for making it work, I give Mitchell all the credit in the world. His skill at working so well within so many different styles is also remarkable. He succeeds, as well, in making the reader care about each of his narratives, about all of his characters, despite wrenching her away from each narrative just as it is getting really good and asking her to invest in yet another scenario.

I came away from Cloud Atlas impressed by Mitchell's writing and his ability to reel one into a story and wowed by his handle on structure. But in the end I was never sure what all of that structural whizzbang was for (beyond being an incredible feat in and of itself). I'm not entirely sure what the novel means to say about the interconnectedness of people and events or about our ability (or inability?) to recognize those connections. Without that understanding I was left a bit befuddled. Which is not to say that I think this isn't a book worth reading. I think it is. There's enough here that is satisfying to outweigh that discontent in the end. And the novel avoids feeling like an experiment which succeeds technically but fails to tap into the emotional life of the reader. The novel is an amazing achievement, if not a wholly satisfying one. But absolutely worth the read, even if only to marvel at how Mitchell works that ABCDEFEDCBA structure. Seriously.
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LibraryThing member David_David_Katzman
I found Cloud Atlas to be less a novel than a series of short stories. And on top of that, I found the quality of the stories varied wildly. Furthermore, the differences in style and tone of the various stories jarred me.

Some modest spoilers ahead (the worst is hidden), so stop here if you don’t want to know anything about Cloud Atlas whatsoever.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Mitchell had written a series of short stories then later decided to weave them together. This could certainly be factually inaccurate, but as a reader impression, it really doesn’t matter his intention. While reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were short stories with gimmicky tricks used to tie them together.

Mitchell uses several techniques to relate the stories. The first is to have them set sequentially in history. Each of the stories is set in a different period travelling all the way into the far future (two of the stories would qualify as science fiction). Initially the stories jump forward in time—and then they cycle backwards. He breaks up the stories in Cloud Atlas like layers of an onion so that they read as follows:Story 1a, Story 2a, Story 3a, Story 4a, Story 5a, Story 6a, Story 7, Story 6b, Story 5b, Story 4b, Story 3b, Story 2b, Story 1b. This has the effect of going forward in time to Story 7 and then back again to complete each story arc.Mitchell is perhaps attempting to create a vast narrative of history circling back on itself. If he was, he fails partly because several of the stories are so … parochial; they fail to capture anything significant about humanity’s trajectory. As an example, I would single out the story of the British publisher who finds himself trapped in an old folk’s home. Or the story of the young composer. Yes, they give a relative snapshot of some portion of society, but they are so focused on a niche experience that they do not communicate very much about society overall. In contrast, several of the other stories, such as the Luisa Rey story and the two set in the future (and even the one set during the time of colonialism/abolition) do capture a broad sweeping look at the history of the world. This disjunction in subject matter was one of the elements, along with the shifts in style, that was jarring.

A second technique Mitchell uses to connect the stories is to have each story interact with the previous by proposing they occur in different sorts of media. For example, a book found by a character in story 2 tells story number 1. A movie watched by a character in story 3 is actually what happens in story 2, etc. I found this to be a rather thin gimmick. Particularly because several of the overlapping connections were truly farfetched. For example, one of the stories is about an old man escaping from an old folk’s home where he was imprisoned. It was a rather humorous short story overall with minimal profound insight. The story that followed it was set in the far future, when a clone evolved beyond its obedience guidelines to become the figurehead of a revolution against the enslavement of clones. The clone is caught and sentenced to death and as her last request before execution she asks to finish watching the movie she had started viewing … about the old man who escaped from the old folks home. This bothered me for two reasons. One, I didn’t believe that anyone would really make a movie about the old man escaping from the old folks home. I just didn’t buy that. Second, the story of the old man was rather shallow and lacked any profound characteristics that might appeal to the values of a revolutionary hero about to be executed. She could’ve asked to see a movie about Mahatma Ghandi or Buddha or Martin Luther King but no, instead she wants to watch this goofy movie about a publisher/scam artist who got himself trapped in an old folk’s home. This highlighted the artificiality of the technique for me and made it feel contrived.

Lastly, Mitchell gave each of the main characters an ambiguous birthmark that looked like … a comet, I believe. As if to imply … they were reincarnations of each other in some fashion. Or perhaps the spirit of rebellion reborn. Thematically each of the main characters seems … to some degree ... connected to fighting the “system,” if in unequal measures or fashions. This device felt easily tacked on to connect the stories.

As I mentioned earlier, the stories varied in quality. Just one example: The “Luisa Rey Mystery” was the biggest failure for me. It reads like a supermarket mass-paperback suspense thriller. And Mitchell apparently knew it wasn’t up to the level of the other stories because (this is complicated, brace yourself) … the character who was the old man, the publisher, has a manuscript copy of the Luisa Rey Mystery from “the author” who is pitching it to him. He makes some offhand critical comments about it, but notes that, “Hilary V. Hush might … have written a publishable thriller after all … selling at Tesco checkouts; then a Second Mystery, then the Third … overall I concluded the young-hack-versus-corporate-corruption thriller had potential.” So, in essence, the reader is supposed to buy this story because it’s intentionally written poorly? Like a pulp thriller? There is a similar comment about another story in the sequence, “Some of the accents didn’t seem right, but …” Okay, so Mitchell knew his writing wasn’t perfect so he excused it in a subsequent story by having characters comment on how it wasn’t perfect? Seemed like lazy writing to me. Maybe he wrote the Luisa Rey mystery when he was young and figured out how to plug it in here.

Now here I am, about to sound like a hypocrite: I found the politics in Cloud Atlas, uggh, so obvious and so blatant that at times it felt more like Mitchell was lecturing than storytelling. Yes, I agreed with his politics, I agreed with them, but damnit … not good enough! Okay, really, I should be the last person to complain about this because I am so deeply political and all my writings are too. My first novel, Death by Zamboni was truly didactic in its politics. Obvious and in your face. However, it was intended to be so because one of the things I set out to do when I wrote Death by Zamboni was to break every single rule of fiction writing that exists. All those “rules” and “guidelines” you learn in seminars, classes, or magazines about writing. It was rather a big fuck you to expectations and the status quo. I had fun breaking the rules. But a book like this … it’s supposed to be both believable and to have a narrative that communicates with the reader emotionally. As most mainstream literature attempts to do. Admittedly, it is very difficult to create awareness about political matters without seeming contrived. But that is what separates a great work from a so-so one. It manages to be political in the way it embodies humanity without feeling as if it’s lecturing you. In that regard, Mitchell utterly fails.

On the plus side, I did enjoy much of the writing. As standalone stories, the ones without the most blatant politics were quite enjoyable. Will I read another Mitchell? Absolutely. I’d like to see what he does with a single novel thread rather than something so segmented. He obviously has great talent as a writer, but this particular book was a mixed bag for me.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
Positively incredible. Six novellas, each split in two. They are interwoven, but in different genres, different voices, different time frames. Science fiction, fantasy, history, philosophy, metaphysics. It has positively everything. And it is almost impossible to review without taking the time and energy to write a doctoral dissertation. The settings wonder from the south seas in the late 1800s to 1930s Belgium, to the American southeast, to a futuristic society set in what appears to be Korea. The book is mind-boggling.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitreidtan
What a cool concept for a book: nesting stories like Russian babushka dolls. I read a later book of Mitchell's and thoroughly enjoyed it but was still leary of this one given that I already knew that Mitchell pushed the time period of at least one (turns out it was two) of his stories into the realm of the future and I am not often happy to follow where speculative fiction leads. But this was a marvelous book that managed to keep me engaged even through the sections about which I initially worried. Mitchell takes us through the centuries and around the world in his amazingly inter-linked story novel. We start in the 1850's in the tropics reading the diary of an upstanding American notary traveling home from an assignment. The diary ends abruptly mid-sentence as we jump to letters written to a friend by a penniless English composer in the Netherlands. We leave our composer mid-story to detail a young female detective in California looking into the suspicious deaths of several people in connection with a power plant funding corporate greed and carelessness. Our detective in mortal peril, we move onto a disheartening modern day England where a small publisher fleeing the thug brothers of his most famous author is committed to an assisted living home by his brother. Onward to a Korea set in the future where bio-engineering and corporate dissimulation have reached new terrifying highs. And thence to an island in the Pacific where the remnants of civilization, starting over after an unnamed catastrophic event has almost completely decimated the human race, we come to the apex of the story. Each story ties into the previous story in inventive ways and the arc of the story, especially as it gains momentum, running back through the earlier stories and telling the tales originally left untold, is masterful. This was well worth the time I spent and once I understood and accepted the form, it moved along swimmingly.… (more)
LibraryThing member Elpippino
I really love this book! The subtely of the connection between characters is what really drew me into the story and made me want to read closely. I thought the start was a bit slow/depressing but it picks up after the first two entries and all makes sense in the end. Since reading this I've read a few of his earlier books where he uses the same writing style/genre and though they were good David Mitchell definitely perfects his skill in Cloud Atlas.… (more)
LibraryThing member linedog1848
At the end, I'm still sorting out what I think of this book. In one sense, I feel let down by it. Common elements and images appeared in each story that built suspense throughout the novel, which gave me the expectation that as the book came to its conclusion something would fall like a lynchpin and completely alter the significance and context of each of the stories, uniting them into a coherent whole. This was not to be.

Each story was it's own, with only vague connections to the other stories. The relationship between the stories enriched them somewhat, but less than I had hoped. I found myself devouring the book just to get to the end and find out why these stories mattered so much to each other and when I got there, I didn't find it.

The moral--the common thread--seems little more than a platitude, and for that I'm disappointed.

Finally, the characters in one story seemed contrived and shallow to me, specifically, the female reporter and her boss were, to me, caricatures of Lois Lane and Perry White, and I found myself distracted from the story by the cliched dialogue. In another substory, I think setting it in Korea made an interesting story out of what would otherwise have been yet another dystopian cliche, and I don't know whether to admire the choice of setting or condemn that it may otherwise have been unimaginative.

BUT. . .

Cloud Atlas still gets 3 stars from me. I didn't love it, but it had many redeeming features.

First and foremost, the mood of the book was achieved remarkably, and I was particularly impressed at how the author selected such different writing styles to achieve different tone and mood from one story to the next.

The prose, tempo, and flow of the writing was fantastic. The book really pulled me into the characters' worlds (except for the noted exceptions), and I couldn't set it down.

I enjoyed the read, and I enjoyed how engaging the book was, but some of it had a bit of a pulpy and sentimental cast, and after I finished, I had a feeling like I'd been reading too much fiction and needed to dig into something more significant.
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