Review: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

I know, I’m late to the party. I actually discovered Cloud Atlas (*****) on accident due to the film adaptation that was released last year. Let’s just say that when you can watch a six-minute-long trailer and still have no idea what the film is actually about, that piques my interest. Being somewhat religious about reading a novel before seeing its film adaptation, I promptly set about acquiring a copy…..and for some reason managed to let it languish on my to-read shelf for months before finally picking it up. What can I say? I have a LOT of unread books on that shelf, and I was working through the numerous Odd Thomas sequels again before reading the newest one for the first time. While I have no regrets about my time spent reading Odd, I should have made time to read this sooner. Cloud Atlas is certainly one of the most unique novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I’m told that all of Mitchell’s works take place in the same world and background characters recur across different books; I may have to check out some more of his bibliography.

Cloud Atlas is actually six separate-yet-interconnected stories, each from a different genre, and I’m not entirely sure it should be labeled a novel as opposed to an anthology. But then, I’m not entirely sure I’d go the other direction either. The book resembles nothing so much as a Russian matroyshka doll–as you read, each tale breaks off abruptly in a more-or-less cliffhanger fashion and the next tale begins. When you hit the middle, the stories resume an conclude in reverse order so you end up right back where you started. In addition, the stories are all connected–in each story, a character or characters will read, watch or listen to something related to the previous tale. These connections are even more fun as you revisit the stories to conclude them, as each one leads directly into the next (I’ll let you discover the how for yourself). In addition to the explicit connections generated by each character reading, watching or listening to the previous character’s story, each of the main characters save one is implied to be the same soul reincarnated across the ages. (This causes a slight problem with Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish, as Cavendish’s tale is implied to be set in “the present” and he is in his sixties, meaning he would have been alive at the same time as Luisa Rey, whose tale is set in 1973. So far as I can see, the only way to resolve this apparent inconsistency is to have his tale set in the near future as opposed to the present.) Finally, the same themes recur across all the stories in the book as each character deals with issues of oppression, power, slavery, and violence.

The six stories that make up Cloud Atlas are:
The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing (1849): Adam Ewing is an American lawyer come to the Chatham Islands to conduct some estate business for his father-in-law and boss. While his ship is in port for repairs, he there meets and befriends Dr. Henry Goose, a British exile, who agrees to treat his mysterious tropical parasite. This tale is told in the form of Ewing’s regular journal entries.
Letters From Zedelghem (1936): Robert Frobisher is an impoverished, bisexual and recently-disowned dropout from Cambridge school of music. In need of funds and occupation, he sets out to attain the post of amanuensis (someone who copies dictation, in this case musical) for Vyvyan Ayrs, the supposed greatest British composer of all time, blind and slowly dying of syphilis in Belgium. While helping Ayrs finish some of his old pieces and begin some new ones, Frobisher finds an incomplete copy of The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing in the family library and becomes obsessed with it. Though Frobisher is welcomed into Ayrs’ home as a son, his relationships with Ayrs’ family are complex, as Ayrs’ daughter suspects his financial state and he carries on an affair with Ayrs’ wife. Nevertheless, Frobisher manages to find time to begin composing his own works again. This tale is told through Frobisher’s letters to his gay lover, Rufus Sixsmith.
Half Lives–The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973): Luisa Rey is a writer for a trashy tabloid who wants to be a serious journalist. When aging scientist Rufus Sixsmith tips her off to a nefarious plot involving the soon-opening Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant, Luisa is thrust into a high-stakes contest of wills with opponents who are not afraid to kill to get what they want…. This tales is written as a traditional mystery novel.
The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish (Present Day/Near Future):
Timothy Cavendish is an aging vanity-press publisher with a huge problem–due to the highly-public murder of a literary critic, his newest client’s memoirs are jumping off the shelves. A good thing? Sure, until Cavendish’s creditors come to call and claim his newfound fortune to pay his debts. And when his clients brothers (who are just as respectful of the law as his client himself) demand a cut of the now-nonexistent profits, Cavendish is forced to go on the run. He manages to escape to a “luxury hotel” where his brother set up a reservation for him….only to find his refuge is in fact an old folks home, and the staff are not very understanding about the apparent mixup…. This section is told via Cavendish’s memoirs.
An Orison Of Somni-451 (2144):
 Somni-451 is a fabricant (clone) created to serve without question in Papa Song’s diner (I think this is supposed to be a futuristic version of McDonald’s). To this end, like all of her sister fabricants, she is engineered with a very low IQ and only the skills and education needed to do her job. But one day Somni-451 realizes she is no longer like her sisters–she has begun to have thoughts and ideas that are far from acceptable to her masters. She doesn’t understand how this process began, but she knows it has taken her into very dangerous territory…. This tale is told in the form of a prison interview (not a spoiler–they state this from the beginning) between Somni-451 and an “archivist” there to document her story for governmental records.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (2321): Zachry is a young man (fourteen or fifteen for most of the story) living on the Big Island of Hawaii years after “The Fall,” a catastrophe where most of the world’s civilization was destroyed (from the scant descriptions, it would appear to have been a nuclear holocaust) and left the survivors in a state of primitivism. Zachry’s tribe is the most “civ’lized” on the island, and they are often visited by the more technological Prescients who somehow escaped humanity’s fall relatively unharmed. Zachry’s world is forever turned upside down when one of these Prescients comes to live with his family and study their people. This story is told by Zachry sitting around a campfire somewhere in his old age.

The connections throughout the novel are interesting. As I mentioned above, each story references the one before it in some way. Frobisher reads Ewing’s Journal, and Ayrs dreams of a “nightmarish cafe, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out….The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather.” Sixsmith and Luisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters and Luisa tracks down a copy of Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet. Cavendish is given the manuscript of a novel based on Luisa’s adventure. Somni-451 is shown a film adaptation of Cavendish’s memoir. And finally, the neo-primitive inhabitants of Zachry’s post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship Somni as a god (it can be assumed that at some time in their past they found a copy of her Declarations.) In addition, each of the main characters share a birthmark shaped like a blazing comet, a detail that Mitchell has implied is meant to imply that they are various reincarnations of the same soul. (I understand that the film used this to great effect by having the various actors play different roles in each story–though not as the same “soul” as it would be difficult to get one person to play both Robert Frobisher and Somni-451, for example).

Mitchell here presents two fascinating different (though not incompatible–they are separated both geographically and temporally) visions of the future in An Orison Of Somni-451 and Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After. Somni-451’s futuristic Korea is a hyper-capitalistic dystopian corporate state. Certain areas of the world are said to be “deadlanded,” or rendered uninhabitable by fallout from an undescribed nuclear war in ages past. Mitchell does an excellent job of describing this world from within, communicating everything you need to know about Nea So Copros without ever breaking character. You’re left to make sense of certain details on your own, from context, and if you pay attention it will all make sense eventually. Especially watch for how certain modern brand names are now synonymous with their product–sonys, disneys, nikes, etc. It is somewhat unclear whether the nuclear war that is mentioned by Somni and the Archivist is the same as The Fall mentioned by Zachry and his folk, but that wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. You get the sense that Nea So Copros is a society on the brink of collapse anyway, so I’m not at all surprised that they have ceased to exist by Zachry’s time. The most confusing part of the whole thing is that a nuclear war went down and Korea came out of it unscathed…..just doesn’t make sense in terms of the current geopolitical status, but there’s at least a century to work with there, so I’ll let it go. Zachry’s tale is framed as him sitting by the fire and telling his story, so it’s oral. As such, there’s a good deal of dialect involved–and a lot of apostrophes where he abbreviates words or leaves out letters. Some people won’t be able to get past this. Some will go along with it and be blown away by Mitchell’s worldbuilding. It’s all in how you want to experience the book. In Zachry’s world, the Big Island of Hawaii (or Hah Why, as Zachry calls it) is all he knows. Most of mankind has descended back into barbarism and a tribal existence, from Zachry’s peaceful folk of the Nine Folded Valleys to the warlike Kona they live in constant fear of. There is, however, one group more advanced in knowledge and in ideas. The Prescients apparently saw The Fall coming and prepared for it, hiding themselves away and riding out the storm. Now they are travelling about, nurturing seeds of civilization wherever they may find it. Unfortunately, these seeds are few and far between, and the Prescients are few in number….

Reviewers cannot seem to agree when it comes to this book–what one likes, another hates. For my money, Mitchell’s writing here is masterful. Each story has a different narrator, and each narrator has an entirely different voice that feels entirely authentic–you buy entirely that each narrator is a resident of the world they describe. This is no mean feat when one of your narrators is a clone from a future where corporations rule the world and another is a neo primitive from post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Whatever else you say about him, Mitchell is a master of worldbuilding. (Some reviewers disagree and find his use of language in the two futuristic stories gimmicky and distracting. To each his own.) Some may criticize the book’s lack of a central driving plot that transcends the different stories, but so far as I can tell that is simply Mitchell’s style (I’m told his novel/collection Ghostwritten is the same way, only more so.) Some will be annoyed by the structure of the book, feeling it is “gimmicky.” Well….yes, it’s a gimmick. But it’s a gimmick that worked, at least so far as I am concerned. Mitchell himself was well aware of what would be said about this, and even had Robert Frobisher compose his Cloud Atlas Sextet with the same structure, musing “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.” Most of these detractors seem to think it was all style and no substance, that Mitchell was just showing off. (These reviewers seem to have missed the recurring themes and fixated solely on the reincarnation and self-referential aspects of its interconnectedness. I’ll admit, if that was as far as it went, I might agree with them.) Others, oddly, have felt that the book had too much substance and was a bit heavy-handed in its moralizing, that the themes of violence and power and oppression through the various stories could have been more subtle. Maybe a bit, but it didn’t bother me–and if you’ve followed my reviews you know I have a low tolerance for that sort of thing when it comes at the expense of a good story. At the end of the day this is love-it-or-hate-it book, and it does require the reader to actively engage the text–to “work for it,” if you will. If you are willing to do that, I highly recommend reading this book.

It could be argued that there is a subtle anti-religious theme here. Ewing is a Christian, but he is at least to some degree a naive and idealistic fool. Reverend Horrox’s views on race and God’s planned hierarchy of the world are frankly disturbing. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish all seem to have no use for religion. In the world of Somni-451 all “pre-skirmish” religion has been outlawed and replaced with a worship of money (Your digital wallet is your “soul,” and “a soul’s value is the dollars within.”) Zachry and his tribe–the most civilized tribe in Hawaii, and one of the most in the world–worship Somni and hold her commands (I presume these are the Declarations mentioned at the end of her story) as religious law. A more suspicious man would see an attempt at making a statement about deifying a Galilean carpenter. Now, do I think this is a reason not to read this book? No. In fact, I’m not even willing to argue definitively for that analysis. But I do think it bears keeping in mind.

Content: Overall, I’d have to go with R.
Language: PG-13/R. I honestly didn’t notice a whole lot about this, as I kept getting to drawn in to pay attention to such a clinical detail. Each story would probably have to be rated separately anyway to get any real sense of this. At least two “f-bombs” and various lesser profanities, with whatever is said in The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing being rendered in classic 19th-century form as d–n, h–l, d—l, etc. That, at least, I found quite amusing.
Violence: PG-13/R. A fair amount of violence, and some of it is very evocatively described.
Sexual Content: R. This novel contains a fair amount of sexual content, not usually very graphic but nevertheless hard to miss. And I must say that Zachry’s language on this subject was quite….evocative.

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