Published: June 30th 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton
Format: Paperback, 529 pages
Genres: Science Fiction
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Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies ...
Six interlocking lives - one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalytpic future, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of time, genre, and language to offer an enthralling vision of humanity's will to power, and where it will lead us.
My policy, in general, is to avoid reviewing books for which everything has already been said. These are the Very Famous Books of yesteryear, usually Prestigious Award Winners, and usually literary (although not always). That’s why you won’t find reviews of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Dune, etc etc etc on this website. But I’m going to ignore this policy to review Cloud Atlas! I tried to leave it alone, but I have too much to say to let the opportunity pass by.
This was my first reading of Cloud Atlas – I’ve planned to read it since forever, and when I found out that it’s available in this awesome flip-back format, I had to grab it.
I’m going to talk about the flip-back format first, actually. Flip-back books are small – they can be held one-handed and can fit into a gentleman’s pocket (and perhaps a lady’s, if they made our clothes with proper pockets). The pages also flip UP (bottom to top) and not right-to-left, which makes them a perfect option for those on public transport. The tiny size means they’re ridiculously cute, and I’ve bought the entire Jane Austen collection in teeny flip-back format just to have them. The only downside to this awesome new format is a significant one: to make the books as compact as possible, they are printed in the thinnest of thin-papers. Think of the paper in ye-olde-style Complete Oxford English dictionaries, or bibles. I was afraid I’d tear one of the pages while reading, but I didn’t. Like dictionary paper, it’s surprisingly robust.
Ok, on to the actual narrative. Cloud Atlas is ridiculously clever. It’s a sweeping narrative that takes us from the 1800s to a distant post-apocalyptic future, following six different stories along the way. The first half is composed of each story interrupting (rather rudely, and often in cliff-hanger fashion), the story before it, and only the sixth story (the postapocalyptic one in the middle of the book) remains unbroken. Then we step backwards through the five narratives, ending up where we began. So stylistically, Cloud Atlas is pretty daring.
I don’t know if I liked this style: I felt like I couldn’t really develop any meaningful relationships with any of the six protagonists and that I had to leave them just when things got interesting. I ended up reading it with an eye for its techniques and themes rather than just enjoying what was happening to the characters and how the worlds were brought to life. This was disappointing because I read to relax, and Cloud Atlas wouldn’t let me do that.
The other thing that I admired are the stylistic changes within the six narratives. Each is different genre, from memoir to thriller to dystopia to postapocalyptic hell, and each conforms to the stylistic conventions of that genre. We’re also stepping through time with each story, the language used in each section reflects that. I liked it for the first five sections, but struggled with the most futuristic story because Mitchell blurs language and syntax (presumably making a point about the degeneration of society through language) and it made it difficult for me to follow what was happening. All those damned contractions and half-words just irritated me.
My favourite stories were the crime-thriller about Luisa Rey and the dystopian about Somni-451, which I think simply reflects how much I like those genres. Mitchell writes all six of the genres admirably, although I think he let the ball drop with the postapocalyptic one (I don’t know … I really disliked the language in that one).
Cloud Atlas is a book that requires, even forces, its readers to remain aloof from the story and marvel at how damnably clever it is. Every story ‘cleverly’ references the one before: a character will read the earlier protagonist’s diaries, or watch a documentary based on the other’s life, or listen to the music the other protagonist composed, etc. But it’s more than this: there’s a birth-mark that stupidly re-occurs in each story, the composer’s life-defining work mirrors the story (six overlapping solos that interrupt each other), there’s a ridiculous metaphor about life being cyclical and can be thought of like Russian dolls where each past exists inside another past and each future is encased in another future. In other words, it’s not enough for this book to be clever, it has to stand up and shout about it, stamp its feet and demand that its audience acknowledge the cleverness at every turn.
I think there’s a general sense that the world is split into people to ‘get’ Cloud Atlas and those who don’t, with the former almost always being thought of as intelligent and learned, and the others as the opposite. Well, I wouldn’t blame anyone who stopped reading half way through the first story – it’s very boring! The stories take a while to get going, most likely because they had to be a specific length, and had to be split down the middle by an Event of Heart-Stopping Nature. But Cloud Atlas rewards patience in a way that many other books do not.
The point of the book, so inadequately captured by the silly Russian doll analogy, is that certain patterns keep repeating themselves in life. The story spans 500 years so it can show that humanity’s grab for dominance will lead to nothing good, but there is hope along the way. Five of the stories are about how the protagonist gets royally screwed over, which is incredibly disheartening, and only the sixth is even remotely positive.
Cloud Atlas is a funny beast that ends up polarizing its readers – bringing joy to some and utter frustration to others. My thoughts are between those extremes. I think it’s by turns brilliant and over-reaching, and I liked some aspects of it and loathed others. But I think I would have liked it a lot more if it had just let me enjoy it instead of beating me over the head with its cleverness.