Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I don’t care for capers or artichoke hearts. One night, my husband made Chicken Piccata with heaps of these ingredients. Despite this, I knew it was an objectively good dish: the chicken was well cooked, it had an interesting balance of flavors, etc., but I still asked that he not rush to cook it again. I feel the same way about Cloud Atlas. David Mitchell is uncommonly talented and there’s nothing “wrong” with his latest book, but it’s difficult to enjoy. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books you’re not allowed to hate, because if you hate it, people say: “you’re stupid; you only disliked it because you didn’t get it.” It’s an overstuffed, self-important book, and this has engendered self-righteousness amongst its more ardent fans.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six loosely intertwined stories. Each is written in a different style and genre: a journal from the 1800s, letters from the 1930s, a pop-fiction mystery in the 70s, a memoir from the 90s, a futuristic interview, and an oral narrative in a bizarre dialect. The stories come together when the letter writer reads the journal, the mystery story chick finds the letters, and so on. A unique birthmark appears on several characters which might suggest reincarnation, but there’s enough to wade through without trying to determine who might have been who in another timeline.

Five of the stories are told in two parts, the sixth is told straight through from beginning to end. If the first story is “A,” the second “B,” and so on, the pattern of the book would be: A B C D E F E D C B A. What sells this book (and what would impress anyone) is Mitchell’s mastery of so many genres. Taken side by side, the stories showcase his incredible grasp of period-appropriate dialogue and style. However, when you’ve finished and look back over the whole, the stories hang together tentatively, and the structure feels gimmicky. The first story is split mid-sentence; you read down to the end of the page and when you turn it—poof—different story. I was convinced this was a misprint and flipped through the book until I saw the sentence resumed much later. Each story is split at the point it begins to get interesting so the process of reading is: bored —> mildly interested, bored —> mildly interested . . . three more cycles, and then the sequence of conclusions.

To begin the second half, you must slog through the only story told straight through beginning to end. It’s 70 pages of strange future-speak titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” I’d be lying if I said I completely understood this story. To a point, you get used to the dialect, but even when you can understand it without effort, it’s distractingly odd:

His body stood lonesome for a beat like a babbit learnin’ to walk, then…dumm-fff! See, he’d errored the shooter’s mouth for its ass and flashbanged his own head off. Our myst’ry Kona rescuer sat up, rubbin’ elbows tendersome, plucked off his helmet, an’ stared mis’rably at the five died uns.

The stronger stories of the six aren’t diminished by the weaker ones, but the weaker ones are borne up by their placement in the larger structure. If you could shave 100 pages from this book, streamline each story, and smooth the gratuitous cliffhangers, I’d push this book on more people than I am now.

Full disclosure: I read this book after I saw the movie and I’m sure this affected my opinion. Jim Broadbent was an absolute riot as the publisher Timothy Cavendish; Sloosha’s Crossin’ was tainted by mental images of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry’s wooden acting and inane babbling. There’s something insurmountably ridiculous about two people, one in bad make-up and the other with a gel headdress saying:

Zachry: Who tripped the Fall, if not Old Georgie?
Meronym: True-true? The Old Uns.
Zachry: That’s just a rope o’smoke. Old Uns got the Smart.

Taken singly, some of the stories aren’t bad. If there’s one that appeals to you, go for it:

  • Journal written by Adam Ewing as he travels across the ocean in the 1800s while afflicted with a mysterious illness and treated by an overeager doctor
  • Letters between the composer Robert Frobisher to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, as he composes his masterpiece while working for (and cuckolding) a master composer
  • Hackneyed thriller as Louisa Rey uncovers a conspiracy surrounding a new nuclear facility after Rufus Sixsmith tips her off
  • Memoir written by Timothy Cavendish who is trapped in a retirement home and plotting his escape
  • Interview with the clone Sonmi-451 who has been freed from restaurant service, sentenced to death, and now dispenses philosophical proclamations
  • Whatever Sloosha’s Crossin’ is supposed to be

The overall theme is that everyone is bound together, history repeats, yada yada, and each of the stories expresses this so blatantly that you don’t have to read the collection in order; you can hop around as needed to stave off boredom.

Overall: 2.7 (out of 5.0) Mitchell can write, but this book gets caught up in its own perceived profundity. A lot of people, myself included, have reading queues too long to get excited about a book that is somewhat enjoyable in retrospect, but tedious to read.

2 thoughts on “Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell”

    1. Thanks! Reading this book also made me curious to read David Mitchell’s other book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. As far as I know, it’s a single story so perhaps it will be more focused (and better).

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