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Cloud Atlas

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A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles of genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian lore of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction as profund as it is playful. Now in his new novel, David Mitchell explores with daring artistry fundamental questions of reality and identity.

Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . .
Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

As wild as a videogame, as mysterious as a Zen koan, Cloud Atlas is an unforgettable tour de force that, like its incomparable author, has transcended its cult classic status to become a worldwide phenomenon.

509 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 2004

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About the author

David Mitchell

111 books14.3k followers
David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in England, raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England. After another stint in Japan, he currently lives in Ireland with his wife Keiko and their two children. In an essay for Random House, Mitchell wrote: "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I'd spent the last 6 years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself." Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), moves around the globe, from Okinawa to Mongolia to pre-Millennial New York City, as nine narrators tell stories that interlock and intersect. The novel won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35) and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. In 2007, Mitchell was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World. Mitchell's American editor at Random House is novelist David Ebershoff.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 22,039 reviews
Profile Image for B0nnie.
136 reviews49 followers
December 4, 2013

This book proves David Mitchell can be any writer he chooses. The six novellas that comprise Cloud Atlas are forgeries - and they are original. Each adopts the voice of a distinct author. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but all of the parts are superb. It is a sextet, like the one found within the novel, with piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin - every individual instrument pleasing, but when played altogether becomes something different and brilliant - the Cloud Atlas Sextet.

Each novella is broken, torn in two, or interrupted, and later continued after the sixth, which is the only one completed in one section. Then the previous five stories are concluded in descending order.

Written as a journal. The first story is a delightful combination of Melville, Defoe, and James Fenimore Cooper. It has the serious tone and charm of 18th and 19th century literature, but goes a bit too far, just short of mockery. It is not parody, nor disrespectful. Somehow it has a layer of - what? invisible mirth?

The acknowledgments notes Michael King’s definitive work on the Moriori, A Land Apart: The Chatham Islands Of New Zealand which provided Mitchell with a factual account of Chatham Islands history. This part of the story is interesting, and adds historical details essential to the plot in the way Moby Dick does with whaling information.

Moriori, 1877, survivors of the 1835 Maori invasion

Letters, one way. Robert Frobisher, writes amusing accounts of his escapades in Belgium to his lover Rufus Sixsmith while he works for a famous composer as an amanuensis. I pictured Frobisher to be like a young Hugh Laurie. There is something of Waugh, or Nancy Mitford in style and humour. He finds the Adam Ewing journal.

The acknowledgments notes "certain scenes in Robert Frobisher’s letters owe debts of inspiration to Delius as I Knew Him by Eric Fenby....The character Vyvyan Ayrs quotes Nietzsche more freely than he admits." And like Nietzsche, Ayrs has tertiary syphilis, "The syphilitic decays in increments, like fruit rotting in orchard verges".

"Eric William Fenby, OBE (22 April 1906 – 18 February 1997) was an English composer and teacher who is best known for being Frederick Delius's amanuensis from 1928 to 1934. He helped Delius realise a number of works that would not otherwise have been forthcoming...In 1928, hearing that Delius had become virtually helpless because of blindness and paralysis due to syphilis, he offered to serve him as an amanuensis." - Wikipedia

"Delius, Delius amat, Syphilus, Deus, Genius, ooh". - Kate Bush
The amanuensis Eric William Fenby

It's terrible! in a good way. A classic thriller/mystery/crime novel. Cheesy style and plot: spunky girl reporter, whose father (Lester Rey, now dead) had been a cop fighting corruption. Several highly improbable escapes from certain death. All the clichés of this genre are here and brilliantly strung together. Rufus Sixsmith, the addressee in the previous episode, is a key character and his letters from Zedelghem are discovered after he is murdered. Does Sixsmith's prediction about the nuclear reactor come true?
Lester del Rey

The memoir of a sixty something publishing agent, trapped in an old folks home. Cavendish is like an acid-tongued old geezer Randle McMurphy, battling another Nurse Ratched - but as written by Martin Amis. He reads the manuscript for Half-Lives, intending to publish it, as well as his own memoir, "I shall find a hungry ghostwriter to turn these notes you’ve been reading into a film script of my own."


Written in Q & A form; sci-fi; a dystopian future, the economy dependent on slave clones. The clone Sonmi becomes the first stable, ascended fabricant, i.e., fully human. Some plot elements of Bladerunner.

Sonmi later watches the film ("disneys") The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, "one of the greatest movies ever made by any director, from any age." Ray "451" Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley and Plato's Republic are referred to. Somni is Winston Smith - and she is Jesus.

Doona Bae as Sonmi

Futurist speculative fiction - civilization has fallen, the few remaining people live a basic existence. Sort of a Tolkienian fantasy but Mitchell's marvelous invented dialect is Burgessish. Zachry the goatherder - there and back again - is a Valleysman on Big I, Ha-Why. "Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi".

Zachry sees a recording of Sonmi's Q & A interview, because there is a small group of advanced survivors, "Prescients," and one arrives on a great ship to live on the island, to learn the ways of these primitive people. They have a Prime Directive - but who ever follows those? They are nonbelievers,

We Prescients, she answered, after a beat, b’lief when you die you die an there ain’t no comin back.

But what ’bout your soul? I asked.

Prescients don’t b’lief souls exist.

But ain’t dyin’ terrorsome cold if there ain’t nothin’ after?

Yay—she sort o’ laughed but not smilin’, nay— our truth is terror-some cold.

Jus’ that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o’ time, Abbess’d say, like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world. Sonmi’s the east’n’west, Sonmi’s the map an’ the edges o’ the map an’ b’yonder the edges.

Mauna Kea Observatories on "Big I, Ha-Why".

The stories are connected by certain reoccurring themes and events. Truth. Time. Betrayal. Drugs. Poison. Power. Captivity. Masters and Slaves. Freedom. Cruelty. Worship. The Number Twelve, Seven. Worms, Snakes, Ants, Souls. Birthmarks. Escape. Letters. Books. Music. Films. Aging. Corporate Society. Religion. And there are many literary allusions: Moby Dick; The Bible; Don Juan; Time's Arrow; To the Lighthouse; The Gulag Archipelago; An Evil Cradling; Nineteen Eighty-four; Fahrenheit 451; All Quiet on the Western Front . Nietzsche, Kipling, Conrad, Zane Grey, Homer. Harry Harrison. And more.

One Novella is slyly presented within another. I found myself clinging to the first narrative as the "real" one. When it turns up as "a curious dismembered volume" in the second, damn! I swallowed hard and justified such an appearance as quite possible. Then it is merely mentioned in a manuscript - the third novella - which is being read in the fourth. Got that? making it entirely illogical to continue my belief. And worse: Frobisher says, "Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity—seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true—but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?"

So I'm forced into using doublethink of the highest order. The fact is, you want each of these narratives to be the real one. They are that good. The structure weakens the reader's fantasy that this is "real". It becomes very awkward, like explaining a time travel paradox.

Still...never underestimate the power of doublethink. Autua, Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher, Rufus Sixsmith, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry, Meronym, all remain with me...

Nea So Copros, ship
Profile Image for Jenn(ifer).
184 reviews961 followers
September 24, 2012

Dear David Mitchell,
I’ve been trying to figure out the nicest possible way to tell you what I’m about to tell you. I sort of feel like I’ve failed you as a reader, but I just couldn’t suspend my critical mind for long enough to enjoy your book (“how I envied my uncritical…sisters” – I hate it when my own words come back to bite me in the ass, don’t you?). Don’t take it personally though. I’m the girl who didn't like The Matrix. I know, right? How could anyone dislike The Matrix? All of the neat-o keen-o special effects, the super cool concept of the world actually being run by sentient machines, the homage to Baudrillard (If you haven’t read Simulacra & Simulation, read it. It’ll blow your mind.)(By the way, Baudrillard said the siblings Wachowski completely misinterpreted his work, but I digress), and the kick-ass soundtrack (okay so it wasn’t really all that kick ass). Unfortunately at the end of the day, Keanu Reeves can’t act his way out of a paper bag, and this girl just couldn’t get past that fact.
For the first half of the novel, I kept trying to psych myself up by reminding myself how much I disliked the first four episodes of season one of The Wire: “This is just another contrived crime drama!” “Dominic West really needs to work on his American accent." "Not enough Idris Elba.” Then we meet Omar Little and BAM! It all starts to click. (Don’t you just love Omar?)(shhhh, no spoilers, I’m only on season three). I kept waiting for that BAM! moment, but it just never came. Instead I found myself more and more frustrated, finding fault with every gimmick. E.g., If language has devolved in the future, you really need to commit to your chosen alterations. If you decide flight will be ‘flite’ then sight should be ‘site,’ etc. Go all the way, I say! Oh what, you think that would be too annoying? Ur rite. It would b. So y chanj da spelng at al? It just ends up being distracting. Think of another way to say "THIS IS THE FUTURE!!!" without being so obvious about it. Similarly, when you wanted the audience to know it was the 70's, you could have found a more subtle way of doing it than saying "THEY'RE AT A PARTY LISTENING TO DISCO AND DOING COCAINE!" It's the 70's man, I get it.

It seemed to me like you didn’t have enough faith in the intelligence of your audience to get the gist without spoon-feeding it to us. If the reader didn’t pick up on the “nested dolls” analogy all by themselves (or by having Chabon tell them on the back cover) you make sure Grimaldi spells it out for us: ‘One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.” Etc. “Revolutionary or gimmicky?” I’ll take gimmicky for 1000, Alex (damned if your words don’t keep biting you in the ass, eh Davey boy?).

If you’ve read the book, than you know that each chapter or story is in some way “read” by a character in another story (journals, letters, film). A clever idea for sure. The thing about clever ideas is this, you really need to trust that your reader is as clever as you! We can pick these things up without you telling us. I mean come on the look of disgust on my face must have been a sight to see.

Let's talk about the Sloosha chapter for a moment (but just for a moment because I’m trying to repress the memory). I'm sure you were going for something really important and profound there, but it was completely lost on me because that 'style' you came up with was ridiculously irritating. I was unable to become emotionally invested in the relationship between Zachry & Meronym in the slightest. It’s the fall of humanity for chrissakes and I could not have given a shit less.
At least you have a sense of humor about it all, right pal? You saw the criticisms coming, and you gave them a swift kick in the ass (well, your character did, literally) right from the get-go. "The Ghost of Sir Felix Finch whines, “But it’s been done a hundred times before!” – as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void[sic]-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!” Oh man, you said it. Art is not the what, it’s the how; and in this instance, for me, the how is, well, not great. From the Mrs. Robinson romps to the three stooges escape hijinx, and let’s not forget the lovable Erin Brockovich Luisa Rey chapters. If you were experimenting with genres, take note, pulp is not your thing. I could go on and on (honestly I could) but I really don’t think it matters.

Anyway, I’m sure one little dissenter doesn’t matter much, right? Millions of people love this book, just like Dan Brown’s! Hey, they even got the same actor to star in the film! AND you got Wachowski directing (isn’t it serendipitous how my Matrix side story is actually relevant now?). You’re going to rack in the Euros buddy. If it means anything, I thought Black Swan Green was ace in the face!

Profile Image for s.penkevich.
1,195 reviews9,447 followers
July 17, 2023
UPDATE: looking back, this was the first “big” review I ever wrote when I first joined goodreads, and from discussing this book I met a lot of my first gr-Friends that I would go on to read a lot of excellent books with. I’ve always had a soft spot for this book and am thankful of it for being what introduced me to this wonderful book community, especially at a time when I had uprooted to a new place and was very lonely. This is a weird little corner of the internet and I love it, thanks to everyone who interacts and makes this such a fun place to be. I appreciate you all. And I appreciate this book. It was one of the first I encountered a bisexual character as a main character and felt very seen, so thank you David Mitchell. And on to the original review:

“One may transcend any convention,” writes Mitchell’s 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher, “if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Cloud Atlas, the third novel by English novelist David Mitchell, is the author’s bare-knuckled blow to standard conventions and literature itself. Here you will encounter six stories, linked across time, that, like individual notes of a chord, each resonate together to form a greater message than just the sum of their parts. Using a style inspired by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, which I would highly recommend, and a constantly fluctuating set of language, diction, dialect, and form to flood each individual story with nuance, Mitchell delivers a work that is vastly impressive and imaginative without being impassive as each story takes on a life of its own in a perfect blending of literary musings and exciting page-turning plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

While explaining this novel to a friend, I labeled it as being “ literary pulp ”. He protested, saying that you can only have one or the other. I agreed with him that this is typically the case, yet I insisted that Cloud Atlas was the exception to this rule. While each individual story has an exciting plot full of unexpected twists, often incorporating a Hollywood action or sci-fi style, Mitchell manages to elevate the novel into a higher realm of literature. Mitchell, who studied English at the University of Kent, receiving a master in Comparative Literature (thanks wiki!), has learned enough tricks of the trade to pull-off this sort of “literary pulp”. Each one of these stories on their own wouldn’t amount to much beyond an exciting read with a few underlying messages, but when he stitches them all together in an elaborate tapestry of time and space, a larger more profound message comes out as the reader will notice overarching themes and a careful reading will reveal a sense of symmetry and repetition between the stories. There is also a sense of an evolution of language, showing past trends progressing into our current speech, and then passing forward where corporate name brands will become the identifier of an object (all cars are called fords, handheld computers are all called sonys, all movies are called disneys), and then even further forward as language begins to disintegrate. The themes of the novel also seem to move in a cyclical pattern, showing repeating itself.

As stated earlier, Mitchell was inspired by Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler in which the Reader is exposed to several different novels within the novel, each with a very distinct voice and style, only to be forever thwarted from finishing just as the action rises. Mitchell takes this idea and expands upon it, with each story ending abruptly yet still resonating in the following story, which then leads us to the next and the next until finally we reach the midpoint of the novel. I do not want to spoil too much of this novel, especially his way of each story being a part of the next, but by page 64 you will understand. There will be a paragraph that will drop your jaw and melt your mind as you realize Mitchell has something special here in his method of telescoping stories. Essentially, each major character leaves an account of a crucial storyline of their lives, which in turn is read or viewed later through history by another character during a crucial moment in their lives. An added flair is that many of the characters relate to their current events by comparing it to characters or ideas from previous stories, one character even becoming a deity figure to future generations. At the midpoint, which Mitchell describes as his “mirror”, the novel will then travel back out of the wormhole (or perhaps back in?), revisiting the previous stories in reverse order. There is a good interview with Mitchell in the Washington Post where he explains his methods.

Mitchell employs other metafictional techniques, such as having his characters each reflect on the style of the novel as would make sense for their unique world. For example, Frobisher’s masterpiece composition, aptly named Cloud Atlas, is described by Frobisher as being:
”a sextet for overlapping soloists”….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. Revolutionary or gimmicky?
Mitchell himself calls the style to the table, asking the reader if it is really a revolutionary idea, or if it falls flat as a gimmick. There are many instances where Mitchell inserts a bemused reflection on his own work, wondering if he is actually pulling off the magic trick.

Each story visited is as if cracking open the cover of a different book by a different author each time the switch occurs. There is everything from a dusty sailing journal, a hilarious English comedy, a sleek sci-fi thriller and to even an oral account of tribal warfare on the other side of the apocalypse, each with an equally intriguing cast of characters (fans of Mitchell will recognize some of them as they appear in other novels, most notably Ghostwritten which includes Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Ayr’s daughter). Mitchell does his homework and spent plenty of time researching each story to make sure the history, setting and language would all be realistic. As all but the spy-thriller story of Luisa Rey are told in first person, Mitchell has his work cut out for him to craft a unique voice for each narrator. And he pulls it off brilliantly. This attention to detail and nuance is what really sold me on Cloud Atlas. To go from Cavendish’s comical voice filled with English slang (and some hilarious instances of cockney and Scottish diction) to an oral language that shows the deterioration of speech two stories later is impressive. My personal favorite was the loquacious letters of Robert Frobisher, as Mitchell wrote this Nietzsche loving composer with the urgency and depravity of a frantic, brilliant mind that recalls characters such as Dostoevsky’s underground man or Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. Mitchell toys with his knowledge of literature, molding each story from the recipes of classic literature. Adam Ewing is clearly a product of Melville, Cavendish’s plight echoes Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Sonmi-451 will bring to mind Brave New World or Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Zachary’s islander tale uses a form of sight language drawing on the oral tradition of storytelling which reflects the traditional African American stories such as the Uncle Julius tales or Equiano’s slave narratives where much emphasis is placed on the passing on of stories about ancestors. There are even small events that trigger a memory of classic works; Frobisher is passenger in a car that runs down a pheasant which is described in a way that would remind one of a certain accident involving a yellow car at the tail end of a Fitzgerald novel. He even takes a jab at Ayn Rand in the Luisa Rey story.

Mitchell seems to intentionally build this novel from other novels, and highlights this to the reader most openly through Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher. “You’ll find that all composure draw inspiration from their environments” Ayrs tells R.F. in one of the many passages where Mitchell talks both about his storyline, but also about the novel itself. This honing of metafictional abilities is one of his greatest strengths and the second half of the novel is full of passages that speak on many different levels. Mitchell takes no shame in “drawing inspiration” from his literary predecessors, much as each subsequent character draws on the inspiration of the past characters. He uses this as opportunities to shamelessly quote, allude, and incorporate the ideas of other writers. Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power and Hegel’s theories on history make up some of the strongest themes within the novel, and he gives credit where credit is due. While allusions are used for thematic reasons, some are more deeply hidden, sometimes in plain sights as Nabokov titles are used frequently, and occasionally he simply alludes to authors of each stories present time (Luisa Rey's boss was mugged after having lunch with Norman Mailer) to make them feel more rooted to the literary culture of the time much as he does with the language and descriptions. He even pokes fun at the reader a bit, acknowledging that the casual reader will not be able to pick up on these allusions, speaking through Cavendish:
”I could say things to her like ‘The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid’ and, safe in her ignorance of J.D. Salinger, I felt witty, charming, and yes, even youthful”.
He may be using ‘youthful’ as a way of saying that he must come across as fresh and exciting and inventive, which is ironic since he openly admits to borrowing the whole novels concept from Calvino. Mitchell appreciates and rewards the well-read reader with many of these subtle ironic jokes which are sprinkled all through-out the novel. He leaves so many little gems for a reader to find if they only take the time to read in between the lines and pay close attention. One might notice how several different characters “fumigate” a foul smelling room with a cigarette, or how diamonds seem to play an important role, or which characters seem repeated throughout history beyond the main character. Bill Smoke (pure evil) and Joe Napier (an ally) seem to pop up in some form in every story. I have noticed at least four other souls that seem to migrate through time in this novel.

Like a healthy, well-balanced sense of self, Mitchell seems to be aware of his weaknesses as a writer and actually uses them to his advantage, making his weaknesses some of his biggest strengths. It is clear, as the point has by now been driven into the ground, that Mitchell has aims to be taken seriously as a writer of literature, but his plots are such rapid-fire excitement with twists and turns and high climactic conclusions that he felt it necessary to be as literary as possible in all other aspects. He compensates for any other shortcomings in a similar fashion. One of the ways the characters are linked together across time (read it yourself if you want to know!) made me groan the first time I read it. Mitchell accepts that it is a corny technique and has a character flat out dismiss it as ”far too hippie-druggy-new age” and as something that should be taken out entirely. I got a kick out of this and instantly forgave Mitchell for not being subtle enough with this technique of linking characters. There are several other moments when characters question the validity of other characters, often due to the same reasons a reader would criticize Mitchell. This ability to poke fun at himself and openly address his own shortcomings gave me a far greater respect for him. He accepts that his ideas are not entirely original and counters anyone who might complain it has all been done before. Cavendish speaks for Mitchell with
”as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber. As if Art is the What, not the How!
He wants to direct your attention to his form and writing, not just his plot and originality. He repeatedly bashes critics and the masses, essentially stating that if you don’t get this novel, then you’re not smart enough to deserve to read his work. It made me laugh.

With all his cleverness and metafictional genius, Mitchell does have a few flaws that should be addressed. The main one being subtlety. He does apologize for it and poke fun at himself, but some of the major themes in this novel did not need to be called out directly. They were easily detectable in between the lines, yet Mitchell has each main character spell them out in dialogue. He seems to want to reward the clever reader, yet at times pauses and hits you over the head as if he doesn’t think you can understand. It worked since he had each character do it, applying the message of The Will to Power and the strong killing the weak to each characters situation to create a sense of symmetry, but it was ultimately superfluous, but this being my only real criticism, Mitchell isn't doing too bad. The issue of subtlety is where Calvino gets an upper hand on Mitchell, as his novel was a bit more controlled in its message and layering of meanings. Cloud Atlas is a bit more accessible than If on a winter's... but the latter is a slightly superior work in my opinion. Both novels should enter your "to read list" however.

All in all, this novel is a brilliant puzzle filled with exciting characters, entertaining dialogue, and throws enough loops to keep you guessing. You will find it very difficult to put this novel down. Mitchell achieves his goal of transcending conventions and addressing the broad scope of humanity and is at times bitter, funny, frightening, paranoid, and downright tragic. Cloud Atlas is a must read, and although much of it may come across as “been there, read that”, he still keeps it fresh and unique. Plus this novel really rewards a careful reading and a bit of researching, as many of the jokes will be lost on those who don’t have a good grounding in the classics. Make sure to have a pen handy, as there are plenty of mesmerizing quotes to return to and ponder, especially in the second half of the novel. David Mitchell is most definitely an author to be read and admired.”Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime” writes Frobisher, and this novel envisions a plausible, horrific future that doesn’t seem all that much different than the past. Mitchell gives us this novel as a warning, and I do hope we take it to heart. I wish this novel had credits like at the end of the film just so Reckoner by Radiohead could blast my eardrums as final lines sunk in. It would be perfect.
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
602 reviews609 followers
August 15, 2012
On re-reading in 2012...

I admit, the surpringsingly-and-terrifyingly-not-awful trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of this book sent me plunging back into its hexapalindromic universe to re-solidify my own mental renditions of Frobisher's bicycle, Sonmi's soap packs, and Lousia's imaginary California, among other things. I emerge even more impressed with Mitchell's mimetic acrobatics, the book's deft allusive integument ("Is not ascent their sole salvation?" p. 512), the acrimonious satire ("if consumers are satisfied with their lives at any meaningful level [...] plutocracy is finished" p. 348), and, ultimately, the nakedly deliberate messages about humanity's will to power and our capacity for empathy re-re-re-re-re-reiterated in the second half. I kept wishing Lousia or Cavendish or someone one would say "Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!" but not wishing in a snarky cynical judgy kind of way! Because I actually think Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is pretty... excellent (and come to think of it, is also a story set in multiple time periods with strong musical undertones and a message of peace, love, and happiness...). This book grants me one of the greatest pleasures a book can: it restores profundity to a hackneyed truth. If you're not into Mitchell's prose, characters, or fancy-schmancy structure, though, you might just end up with the hackneyed bit.

Old review from 2006

This, Sir, is a Novel. I don't think I've read anything so surprisingly excellent since Jonathan Strange Mr Norell. Actually, I have. What I meant to say is that I've read nothing so marvelously epic since then. As usual, my attempts to explain it to people have met with polite nods and changed subjects, but let me try: the book is like 6 perfect little novellas, arranged as Russian matroyshka dolls, and as you read, you bore in, and bore back out. Each doll is a different period in time, the outermost being in the early 19th century, the latest being somewhere around 2200 (I think). Four of the six are out and out genre pieces: historical maritime fiction, crime novel, dystopian scifi, and post-apocalyptic scifi, with all their various tropes rendered with loving affection. But they are just written, so, well that they are simply irresistible. I only wish I could find single genre novels that were as perfectly crafted as a single portion of this book. The pieces placed in the 1930s and the present day are also wonderful, but certainly aren't the type of fare I normally seek out.

But yes, exceedingly well written. What's it about? Well, there's the the journal of an American notary returning home from the Chatham Islands aboard a morally suspect ship in the 1830s; a young quasi-rake of a composer cuckolding an older colleague while helping him write new works, who documents his dalliances and mishaps in letters to his former lover; there's a true-story thriller about a Californian journalist in the 1970s attempting to out a corrupt and deadly energy company for squelching a safety report damning their new nuclear energy plant; the soon-to-be-filmed chronicles of a publisher in the present day whose attempts to escape the extortionist cronies of his gangster star author land him in a Draconian nursing home from which he cannot escape; there's the not-too-distant future testimony of a Korean clone bred for service in a fast food joint but who, via the machinations of forces many and penumbral, gains full consciousness; and finally (in the sweet and creamy middle) the Huck Finnish tale of a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian "primitive" and the "civilized" researcher sent to study his society. Whew! The characters of each story find themselves reading their predecessor, and sometimes characters overlap a very, very little. Each story features a character with the same birth mark, and they all seem to experience deja vu from characters in other stories. See? Now it sounds corny. But I swear to you, it is cool.

I guess the book is primarily about the will to power. Slavery and subjugation, small personal cruelties, corporate greed. It's sort of like the anti-Fountainhead, except much more fun to read. I don't know. Dissecting fiction about giant apes comes much more naturally to me. Please read this book so, at the very least, you can explain it to me.
Profile Image for Kris.
175 reviews1,509 followers
July 25, 2014
All autumn, with the release date of movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas fast approaching, interest in the novel among my Goodreads friends has been high. I have not seen many subdued reactions. Fans of Mitchell discuss his ability adeptly to assume so many different voices and styles, the intricacy of the novel’s structure, and the relevance of its themes for today. Detractors have dismissed Cloud Atlas as gimmicky, a work by a much-hyped writer who is showing off his style but neglecting to anchor it in themes of substance. And some readers simply found his shifts in voice tedious.

I recently re-read Cloud Atlass, bearing in mind both reactions to the novel. I also remembered my first time reading it. I was mesmerized by Mitchell’s ability to pay homage to six very different genres and voices in the six novellas that make up Cloud Atlas. I delighted in tracing connections and interconnections among the different sections of the novel. I was entranced by Mitchell’s high wire act.

Mitchell structures Cloud Atlas as follows: six novellas are organized in chronological order. The first five break off abruptly in the middle of their respective stories. The sixth novella, “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” appears in its entirety in the center of the novel. After its conclusion, Mitchell moves in reverse chronological order through the remaining five novellas, bringing each to a conclusion, but also providing numerous points of connection and resonance among all six novellas.

The novellas are as follows:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: tracing the travels of Adam Ewing, a notary, who is sailing to Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s, and who comes face to face with human greed on individual and communal levels;
Letters from Zedelghem: the composer Robert Frobisher writing to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, about his experiences in post-World War I Belgium as he seeks fame and fortune while negotiating a precarious relationship with a famous composer at the end of his career;
Halflives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: Luisa Rey, a young investigative reporter, seeks to carry out her father’s legacy while combating the corporate greed and corruption of Seaboard Power Inc. in Reagan-era California;
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: a vanity publisher gains and loses a fortune, and loses his freedom, in England;
An Orison of Sonmi-451: Sonmi-451, a genetically modified being or fabricant, shares her memories of her quest for knowledge and her fight against government-sanctioned murder in the name of corporate greed;
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After: Zachry, a Pacific Islander who is a member of the Valleymen, tells about his experiences with Meronym, a Prescient, as they seek past knowledge and combat the savagery of the Kona and devastation by plague in the future.

With my second reading of the novel, I delved deeper than focusing on its structure. I focused on themes. Did Mitchell have the content to support his style and technique, or was Cloud Atlas all style and no substance? After a careful re-reading, I concluded that Mitchell’s approach to writing Cloud Atlas is successful, not simply as an exercise in writing style, but because the style and structure support his exploration of central themes, of critical importance to 21st-century readers.

Knowledge in Cloud Atlas: History, Language, Belief, Memory, and Forgetting

In a 2004 interview in the Washington Post, David Mitchell provided some insight into his main interests in writing Cloud Atlas. After reading a reference to the Moriori in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Mitchell became fascinated with the tribe, who lived in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. He researched them and visited the Chatham Islands as well. The Moriori appear in Cloud Atlas, as Ewing meets them and attempts to come to terms with the many forces that overpower them: Western missionaries in search of souls, whalers in search of profit, and Maori exercising their power over the Moriori through force. However, as Mitchell describes, the Moriori’s influence appears throughout the novel, as a main influence for a central theme: “Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori ‘forgot’ the existence of any other land and people but their own.” This led to Mitchell’s first theme in Cloud Atlas: how does knowledge transform over time, from generation to generation? How are we shaped, not only by what we remember from the past, but also by what we forget or rework? Why is it so important for us to be able to tell stories about the past, and to know the conclusion of those stories? Mitchell’s interest was fueled in part by his being a father, and wondering what the future would hold for his child, but also by his interest in history.

Moriori people, 1877

Spirit Grove- Hapupu, Chatham Islands

As a novelist, Mitchell explores these questions while also paying homage to different genres of writing, and in some cases specific books that were particularly inspiring to him. (See the Washington Post interview linked above for a list of these influences.) However, these voices are not simply an opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to shapeshift as a writer. A quotation from this interview gave me insights into the significance of the different voices that he adopts in Cloud Atlas: “I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred.” He is not simply showing off his chops as a writer when he adopts six different voices in Cloud Atlas--instead, he is creating new worlds, painting pictures of cultures with words. In doing so, he considers the knowledge these cultures retained and the knowledge they lost from the past. If you read closely and carefully, you can see how language is shifting over time, particularly in the novel’s central section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’.” Some readers found this section to be painful to read, but I loved the challenge of diving into Zachry’s language, identifying unfamiliar words, and considering what social factors led to their creation. I felt like an ethnographer, listening carefully to stories told by an informant from a very different world, and finding clues to recreate that world. That quest to understand, and the impact of discovering points I had in common with Zachry, speak to a larger theme -- continuity in some aspects of human culture over time, and the necessity of preserving and understanding the past as much as possible, even as it recedes from us in time.

The title of the novel, Cloud Atlas, itself ties back to Mitchell’s conception of history. We think of an atlas as a book that guides us through unfamiliar terrain and captures the contours of mountains and valleys, the depths of seas and lakes. An atlas of clouds suggests something much more ephemeral -- clouds are constantly moving, shifting, transforming, and eventually dissipating into the ether. Mitchell’s conception of history is built on a sense of constant movement and change. Even as we try to capture the past in works of history, literature, and art, we change and transform its meaning to fit our present.

In the Luisa Rey story, the engineer Isaac Sachs outlines this view of history as he takes notes during a plane ride:.
• …. The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
• The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)
• Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too. We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams. This virtual future may influence the actual future, as in a self fulfilling prophecy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today. Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.
• Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows—the actual pas —from another such simulacrum—the actual future?
• One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

Throughout Cloud Atlas, Mitchell develops this depiction of the interplay of the actual and virtual past and the actual and virtual future in shaping the present. In doing so, he leaves the door open for societies to shape their actual futures through this process of creation and reinterpretation. However, one important limitation on their ability to do so for the better is the ubiquitous influence of power dynamics across human societies, past, present, and future.

The Will to Power in Cloud Atlas

This interest in history leads another of Mitchell’s themes in Cloud Atlas: the centrality of acquisitiveness, of the drive to acquire and possess, to the human experience throughout time. He takes a broad approach to exploring this force, as explained in his Washington Post interview: “Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas.”

Mitchell is not alone in focusing on wanting, getting, and giving as main factors forming human relationships, and shaping history. Anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss in The Gift have explored the role of gift exchange in fostering relationships, and in determining power dynamics, in human societies. Historians have looked at these elements from a broader perspective, particularly in studies of colonialism in the early modern and modern world. Investigative reporters uncover instances of the abuse of power, as measured by wealth and influence. Wherever we turn, our past and present are shaped by power relations and the desire to possess -- wealth, political influence, land, beautiful objects, and people. What does this mean for our future?

In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell explores power in many manifestations. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” provides a deep exploration of the intersections of colonial interests and local power struggles and how they affected the lives of the Moriori, whose commitment to peaceful interactions with their neighbors were no protection against the combined forces of missionaries, whalers, and the Maori: “What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.”

Portrait of New Zealand man

Reception of Captain Cook in Hapaee

Robert Frobisher confronts power on two scales: on an individual level, he experiences the combined forces of sexual power and greed in his interactions with Vyvyan Ayrs and his wife Jocasta. As Ayrs tells him in a final confrontation: “Any society’s upper crust is riddled with immorality-- how else d’you think they keep their power?” He also explores power in a world-scale through attempts to come to terms with World War One:

“What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be..... Our will to power, our science, and those very faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Homo sapiens before this century is out!”

Sonmi-451 provides another perspective on the evolution of conflict and wars, showing that the basic dynamics are not different in her future:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. My fifth Declaration posits how, in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful. In corpocracy, this means the Juche. What is willed by the Juche is the tidy xtermination of a fabricant underclass.

Meronym provides a cautionary perspective on the future that may await us in our zeal to acquire power in all its forms:

The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.
Oh, her words was a rope o’ smoke. But Old Uns’d got the Smart!
I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin.
Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an boil up the seas an poison soil with crazed atoms an donkey ’bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an the Civ’lize Days ended, ’cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.

Image from Riddley Walker, inspiration for Sloosha’s Crossin’

Is there any form of power than can combat corporate and governmental power and greed? Luisa Rey presents another form of power: that of public outrage, driven by the media, which can provide a counterweight to greed that acts against the public interest. However, what happens when the media is co-opted by the same corporate powers which it should be scrutinizing?:

Van Zandt’s bookshelf-lined office is as neat as Grelsch’s is chaotic. Luisa’s host is finishing up. “The conflict between corporations and activists is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance. The corporations have money, power, and influence. Our sole weapon is public outrage. Outrage blocked the Yuccan Dam, ousted Nixon, and in part, terminated the monstrosities in Vietnam. But outrage is unwieldy to manufacture and handle. First, you need scrutiny; second, widespread awareness; only when this reaches a critical mass does public outrage explode into being. Any stage may be sabotaged. The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers. They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media—and not just The Washington Post—is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”

The Individual and the Forces of History: Is There Hope For Our Future?

After considering the kaleidoscope of human power and greed in Cloud Atlas, are we left with any hope for the future, or is Mitchell leaving us with a pessimistic prognosis? Cloud Atlas provides a staggering exploration of different manifestations of power and greed over centuries of human history: colonialism, missionary activity, 19th-century whaling, the modern quest for fame and fortune, and corporate greed, to name a few.

In spite of these dark depictions of the negative influence of the human quest for power, Mitchell does provide some hope that individuals can and do make a difference. Luisa Rey and her allies uncover the publicize the deception and danger of Seaboard Power Inc.. Zachry and Meronym band together and manage to survive plague and attacks from the Kona. Sonmi-451 sacrifices herself for the good of the fabricants, and lives on in the religious practices of the Old Uns and the studies of the Prescients. Fittingly, Mitchell gives Adam Ewing the last word, as he reflects on his experiences after his rescue from poisoning and drowning:

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.
[W]hat is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Just as Mitchell channels his concerns about his son's future through Ewing's words, so does he provide us with a clear sense of how critical our individual choices are in shaping our own children's future. Individuals are not swept aside by the forces of history--one by one, we make up these forces. The actual future of our species and our planet is in our hands. Will we act for a just world, or sit back and contribute to the demise of our planet through inaction, or greed, or cowardice? These pivotal questions, and this critical choice, give Cloud Atlas its power.

Profile Image for karen.
3,997 reviews171k followers
June 23, 2018
**okay - i have actually written a "review" for this book, all you early bird voters! feel free to take back your picture-votes if you hate my words (and by "feel free," i mean "don't you dare!!")**

why have i never read this book before??


do you see how it is wedged into a teetering, lode-bearing stack of books??

removing it was a tricky business, indeed, but i succeeded, and i am finally reading it. so thank you for badgering me about it, internet, because so far, i am really enjoying it!!!


the other day, when i was still a whopping 60 pages from finishing this book, greg shoved me out from in front of my work-computer to revisit his review of the book.he muttered aloud "why does anyone even read my reviews. karen, don't ever let me compare a book to a mobius strip again."

and he is both correct and incorrect. because it is a good review, but the book ain't nothing like a mobius strip.

finnegan's wake is a true mobius. infinite jest is a motheaten mobius, with key scenes lost along the way. this is more of a parabola, or the first hill in a rolly coaster. if the rolly-coaster ride-as descriptor weren't so trite, i would explore that here: how at first, you didn't quite know what you were getting into, as you made your ascent, but then, once you got to the top and could see what was coming, you just couldn't read through it quickly enough, and there was excitement and screams and probably some of the weaker readers vomited into their laps. but it is indeed trite, so i won't make the comparison at all.

i can understand the accusations of gimmickry. although as we are learning here on goodreads, gimmicks pay off, no? even the ones with no substance. and if this was just structure without substance, i would completely agree with mitchell's detractors. if it were just a series of short stories, butterflied and stacked on top of each other to form a book, it would be less appealing than it is in reality.

because they do bounce off of each other, the stories. they sneak into each others' worlds both thematically, and more overtly, like foraging little mice on mouse-missions. sometimes they are each others' stories. calvino, borges, arabian nights, david lynch - i can trot out all the expected names if you aren't tired of reading them.but this is something all its own. and i am sure that a second reading would do me a world of good at identifying even more of these echoes. this is a book that pretty much demands a second pass, which i will gladly give.

mitchell addresses the accusations of gimmickry before they are even made, in the novel itself:

spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, '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. revolutionary or gimmicky? shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.

and i love that - his anticipation of his own critics. yummy.

so - yeah - absolutely read this book if you have been dragging your feet over it. but beware - some of the stories are going to be much more captivating than others. i would read an entire book about frobisher, for example.

people are obscenities. would rather be music than be a mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it'll no longer function.


i will definitely read this book again.

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Profile Image for Nataliya.
855 reviews14.2k followers
April 25, 2023
I was a third into this book and I could not care less about it. It didn't seem we were meant to be.

Then suddenly my heart was aching for the characters and their stories, and it did catch me by surprise.

And now it's been a week since I finished it, and I still find myself thinking about it. 'Okay, you win, book!' I have to admit grudgingly. You've wormed your way into my heart and I'd better make my peace with it.

Why did I resist liking it so much? Why did this book and I have such a rocky start to our relationship? Sheesh, let me think about it as I lie here on the imaginary psychiatrist's couch in Freudian times.

You see, its 'revolutionary structure' and all - it is basically six stories, five of which are arranged like concentric rings around one central uninterrupted story, slowly moving from A to Z as the stories go along (from Adam to Zachry), - leads even the author to question, "Revolutionary or gimmicky?"
And I say - gimmicky, my friend. Jarring, unnecessary, trying too hard and yet being needlessly distracting.

(Hey, you can also compare this book to the rings a raindrop makes in still waters. See, I can be allegorically poetic when need arises).

Would I have been easier for me to love it had it come simply as a collection of six stories related by the larger overarching theme? Perhaps. But we cannot always chose what the things we love look like, can we? Sometimes they just have to have that incredibly annoying anvil-heavy comet-shaped birthmark, and I have to make my peace with it.
"Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be. War, Robert, is one of humanity's two eternal companions."
This book is a message, yes. About the never-ending power struggle that seems to be inherent to humanity, that drives it forward - until one day it perhaps drives it to the brink of demise. It's about the amazing resilience of humanity that bends but never breaks under the never-ending forward march of the power struggle. It is about our seemingly inevitable separation into the opposing camps - the oppressors and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots, justifying those sometimes murky and sometimes crisp division lines with the arbitrary but hard-to-overturn notions of superiority and entitlement. It is also about the never-ending human struggle against such division, in one form or another.
"But, Adam, the world is wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. The weak are meat, the strong do eat."


The first/last story of Adam and the central/middle story of Zachry (again, A to Z! See how smart I am? See? Can I please have a cookie now?) provide the real framework to this story, mirroring each other and reflecting off each other in the repeated motifs of tribal wars and slaughter and the meeting of 'developed' and 'primitive' nations, told from the viewpoints of members of first one and then another and underscoring essential humanity below all the superstitions and prejudices and mistrust. The revelations at which both Adam and Zachry arrive are simple and perhaps overly moralistic, but still relevant and humane. And despite the moralistic heavy-handedness, I loved them.
"Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction."
As for the rest of the stories, David Mitchell plays with every genre and style he can imagine, trying to fully immerse himself in the period, real or imaginary, that he chooses to describe - with mixed results, at least for me.

I hate to say it, but Robert Frobisher's story (the composer of the titular Cloud Atlas musical piece) left me cold. Luisa Rey's pulpy cheap prose held my attention only for the first half of the story and Timothy Cavendish's flowery adventure - only for the second. Sonmi-451 for the first half of the story was delightfully reminding me of The Windup Girl that I loved, and fell flat in the rushed second part. It almost felt that some of these stories were too large for the limited amount of space Mitchell could give them, and they would have been benefited from expansion.

But the Sloosha Crossing story - Zachry's tale - won me over completely, once I got over the migraine induced by overabundance of apostrophes in this futuristic simplistic dialect. S'r's'l'y', Mr. Mitchell, there had to have been some perhaps less 'authentic' but also less headache-causing way to tell this story. But I got over the initial defensive response and allowed myself to enjoy this scary postapocalyptic setting which in so many ways reminded me of The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya. There is just something that I love about the postapocalyptic primitive society setup, something that speaks to me while terrifying me to death at the same time, and this story had plenty of that.

And now, apparently, there will be a movie, which explains why everyone and their grandma is reading this book now, getting me on the bandwagon as well. The movie, that from the trailer seems to be focusing on the part that made me eye-roll (just like it made Mr. Cavendish, editing Luisa Rey manuscript!) - that damn souls connectedness bit. I thought the hints at it were unnecessary dramatic; to me enough of a connection came from all of the characters belonging to our troubled and yet resilient human race. But to each their own.
"He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

4 stars is the final verdict. And maybe someday in the future I will reread it being prepared for the gimmicky structure, and I will not let it annoy me, and I will maybe give it five stars. I would love that!

Recommended by: Kris
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
634 reviews5,757 followers
October 25, 2023
“I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it.”
– Mae West

That is one of my favorite quotes, and it accurately describes David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Utilizing a unique format, Cloud Atlas reads like a collection of short stories – the narrative thread is almost imperceptible, how these stories are connected.

The brilliance of this novel didn’t reveal itself until the last half of the book, and the beginning has more vocab words than the SAT test.

As a result of the structure, the characters were unevenly spaced, and when they reappeared, we should have been given a little tickler to get us to remember where we left off.

My battered copy of Atlas Shrugged had some v. interesting censorship. “Drink your own p--- if you get a thirst.” What utter nonsense! In the audiobook, this censorship was unceremoniously dropped. Thank G--!

Cloud Atlas is a sophisticated, ambitious novel with sublime characters, nailing the three elements of a perfect morally grey character: intelligence, great quotes, and humor. Allow me to leave you with a few of these quotes.

“Tapped on the pane and asked in French if she’d save my life by falling in love with me. Shook her head but got an amused smile.”

“Asked if I could borrow a policeman’s bicycle for an indefinite period. Told me that was most irregular. Assured him that I was most irregular.”

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Profile Image for Lyn.
1,917 reviews16.9k followers
February 4, 2020
Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield sit having breakfast in a diner discussing, among other things, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Jules: Well we'd have to be talkin' about one charming mother*****' pig. I mean he'd have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I'm sayin'?

[Both laugh]

Vincent: Awright, check this out; I just finished reading this book called Cloud Atlas.

Jules: Cloud Atlas? What the f*** is that?

Vincent: It’s a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds. Early cloud atlases were an important element in the training of meteorologists and in weather forecasting, but that’s not the point, I’m talking about a book I read.

Jules: You’re always reading books, even in the john.

Vincent: Yeah, OK, but here’s the thing, this book tells six intricately connected stories that revolves around a central connection.

Jules: Explain.

Vincent: Ok, here’s how it works. It starts out with a guy in the 1800s on a whaling ship, or some s***, and then it just ends, just stops in the middle of the sentence and then jumps to the next story, in 1931 England.

Jules: So what’s that got to do with the dude in the 1800s?

Vincent: That’s what I’m trying to tell you, but listen, OK, then the story shifts to 1975 and this chick who is investigating energy corporation crime and this scientist who gets chased for writing a report.

Jules: Go on.

Vincent: Then it shifts to the future and this old guy in England who’s getting pinched by these small time hoods –

Jules: Stop, just stop, you’ve already f****** lost me.

Vincent: [laughing] I know, I know, but wait, then the story shifts to even further in the future to Korea and where people are made, produced, manufactured, whatever the f*** to be slaves, like working in McDonald’s, except it’s not McDonald’s it like a future Chinese McDonald’s –

Jules: Serving up a Royale wit cheese!

[Both laugh]

Vincent: Right, right, so then it shifts to way far in the future and I think it’s on Hawaii and they speak this pigeon English –

Jules: OK, ok, wait. Hold the f*** up, why does the author keep shifting stories, what the hell point is all this?

Vincent: I’m getting to that, see here’s the thing, I think all the people in the each story might be reincarnated and all really the same person, or soul, or whatever.

Jules: Reincarnated? Goddamn! But … that may be something upon which I can ponder as I walk the earth. I’ve dreamed before that I was a master swordsman in an alien world, like a samurai master, except my sword was shining purple.

Vincent: Right, but then, see, he goes back and finishes all six stories, going back from future Hawaii, to the Chinese girl –

Jules: Thought you said she was Korean?

Vincent: Whatever, then to the old guy, then the girl in California in the 70s to the English musician and then back to the dude in the 1800s.

Jules: Man, that’s some f***** up s***, did you pick this up in Amsterdam?

Vincent: No, but the coolest thing is the structure, it’s where, OK, it’s like he doesn’t tell the story in a lineal pattern like most books, but all mixed up, but they’re all still connected together, really all telling one big story.

Jules: Alright, I can see that. That is pretty cool, kinda familiar too.

Vincent: Right, right, and by doing so the writer creates a dramatic tension between each segment, adding depth and interest to an already cool story. Also, Mitchell changes his writing style to match whichever story he’s doing.

Pumpkin: [Standing up with a gun] All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!

Honey Bunny: Any of you f****** pricks move, and I'll execute every mother****** last one of ya!

Profile Image for Fabian.
977 reviews1,923 followers
September 9, 2020
One of the most outstanding, hugely epic literary sagas ever. There seem to be six distinct writers in "Cloud Atlas"--distinct, original, "where the heck did these EVEN come from?"-type tableaux: their compilation suggesting that the boundaries of writing are endless. Mitchell is authentic in every story. These really are "found objects" placed in blatant, cunning contrast with each other. But that they were all borne from one fountainhead--from one single and chameleonic (probably the most chameleonic I have encountered since Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa's) mind--this is the reason the novel is now a classic.

The movie is a very adequate companion piece, as the myriad loose ends are genuinely brought forth & rendered poetic. Really truly & madly love 'em both!
Profile Image for Jason.
137 reviews2,532 followers
January 29, 2015
At the Museum of Science in Boston, there is an exhibit just outside the doors of the Planetarium that demonstrates—through a series of adjacent panels—the scale of the Earth in relation to the universe at large. The first panel shows the Earth’s location in the Solar System (as a microscopic dot, mind you), which is followed by a second panel showing the Solar System’s location in the Milky Way (also microscopic). The third panel is of the galaxy’s location in its Supercluster or whateverthefuck it’s called, and so forth and so on, concluding with a final panel depicting the entire observable universe. Reading Cloud Atlas is like zooming out from a point on the Earth to the edge of the universe and then back in again, as represented by those aforementioned panels. Do we need a visual aid?
This novel, of course, has little to do with the cosmos, but the analogy is fitting for describing the vastness of its scope. It is a hugely ambitious novel connecting characters through space and time, from Adam Ewing’s mid-nineteenth century voyage from the Chatham Islands to Sonmi~451’s ascent to sentience at an indeterminate period in Korea’s future, and several places in between. The novel then goes even further into the future, so far in fact that it becomes indistinguishable from the past, and like the reverse zoom in the video above, the novel collapses back in on itself, ending exactly where it began.
“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.”
Cloud Atlas is about human slavery and captivity as it exists in all its forms, at all points in time. Throughout history, humans have enslaved each other on the basis of skin color and racial background, religious beliefs and cultural or ethnic differences. The weak have been enslaved to the strong, the old to the young, and the poor to the well-to-do. This novel goes a step further by exploring the concept of knowledge and how it relates to the socioeconomic hierarchy of the future. Knowledge is all that separates us from savagery, and yet it is our most transient asset. I am probably making this book sound like a course in sociology, though it is anything but. Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly constructed novel delineating the cyclicality of human civilization and it is written by someone who has immediately become one of my favorite authors. In fact, David Mitchell’s only flaw is that he is indecisive. Unable to choose among the various genres of fiction available, he ends up...writing them all! Cloud Atlas is historical fiction, it is a dark comedy, it is a crime thriller, it is science fiction, it is a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

The middle chapter, while the most difficult to read, is easily my favorite. In Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, humanity’s perpetual quest for domination provides the very spark needed to create and sustain civilization. However, this quest is a double-edged sword that becomes its own downfall, since domination is a self-defeating goal, and it is this downfall that ultimately causes civilization to collapse. But despite its bleak forecasts, Cloud Atlas inspires a glimmer of hope for our future, for as insignificant as one person may be, as much as one fathoms his life to have no impact greater than that of a single drop in a limitless ocean, the question is posed: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

milky way
The Milky Way’s Galactic Center
© 2009 Serge Brunier, The Sky of the Earth
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews149 followers
September 2, 2021
(Book 13 From 1001 Books) - Cloud Atlas, David (Stephen) Mitchell

The book consists of six nested stories; each is read or observed by a main character of the next, thus they progress in time through the central sixth story.

The first five stories are each interrupted at a pivotal moment. After the sixth story, the others are closed in reverse chronological order, with the main character reading or observing the chronologically earlier work in the chain. Each story contains a document, movie, or tradition that appears in an earlier story.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز بیست و چهارم ماه آگوست سال 2014میلادی

عنوان: اطلس ابر؛ اثر: دیوید میچل؛ مترجم: علی منصوری، مشخصات نشر تهران، روزگار، 1392، در 680ص، شابک 9789643744816؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان بریتانیا - سده ی 21م

داستان ویژگیها، و شباهت انسانها را، در شش عصر ناهمگون به تصویر خیال میکشد؛ عبارت «اطلس»، در میتولوژی «یونان»، نام یکی از گروه «تایتان»هاست، که نافرمانی آغاز کردند، آنگاه خدایان، «اطلس» را کیفر دادند، تا کره ی زمین را بر سر و با شانه های خویش حمل کند؛ «پرسیوس» را بر وی رحمت آمد، و او را به کوههایی انتقال داد، کوههای مزبور، همان جبال «اطلس» هستند، که بدان سبب به نام وی خوانده شده اند؛ در سده ی شانزده میلادی، که در «اروپا» کتابهای «جغرافیا»، با نقشه انتشار یافت، صورت «اطلس» را، بر پشت جلد کتابها، ترسیم کردند، در حالیکه ایشان کره ی زمین را حمل میکند، و از آن پس، کتابهای نقشه جغرافیا را «اطلس» خواندند؛ فیلمی نیز با اقتباس از همین کتاب ساخته شده است، فیلمنامه از شش داستان جداگانه، و برای شش دوره ی زمانی متفاوت، نوشته شده است؛ «یک - سال 1849میلادی...؛ سفری بر امواج دریا؛ از جزایر اقیانوس آرام تا سان فرانسیسکو»؛ «دو - سال 1936میلادی، کمبریج، شاهکار بدنام»؛ «سه - سال 1973میلادی سانفرانسیسکو؛ حقیقت پر هزینه»؛ «چهار - سال 2012میلادی، لندن؛ قتلی تأثیر گذار»؛ «پنج – سال 2144میلادی، سئول؛ انقلابی متفاوت»؛ «شش – یکصد و شصت سال پس از پایان دنیا؛ اینک اخر الزمان».؛

نقل از متن: (روزنوشتهای «آدام اِوینگ» از اقیانوس آرام جنوبی، پنجشنبه، هفت نوامبرــ آنسوی دهکده­ ی سرخپوستان، در ساحلی متروک، به رد پاهای جدیدی برخوردم؛ از میان جلبکها و نارگیلهای دریاییِ گندیده و بامبوها، ردپاها مرا به صاحب خود رساندند؛ مردی سفید پوست، با پاچه ها و آستینهای تا خورده، ریشی مرتب، و یک کلاه خز فوق ­العاده بزرگ؛ با چنان دقت و جدیتی با یک قاشق چای­خوری مشغول کندن، و الک کردن ماسه­ ی خاکستری بود که تا وقتی از فاصله­ ی ده یاردی، به او سلام کردم، متوجه حضورم نشد؛ اینگونه بود که با جناب «دکتر هنری گوس»، جراحی از نجبای لندن آشنا شدم؛ ملیت او برایم تعجب ­آور نبود؛ چرا که هیچ آشیانه­ ی متروک یا جزیره­ ی دور افتاده ­ای نیست که پای یک انگلیسی به آن نرسیده باشد، حتی نقاطی که روی هیچ نقشه­ ای قابل مشاهده نباشند

آیا جناب دکتر در این ساحل نکبت­بار چیزی گم کرده بودند؟ آیا من می­توانستم کمکی به ایشان بکنم؟ «دکتر گوس» سرش را تکان داد و گره دستمالش را باز کرد و با غروری آشکار محتویات آن را نشان داد؛ «دندان، جناب، این جامهای مینایی، هدف جستجوی بنده هستند؛ در سالیان گذشته این کرانه ­ی روستایی محل سورچرانی آدمخواران بوده، بله، جایی که قوی­ترها، ضعیف­ترها را می­بلعیدند، و دندانها را به بیرون تف می­کرده­ اند، همانطور که جنابعالی یا بنده هسته­ ی گیلاس را تف می­کنیم؛ اما این دندانهای آسیاب، حضرت آقا، تبدیل به طلا خواهد شد؛ چطور؟ یک صنعتگر خیابان پیکادلی که برای نجیبزادگان دندان عاریه ­ای می­سا،زد مبلغ سخاوتمندا نه­ای برای دندن های انسان می­پردا؛د. می­دانید با یک چهارم پوند از این دندن ها چقدر عایدم می­شود، قربان؟»؛

اعتراف کردم که نمی­دانم

من هم به شما نمی­گویم قربان، چون که این از اسرار حرفه ا­ست!» دماغش را مالید؛ «جناب اِوینگ، شما با زوجه ­ی مارکیز گریس اهلِ مِی­فیر آشنا هستید؟ خیر؟ خوش به سعادتان، چرا که او لاشه ­ای­ست در لباس زنانه؛ پنج سال از لکه دار شدن نام من توسط این عجوزه ­ی نابکار می­گذرد، بله، چیزی که منجر به تحریم شدن من توسط اشراف شد،» دکتر «گوس» نگاهش را به دریا دوخت

آوارگی من از همان ساعت شوم آغاز شد

به دکتر گوس ابراز همدردی کردم

ممنونم قربان، ممنون، اما این دندانها -دستمالش را تکان داد- «فرشته ها­ی رستگاری من ­اند؛ اجازه دهید توضیح دهم؛ زوجه­ ی مارکیز از دندانهایی عاریه ­ای استفاده می­کند، که پزشک مذکور آنها را می­سازد؛ کریسمس بعد، زمانی که آن زن احمق ضیافت مجللش را با حضور سران حکومتی و اشراف ترتیب دهد، من، هنری گوس، از جایم برخواهم خواست و به همگان اعلام خواهم کرد که میزبان­مان با دندانهای آدمخواران مشغول جویدن غذایش است! قابل پیش ­بینی­ است که سِر هوبارت با من به مخالفت می­پردازد؛ آن دهاتی فریاد خواهد کشید «شواهدت را ارائه کن، یا صدایت را ببر.» من خواهم گفت: «شواهد، سر هوبارت؟ آه، من خودم دندانهای مادرتان را از یک سلف­دانی در اقیانوس آرام جنوبی جمع کردم؛ اینجا، قربان، این هم تعدادی از رفقای­ آنها! و دندانها را توی ظرف سوپ­خوری آن زن خالی می­کنم، و اینکار حضرت آقا آتش انتقامم را فرو می­نشاند! بذله­ گویان مارکیزِ بیروح را در روزنامه های­شان به سخره خواهند کشید و تا یک فصل بعد او خیلی خوش اقبال خواهد بود حتی اگر به ضیافت فقرا دعوت شود!»؛

با عجله با هنری گوس وداع کردم. خیال می­کنم او مجنون باشد

جمعه، هشت نوامبر- در کارگاه کشتی ­سازی ساده­ ی زیر پنجره­­ ی اتاقم، کار ساخت تیر دکل کشتی تحت نظارت جناب واکر در جریان است؛ یگانه میخانه ­دارِ اُوشن بِی که همچنین تاجرِ عمده­ ی الوار نیز هست و در مورد سالها تجربه­ اش به عنوان یک استاد کشتی ­ساز در لیورپول لاف می­زند؛ (آنقدر از آداب و رسوم این نواحی سرم می­شود که بتوانم چنین دروغ بعیدی را تشخیص دهم.) جناب اِسکاید به من گفتند که یک هفته­ ی تمام تا اتمام کار و تحویل «پرافِتِس» باقی مانده؛ هفت روز دیگر سر کردن در «ماسکت»، حکم شومی به نظر می­رسد، با این حال وقتی به یاد نیش هولناک طوفان و ملوانانی افتادم که در کشتی از دست دادیم، بداقبالی کنونی­ در نظرم جلوه­ اش را از دست داد

امروز در پلکان به دکتر گوس برخوردم، و صبحانه را با هم خوردیم؛ او از اواسط اکتبر در ماسکت ساکن است؛ یعنی بعد از این که با یک کشتی تجاری برزیلی به نام «نامورادوس» از فیجی به اینجا آمده؛ در فیجی او به طبابت مشغول بوده و حالا هم منتظر رسیدن یک کشتی شکار سیل استرالیایی با نام «نِلی» ا­ست که مدتها از موعد آمدنش می­گذرد، و می­خواهد با آن به سیدنی برود؛ از مستعمره هم با یک کشتی مسافربری خود را به زادگاهش لندن میرساند

قضاوت من درباره­ ی دکتر گوس عجولانه و غیرمنصفانه بود؛ در حرفه­ ی من آدم باید همچون دیوژن، بدبین و کلبی مسلک باشد، اما کلبی مسلک بودن هم می­تواند چشم آدم را به روی خصوصیات ظریف­تر ببندد؛ دکتر غرابتهای خاص خود را دارد و تنها با یک جرعه پیسکوی پرتغالی (زیاده­ روی نمی­کند)، تک تک آنها را برمی­شمرد، اما ضمانت می­دهم که او باید یگانه نجیب­زاده­ ی دیگر در عرض جغرافیایی شرق سیدنی و غرب والپریسو باشد؛ شاید حتی برای­اش معرفی­نامه­ ای به خانواده­ ی پاتریج­ در سیدنی بنویسم، چرا که دکتر گوس و فرد عزیز هر دو از یک قماش ­اند

هوای نامساعد مانع از گردش صبح­گاهی ­ام شد، کنار آتش به افسانه­ سرایی نشستیم و ساعتها برای­مان همچون دقایقی گذشت؛ برای او مفصلا از تیلدا و جکسون گفتم و از وحشتم درباره­­ ی «تب طلا» در سانفرانسیسکو صحبت کردم؛ سپس گفتگوی­مان به شهر محل سکونت من کشید و بعد هم در مورد گیبون و گودوین و انگلها و لوکوموتو ها صحبت کرد؛م. یک محاوره­ ی گرم چیزی­ست که به شدت در عرشه­ ی پرافِتِس از آن محروم بودم، و دکتر هم به تحقیق آدم همه چیز دان و فهمیده ­ای­ست؛ به علاوه او ارتشی از مهره های حکاکی شده شطرنج­ دارد، که تا عزیمت پرافِتِس یا ورود نِلی ما را سرگرم نگاه خواهند داشت)؛ پایان نقل

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 11/08/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 10/06/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews3,454 followers
August 23, 2015
pile story atop story, set 'em in different time periods, offer up a thin connection between each, and everything seems a bit more than it is. for me cloud atlas is exactly the sum of its parts. maybe less? (i'd love to hire 6 authors to independently write 6 stories set in different time periods, throw the whole mess together as one work, and watch people find all kinds of connections and deeper meanings. they would. they could.)

now don't get me wrong, i love all that 'russian doll' tale-within-a-tale borgesian-wormhole fuckoff, but the fact remains: all that clever stuff is worthless if not in service of a few well told tales (or some seriously innovative ideas: while mitchell has fun with a clever structure, there ain't nothing innovative here. see: borges, calvino, dick, joyce, etc). and this is where mitchell falters. a trite story about corporate intrigue? post-apocalyptic 'primitives' scavenging through the ruins of our time? sci-fi story about an 'almost human' finding her (more than) humanity in a futuristic corpocracy? a 'misunderstanding' gag right out of three's company to resolve frobisher's tale? impossible to unring a bell, but would it were, i'd challenge any five-starrer to jump back & read these stories as standalones: they're weak. and, no: the thread holding 'em all together just ain't enough to elevate five mediocres to one great. if you're gonna throw out some of that 'deliberately cliched' nonsense, back it up. 100 yrs earlier mr. joyce included a deliberately poorly written chapter in ulysses… with reason. am i overlooking something, oh legions of mitchell devotees? if so, dish. admitting the luisa rey chapter is shite but explaining that it was meant to be shite just don't cut it.

david foster wallace complained that television had become impossible to critique in that it critiques itself: i.e. those t.v. ads, 'don't just sit there. okay, just sit there.' it betrays enormous & self-aware insecurity on the part of the 'television people': rather than polish the turd, they joke about how turdish the turd really is. and, by extension, what a willing turd-swallower YOU are. but it's all good as it's in the guise of a fun, knowing riff on the (hyper)truth, ain't it? well, mitchell employs similar trickery. authorial dogwhistles blow all over the place in the guise of postmodern 4th-wall-breaking innovation. and i call fraud. loudly. if borges ever asked and/or apologized to the reader about a story rather than get that story in top-fucking-notch shape… i'd slap that blind bastard across his jowly cheeks. (and, yes, this kinda stuff can work if it was more the point, a kind of Greek Chorus commenting on the narrative; but as a few asides drawing the reader out & excusing the text? oh, just fuckoff.) when one character writes this about his musical composition:

”a sextet for overlapping soloists”….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. Revolutionary or gimmicky?

i wanted to kick mr. mitchell in the shins.
if ya wanna read a less middlebrow & mediocre tale of reincarnated lives told over different periods of history in which our protagonists are linked by a common birthmark (no, really. the same birthmark gag. i'm not shitting you)… check out mishima's 'Sea of Fertility' tetralogy*.

a. hemon's article in the the new yorker on the making of the movie makes me root for it, but i predict a maudlin & turgid turd of epic proportions.

* Spring Snow
Runaway Horses
The Temple of Dawn
The Decay of the Angel
(read 'em!)
Profile Image for Maciek.
569 reviews3,575 followers
October 6, 2020
Hey readers...

Look at the book you're reading...

...now back to me.

Now back at the book you're reading...

...now back at me.

Sadly, that book was (probably) not written by me. But if you'd check out my book, Cloud Atlas, you'd know that I could have written it if I just wanted to. Look back at the book...

...and now back up. Who's that?

That's me, the author of Cloud Atlas, which is the book you could have been reading. What's in your hand?

It's Cloud Atlas, which is a historical novel about a pacific voyage all the way back in the 1800's. Back at me.

Now back at Cloud Atlas. Look, it's now a thriller.

And look again. Cloud Atlas is now science fiction.

Anything is possible when a book contains several stories inside...

...and I am the author.

Cloud Atlas is arguably David Mitchell's (all right, I'll stop pretending - that's him in the pictures) most famous novel - and if it isn't, it certailnly will be after the Wachowskis will turn it into a big budged movie - the trailer is not that bad looking. The novel itself is critically acclaimed - it won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and even nominated for two of the prestigious awards given to works of science fiction - the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke award.

So what should we, the readers, make of Cloud Atlas? By now, probably everyone interested in reading it has heard that it's composed of six different storylines, all of which interact with each other in some way. The single most impressive thing about the novel is the fact that the author adapts a unique narrative voice for each of these sections, making Cloud Atlas a feat of literary ventriloquism. The six storylines are also different in structure, setting and timelines.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing opens the novel: set around 1850, the journal is a first person account of a south Pacific journey of the naive Adam Ewing, who finds himself ashore on the Chattam Islands near New Zealand. He falls sick, and seeks help from a suspicious doctor who looks at his money with hungry eyes, and also learns a bit of the native history: the enslavement of the Moriori by the Maori.

Letters from Zedelghem is the next sequence, and as the title suggests it's epistolary. The titular letters are written by Robert Frobisher to Rufus Sixmith. Frobisher is a completely broke English musician who buys his daily bread by being a hired hand for a Belgian composer - Ayrs. Despite the implications that Sixmith is his lover, Frobisher starts an affair with Ayr's wife and it does not help that Ayrs also has a young daughter.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is the next section which tells the tale of Louisa Rey, a journalist who follows the lead that some nuclear plants are unsafe and can blow up the world: of course there are people who do not wish for this information to be made public. Dressed up as a thriller, it is definitely the most fast paced section of the novel and does a convincig job at passing as a grocery store rack paperback novel.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is probably my favorite section: 65 year old Timothy Cavendish is a vanity publisher who gets himself into trouble with one of his clients (who happens to be a gangster) and has to lay low for a while; His brother arranges a safe place for him to go to. Only when he arrives he discovers that the hideaway is a nursing home; Cavendish is an extremely likeable old codger and lots of hilarity ensues as he attempts to break free. It gets downhill from here.

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is the least inspired section: a derivative dystopian fare, totally by the book. Overused dystopian tropes abound: Far future, immensely opressive totalitarian society, corporate overlords, genetically engingered slaves (cannibalism!), neologisms and simple spelling changes such as "xcitement, xpendable, xtra". etc. To top the cake it is set in futuristic Korea, complete with "the Beloved Chairman" who is in control of All Things. Not very, um, subtle, you know.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After or Trainspotting in Space continues with the science fiction theme, and is set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Humanity has been almost completely wiped out during "The Fall". Zachry, the protagonist, is an old man recounting his teenage years, when he met Meronym, a member of a former advanced civilization. The section overuses apostrophes to an almost ridiculous extent, making me regret ever complaining about the simplicity of spelling changes in the Somni section. The style hangs over the content unmercifully, like a sharp sword, ready to drop at any moment to cut your reading enjoyment - and does exactly that, all the time.

After Slosha we return to the preceding stories yet again, this time in the reverse order, going back in time: Beginning with futuristic tale of Somni and ending with the concluding entries of the journal of Adam Ewing, in the 1850's.

So what is the big deal? The structure. On the back cover is Michael Chabon's appraisal of the novel as "series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book" and as the Wachowski's boldly emphasize in all caps in the trailer for the upcoming film, "EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED". However, I found these connections to be sketchy at best: For example, Ewing's journal is conveniently found by Frobisher at a bookshelf of his Belgian employer; Rufus Sixmith, the addressee of Frobisher's letters just happens to be a whistleblower collaborating with Louisa Rey; Louisa Rey's story is a manuscript that Cavendish is offered for publication; Cavendish's goofy adventure is a Disney romp watched by Somni in the far future, and Somni herself is a goddess worshipped by Zachry, who knows her story from a futuristic recording device. There are further attempts to stitch these stories together - a recurring birthmark, one character seemingly remembering a piece of music from another time, the recurrence of the number six - six stories, a character named...Sixmith who is...66 years old, etc. If the "nested dolls" analogy passed you by, the author has Isaac Sachs, an engineer (how appropriate!) explain the magic:

"“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.”"

But that is not all. Frobisher's musical masterpiece to be is called The Cloud Atlas Sextet, which he describes as:

"a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, '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."

...which is obviously how Cloud Atlas, the novel, is structured. It seems to me as if the author did not trust his readers and had to spell out his game in fear of being misunderstood, or worse: the trick going unnoticed. He also seems to see critics coming, and in the next sentence Frobisher thinks about his work: "Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.”" The concept is laid out for the reader in its entirety at one moment: . Sometimes it's done in an almost humorous way: Timothy Cavendish mutters that "Soylent Green is people", and that some geeks must be "Cloning humans for shady Koreans" - which is exactly what happens in the Somni section.

Revolutionary or Gimmicky? For this jury Cloud Atlas does not have what it takes to be revolutionary, meaning something...well, revolutionary. The structure of the novel appears to be complex at the first glance, but during actual reading shows itself as not overly complex, and the author makes sure that the reader will understand it. The stories themselves are not strong enough to stand on their own: the Louisa Rey mystery is intentionally bland, but the Orison of Somni 451 is formulaic to the bone, where all characters are reduced to familiar stereotypes: The tyranical Big Brother regime and the opressed sentient beings who should not be capable of complex thought but are, which dates back to Yevgeny Zamyatin's brillian novel We, which has been written in...1921, going through more famous examples - Brave New World, 1984, movies such as the original Planet of the Apes, THX1138, etc etc etc. To give the author credit the dystopian formula has been firmly estabilished (and exploited - currently especially on the young adult market) and it's quite difficult (if not downright impossible) to come up with any innovations: especially if there's a set limit on the lenght of the piece which hardly allows for any worldbuilding, forcing the author to work with the barest minimum.

The recurring theme ofCloud Atlas is enslavement and exploitation of human beings. Ewing is exposed to enslavement of one tribe by another and is forced to decide the fate of a person; penniless Frobisher is forced to leave England for Belgium, where he is drawn into a net cast by an aging composer, who wants to exploit his talent; Louisa Rey is fighting the capitalist ubermench who do not care about the dangers of a nuclear reactor. Tinmothy Cavendish has to escape from dangerous people and literally becomes enslaved in a home for the elderly; Sonmi is a genetically enginereed fabricant who was made to be used. Throughout the ages, the weaker are controlled, abused and exploited by the stronger, who want even more riches and strenght.

is it a new topic? No. Does Cloud Atlas offer a new look at it? alas, the answer also has to be no. The book opposes the notion of survival of the fittest, where "the weak are the meat that the strong eat" - and this is obviously wrong. But in the year 2004 (when it was published) did we not know that already? The dangers of capitalism and the money-oriented western civilization, its contemporary face being the Louisa Rey sections and the gloomy vision of the future shown in the Orison of Somni; the post-colonial white guilt for which the vessel is the character of Adam Ewing. Adam Ewing seems to exist to only espouse this notion; after being rescued by a Noble Savage he is told about the bloodthirst of the White Race by the Doctor (who is the Evil character since this is how he was estabilished to be). The morality play hits home and Ewing decides that the way the world is is Wrong and there is worth in striving for a seemingly impossible Change where everyone is Free. This storyline is not bad by default, but it is hardly original and there is hardly any place for ambiguity; I was surprised at the comparisons with Benito Cereno, which is probably my favorite work by Melville (along with the brilliant Bartleby, the Scrivener - which is also about individualism and freedom, but in a completely different manner). The genius of Melville's work lies in its ambiguity: it has been praised and criticized because of it, as various readers read it either as a racist work in support of slavery, while other readers read it as an anti-slavery text in support of abolition. There is little if any of this in Adam Ewing's journal; of course it's wrong to own another human being as property, and most of the humanity came to agree on this...after we stole land from one another and replaced their people with ours, colonized and governed them against their will and exploited them in slave labor. Melville's work was written in 1856, when abolition was a controversial (and dangerous) issue; even though Adam Ewing's journal is set in that time period, we can't forget that it was created in the 2000's. There is not enough originality or exceptionality to it, and solely by attempting to stress the human freedom it borders dangerously on the banal repetition of something done earlier and better.

The author is at his best in the narratives of Frobisher and Cavendish, where he handles two drastically different characters with skill and verve. Both are Englishmen, though of different times and of different age and profession: Frobisher is young, cynical, cunning, brash and unapologetic; Cavendish is elderly, sheepish, slow and silly. It is in these two narratives where the author's talent really shines; he writes with panache and flamboyance, and his whimsical humor is contrasted with rawness and emotion. Frobisher's egoism and frustration are off-putting, and yet the reader cannot help but feel some sympathy for his character and wish him good in creating the work of his life; Cavendish's geriatric adventure is surprisingly rollicking and full of charm. It is their stories which work the best in this book, and are the most affecting and memorable.

On the whole, Cloud Atlas reads more as an exercise in trying to write stories in different genres and styles, and then weaving them together; ultimately, it does not really work. The majority of the stories are not strong enough to stand on their own, and there is not enough to bind them together; even the two stories I enjoyed suffer from being just a part of the whole which doesn't really work. It lacks the profundity and depth it needs to be an important work; a more vicious critic would say that the author arranged his stories like matryoshkas to hide his inability to offer meaningful and perceptive insights into the human nature. I doubt that Cloud Atlas is such a case, and because of this I can't wish it would have been all that it was said to be, profound and meaningful, offering a fresh approach to the subject which is so important. But what can you say about things on which so many said so much over the centuries? Like clouds, Cloud Atlas eventually disperses, leaving in memory snapshots of its elements, and not the whole.
Profile Image for Emily May.
2,058 reviews312k followers
October 4, 2012
Cloud Atlas is a book which is not particularly easy to read, requires patience and perseverance, but is ultimately very rewarding. It is a story spanning more than one hundred years that combines an entertaining - even humourous - plot with far bigger and more important issues like slavery and exploitation. The novel's language changes and develops with time and every new character introduced is as fresh and interesting as all those who came before. In the end, it is pure genius. It is also not a novel that I can adequately put into any kind of review, so I suggest instead that you watch this beautiful trailer created for the 2012 film adaptation - it convinced me to read it, after all:

Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,557 reviews4,343 followers
July 10, 2020
Tomorrow I will never see, though I have no wings I fly free. Of what I dream no one can know, I am but a container for a rainbow.
Stories are clouds… The same story told by a different raconteur changes form and it may also change a meaning.
I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ’morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

As every watermelon contains seeds out of which new watermelons can be grown so every story contains seeds of other stories… And the present contains seeds of the future…
Yet what is the world but a multitude of stories?
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,195 reviews4,589 followers
October 31, 2015
This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has significant echoes of this.


It’s often described as a matryoshka doll or a turducken, but that’s not the best analogy, imo.
Imagine six very different short books, each open at roughly the middle, then pile them up - and that is the structure of Cloud Atlas (story 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b). The structure is echoed in this clever and very brief review:http://www.fromnought2sixty.com/final....

This is a close lifting of what Calvino describes in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler: "the Oriental tradition" where one story stops "at the moment of greatest suspense" and then narrative switches to another story, perhaps by the protagonist picking up a book and reading it.

(The structure of the film is entirely different: it cuts between all six stories repeatedly, which emphasises the parallels in the different stories. In the medium of film, I think it works quite well - if you already know the stories.)

Each story is a separate and self-contained tale, told in a different format, voice and even dialect, but with similarities in theme and some overlapping characters.


There are many themes. Connectedness (and possibly reincarnation) are perhaps the most obvious - and the themes themselves are often connected with other themes. In addition to connectedness, themes include: victim/predator/leech, journeys, escape, transformation, falling/ascending (both literal and metaphorical or spiritual).

I think the overriding theme is the many, varied, but perhaps inevitable ways that humans exploit each other through power, money, knowledge, brute force, religion or whatever: “The world IS wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.” This is echoed in The Thousand Autumns, "In the animal kingdom... the vanquished are eaten."

There are also connections between characters and events, and, less subtly (completely unnecessarily, imo), someone in each has a birth mark that looks like a comet.

(Connectedness is much the strongest theme in the film, partly through rapid switching between stories to emphasize the parallels, and also because the same actors are used in multiple stories.)


The opening tale concerns a voyage, and immediately draws the reader in with echoes of Crusoe, “Beyond the Indian hamlet, on a forlorn strand, I happened upon a trail of recent footprints”. Adam is a wide-eyed and honourable young American lawyer in 1850 (somewhat reminiscent of Jacob de Zoet in Mitchell’s latest novel: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), on his way to the Chatham Isles to trace the beneficiaries of a will. He struggles with the politics of the ship’s crew and issues of colonialism, slavery, genocide (Maori of Moriori) and then… it breaks off mid sentence!

This story has particular parallels with Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... a voyage between colonies, with a theme of exploitation.


This is a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English composer, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, written in 1931 (quite a lot of sixes in this book). He has a wealthy and educated background, but has been cut off from his family, so is in Belgium (Edinburgh, in the film!), searching for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he hopes to gain a position as amanuensis and collaborator: the journey involves literal travel, but also the seeking of fame and fortune. This section opens with a visceral passion for music, which infuses this whole section; Frobisher hears music in every event: dreaming of breaking china, “an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats”. Frobisher is an unscrupulous opportunist (very unlike Adam Ewing), but not without talent. The latter enables him to wheedle his way into the complex lives of the Ayrs/Crommelynck household (the latter cropping up in other Mitchell books).


It’s 1975 and Dr Rufus Sixsmith is now 66. He is broke and either in trouble with mysterious forces or paranoid. This one’s a thriller, involving a would-be-investigative-journalist, Luisa Rey. Mitchell inserts a caveat via Sixsmith, “all thrillers would wither without contrivance”, though actually much of this story is obscure until the second half.


This is contemporary comedy: Cavendish is a vanity publisher with an unexpected best-seller on his hands (memoirs of a murderer). Like Sixsmith, he ends up broke and fleeing enemies, though this one is more of a farce, with echoes of Jonathan Coe’s “What a Carve Up” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).


This is set in 22nd century Korea, which is an extreme corpocracy (corporate capitalism taken to its logical conclusion – which even affects the language (see below)). Purebloods are “a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor” and it is a crime to fail to meet one’s monthly spending target. (In the film, this section looks stunning, but the underlying philosophy is largely ignored.)

The format is an interrogation of Somni-251, a fabricant (humanoid clone), who is a monastic server of fast food at Papa Song’s – which just happens to have golden arches as its logo (the film plays safe and is not so obviously McDonald's). She is knowledgeable and opinionated, though it’s not immediately clear what, if anything, else she’s done wrong. There are plenty of nods to Orwell, Huxley and others – even to the extent that Somni mentions reading them. The ideas of ascension, heaven, an afterlife and so on that are suggested in many sections are explicit in this one; it’s where the themes of the book really begin to come together. What it means to be human, exemplified by the relative positions of purebloods and fabricants, are reminiscent of the slavery that Adam Ewing considers: the idea that fabricants lack a personality is a “fallacy propagated for the comfort of purebloods”. She has a distinctively poetic voice, which lends beauty to the section of the book, but causes problems for her: a fabricant that is as eloquent as a pureblood creates unease.


The only section told, unbroken, from start to finish, which is ironic given that it’s set in a very broken future world. Even the language has disintegrated to some extent, much as in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, to which Mitchell acknowledges a debt in this article:
See below for specific linguistic quirks, and here for my review of RW: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

Zachry is explaining his life, beliefs and practices, though it isn’t clear who he is addressing (or why). He talks of “The Fall” and “flashbangin” which were the end of “Civ’lize Days”, though some “Prescients” survived on a ship which visits and barter at regular interval, but never leave anything “more smart” than what is already there. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too” – even though Malthus was revered as a prophet by that earlier civilisation.

Then one of the Prescient, Meronym, comes to stay for six months. She wants to learn and observe, but many of the islanders fear her motives. Zachry is keen to explain himself and to learn from her. His language can make him sound simple, but he’s actually quite prescient: “There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”, which is perhaps the message of the book. The deeper question in this section is who is exploiting whom (there is also a warfaring tribe, the Kona)?


Somni’s story starts to make more sense, particularly the meaning and method of ascension and her story’s connections with Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6).


Imprisoned in a most unlikely place, Timothy hatches an extraordinary and comical bid for freedom. (It’s not quite The Great Escape.)


There is real excitement in this, though some may find it slightly confusing. When one character writes notes comparing the real and virtual past (p392-393), the levels of stories-within-stories and boundaries of fact and fiction are well and truly blurred, which is part of what this whole book is about. (Is Luisa "real" in the context of the book? She doesn't always feel it, but there is a direct link between her and another character.):

“The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming… in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”

“Power seeks + is the right to ‘landscape’ the virtual past.”

“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” – something this book is often likened to.

“The uncreated and the dead exist solely in our actual and virtual pasts. Now the bifurcation of these two pasts will begin.”


Will Frobisher make good – or even be good? “We do not stay dead for long… My birth next time…”


Adam lands on an island where white Christian missionaries appear to be doing good work. However, the relationship between blacks and whites (and even between man and wife) exemplify the unequal power relationships that are common to all the stories. Adam dreams of a more utopian world, though.


The two futuristic sections are notable for their language. Some people seem to dislike or struggle with this aspect, but I think it adds depth, interest and plausibility.

The corporate world of Somni-451 (5) means that many former brand names have become common nouns (as hoover, kleenex and sellotape already have): ford (car), fordjam, sony (PC), kodak (photo), nikes (any shoes), disney (any film/movie), starbuck (coffee).

There are neologisms, too: facescaping (extreme cosmetic surgery), upstrata (posh), dijied (digitised).

Perhaps more surprisingly, a few words have simplified spelling: xactly, xpose, fritened, lite (mind you, that is already quite common), thruway.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6), the dialect is a mix of childish mishearings and misspellings, very similar to that in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (see links in the section about Sloosha, above): I telled him, hurrycane.

At times, it’s very poetic: “Watery dark it was inside. Wax’n’ teak-oil’n’time was its smell… An’ then we heard a sort o’ roaring underneath the silence, made o’ mil’yuns o’ whisp’rin’s like the ocean.” More graphically, “We’d get a feverish hornyin’ for each other… I was slurpyin’ her lustsome mangoes an’ moistly fig”!


Kazuo Ishiguro tries something slightly similar and less ambitious in his short story collection, Nocturnes

Somni is apparently a fan of Jorge Luis Borges; she has read Funes' Remembrances - a nod to Funes, His Memory, which is in Artificies.

Who has comet birthmarks:

See discussion here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/8...


Katy Forbes in Ghostwritten has a comet-shaped birthmark.

Adam Ewing (1)'s ship is seen in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (see 1.30 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...)

Luisa Rey (3) and Timothy Cavendish (4) appear in Ghostwritten.

Vyvyan Ayrs (2)'s daughter is an old woman in Black Swan Green.


* I love the bathos of “cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, spoiled Sussex… versified cliffs [Dover] as romantic as my arse in a similar hue.”

* “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction.”

* “I felt Nietzche was reading me, not I him.”

* “Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb.” Attributed (in the book) to JFK.

* "Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'"

* “The room bubbles with sentences more spoken than listened to.”

* “A predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises.”

* “Time is the speed at which the past decays, but disneys [films] enable a brief resurrection.”

* “Lite [sic] from the coming day defined the world more clearly now.”

* “Sunlite [sic] bent around the world, lending fragile colour to wild flowers.”

* “We [over 60s] commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly… Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori.”

* “Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary… its victory is assured.”

* “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”

* “As dear old Kilvert notes, nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire.”

* “Her contempt… if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison… I heard male indignation trampled by female scorn.”

* “The colour of monotony is blue.”

My review from early 2000s...

A novel comprising six interlocking tales on the theme of connectedness and predacity (few likeable characters, though certainly some interesting and amusing ones).

The idea is that souls drift through time and space (and bodies), like clouds across the sky. As one character learns the story of another, the layers of fiction meld: which are "fact" within the overall fiction?

Each story has a totally different style, appropriate to its time, genre and supposed authorship. The two futuristic ones use two different versions of English: etymologically logical, but lots of made up words; the capitalist Korean one hints at the political/corporate philosophy underlying the society (as in Orwell's 1984) and the primitive Hawaiian one has more shades of Caribbean/Pidgin and a very similar feel to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). One crucial but evil corporation is a fast food place with a golden arches logo - I hope Mitchell's lawyers checked that was OK!

Somewhat incestuously, a couple of main characters had a mention in his first novel, Ghostwritten (Louisa Rey & the Cavendish brothers, the latter having echoes of Coe's What a Carve Up) and the composer's daughter from this book appears in the later Black Swan Green.

Much as I enjoyed this, and think the Russian-doll, nested story structure is clever, I preferred the more subtle and less gimmicky approach he uses in Ghostwritten (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

Three good pieces about this on Guardian Bookclub:

* The importance of interruption: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...

* Connections: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...

* Mitchell talking about his inspirations: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews23k followers
June 12, 2020
Cloud Atlas is layered, complex, uniquely structured, occasionally puzzling, often moving, and definitely not for the faint of heart. It's famously (or infamously) structured with a sextet of interconnected stories that range from the mid-1800s to the distant future.
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, '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. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished.
I like that Mitchell has a sense of humor about his story. :) Like this Cloud Atlas Sextet musical piece written by one of the characters, each story is told by a different voice, and cuts off abruptly (sometimes in mid-sentence) until the central story. Then the storyline moves back again through time, wrapping up each tale. To use another simile, the novel is very much like a set of Russian nesting dolls that is taken apart and then put back together again.
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each "shell" (the present) encased inside a nest of "shells" (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of "now" likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

Despite the sometimes huge leaps in time, each story is tied to the stories before and after it by colorful threads: characters read (or view) each others' stories; themes resurface, showing a different face; memorable scenes--like increasingly small fruit being shot off a reluctant clone's head with an arrow--are unexpectedly reflected in a similar scene in a later story; characters experience deja vu moments that tie them to another character in a different story. karen's description in her review is so apt: "the stories. they sneak into each others' worlds both thematically, and more overtly, like foraging little mice on mouse-missions. sometimes they are each others' stories."

Part 1 is the 1850-era journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary who is traveling in the South Pacific. He witnesses the brutality of the Maori people toward the Moriori natives, not realizing — at first — that his own white people are often equally as brutal and predatory. This story is told in the style of Herman Melville, which, frankly, makes for a tough start to the novel. But don't lose heart, because very soon comes:

Part 2: Letters written in 1931 by a young Robert Frobisher, an amoral, self-centered, dishonest, but very funny and charming bisexual musical genius, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher, disinherited and looking to escape from his debts, attaches himself as an assistant to an older, nearly blind musician, Vyvyan Ayrs, who is living in Belgium. After a rocky start, the musical collaboration goes well, but soon problems start to surface again. Adam Ewing's journal is discovered by Robert while he is fishing around in the Ayrs' home, looking for old books to steal and sell.

Part 3: It's 1975, and Rufus Sixsmith is now an older man who meets a journalist, Luisa Rey, in California when they're stuck together in a broken elevator. Luisa is looking for a good story, and Rufus has some dirt on the new nuclear reactor in the area. This piece reads like a fast-moving crime novel that you'd pick up in an airport to distract you on your flight.

Part 4: In the early 2000s, Timothy Cavendish, a 60-something British man who is a vanity publisher, is writing his memoirs. One of his authors (who comes from a rough family) tosses his worst literary critic over the side of a skyscraper, killing him. The resulting publicity makes the author's book an instant bestseller. Though the author is in jail, his brothers come to Timothy looking for a piece of the monetary pie. Timothy goes on the run . . .

Part 5: Sometime in the not-too-far-distant future, in what used to be Korea, not-too-bright clones ("fabricants") are used as a source of slave labor. They are deemed to have no soul. Corporate power rules, and the slang amusingly reflects that as several trademarks are now the generic names for everyday objects (people wear nikes on their feet, drive fords and watch disneys). Sonmi-451 is a fabricant fast food worker who is unexpectedly "ascending," gaining greatly increased intelligence and understanding. A group steals her away from the restaurant, but what is their agenda for Sonmi-451?

Part 6: In a far-distant future, Zachry tells the story of his adventures in his youth on the "Big I" of "Hawi" to a group of children. Zachry's people, the Valleymen, are a no-tech, superstitious, rural people who worship the goddess Sonmi and are periodically in danger from Kona raiders, who seek to enslave them. The Valleyman are also visited annually by the Prescients, who seem to be the one group of people who still have technology and scientific understanding. One of the Prescients, Meronym, asks to stay with Zachry's people for a year and Zachry's family is elected to host her, much to his dismay. They eventually become friends as he leads her on a pilgrimage to what's left of the observatories on Mauna Kea, symbolically capping the novel as events start to descend from there.

Mitchell's ability to create very distinct narrators, writing styles, and futuristic languages without sacrificing (too much) understanding is truly praiseworthy. It helped me to know that each story section was (with the exception of the culminating central story) only about 40 pages long, so if I was having difficulties with one narrator I had the comfort of knowing that a different narrator would soon take over. Also, I cheerfully sacrificed the element of surprise for the satisfaction of better understanding, and read several online discussions and reviews of Cloud Atlas while I was reading each section of the book. The Cloud Atlas Readalong at editorialeyes.net was particularly helpful. http://editorialeyes.net/the-cloud-at...

Cloud Atlas grapples with some heavy themes: power, greed, slavery, predatory vs. selfless behavior, prejudice, love, the nature of souls . . . I could go on. I think I may admire this book more than I love it, but it's an amazing achievement and really made me think. It is absolutely worth reading if you're up for a mental challenge.
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.
Profile Image for Nataliya Yaneva.
165 reviews378 followers
September 18, 2018
Bulgarian review below/Ревюто на български е по-долу
You probably wonder now and then if the chords of your soul reverberate through time. I do too. Or if those 21 grams caught in several dozen kilos of flesh fly away like startled little birds when our time to go strikes. Maybe that’s also possible. We probably haven’t awaken to such a degree of consciousness as to know the answer of this question and to be drawn to some hypothetical ‘beyond’ instead to the quite material and palpable ‘now’.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a story about the reincarnation of a single soul (in the author’s words). Some of its embodiments chime in with something larger than themselves and for others conceitedness and its blotchy baby brother – egoism – are a creed. David Mitchell does not judge though. He doesn’t glorify and doesn’t stigmatize. He builds his stories upon the simple assumption that everything we do will matter somewhere, sometime, on a large or small scale, and he creates objective connections. The soul swims through time and space, solitary and rejected in one incarnation, almost forgotten by everyone or deified in another.

‘We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet…
Sunt lacrimæ rerum.’

Mitchell himself says in an interview that there wasn’t some grandly conceived plan behind the creation of the novel, and he just wanted to write the craziest and most gargantuan thing that comes to his mind. I think this proves something of a rule of thumb – if you don’t much care what others will have to say about your work, you are free of the ambition to ‘achieve something’ with it and just surrender to some internal rhythm, and that’s when the results really glow.

The narrative I liked most was that of Sonmi-451. Sonmi’s fate reminded me of Emiko from ‘The Windup Girl’ – there was this whiff of fatality in it too. People have low tolerance threshold for things with a higher level of consciousness than themselves – are we not proud to be the only species who think and create? Well, and if that’s not true?

‘- Do you regret the course of your life?
- How can I? ‘Regret’ implies a freely chosen, but erroneous, action; free will plays no part in my story.’

In our stories though free will (if we can speak of such category at all) has its place on the mise-en-scene. Who could tell if Mitchell was right when writing his ‘juvenile whim’ as he calls it? We all go down the miniature spirals of our lives and we are dashing to their end. We might as well think about what follows next. It might be far more real than what we are capable of imagining.


Вероятно все някога сте се питали дали акордите на душата ви отекват във времето. И аз съм. Или пък тези 21 грама, залостени в няколко десетки килограма затвор от плът, се разлитат като подплашени птички, когато ни дойде времето да си идем. Може и това да е. Навярно сме още твърде недоосъзнати като вид, за да знаем отговора на този въпрос и да се интересуваме от някакво хипотетично „отвъд“, вместо от съвсем вещественото и осезаемо „сега“.

„Облакът Атлас“ е история за прераждането на една-единствена (по думи на автора) душа. Някои от въплъщенията ѝ трептят в съзвучие с нещо по-голямо от самите себе си, за други самомнителността и пъпчивият ѝ по-малък брат – егоизмът – са верую. Дейвид Мичъл обаче не осъжда. Не величае и не заклеймява. Изгражда историите си върху простичкото предположение, че всичко, което правим, някъде някога ще има някакво значение, голямо или малко, и създава обективни връзки. Душата плува из времето и пространството, в един живот самотна и отхвърлена, в друг почти забравена от всички или пък обожествявана.

„Ние не оставаме мъртви за дълго. След като моят Люгер ме изпрати в отвъдното, само след миг ще ме споходи раждането ми, следващото поред. След тринайсет години ще се срещнем отново в Грешам, след десет ще се озова отново в същата тази стая, стиснал същия този пистолет, ще съчинявам същото това писмо с решителност, съвършена като многоглавия ми секстет...
Sunt lacrimæ rerum.“

Самият Мичъл в интервю казва, че зад романа не е имало първоначален грандиозен замисъл, а просто е искал да напише най-шашавото и мащабно нещо, което му хрумне. Мисля, че това доказва почти желязното правило, че колкото пò не ти пука какво ще каже някой за работата ти и, освободен от амбицията да „постигнеш нещо“ с нея, просто се оставяш на някакъв вътрешен ритъм, толкова повече сияят резултатите.

Разказът, който най-много ми хареса, беше този на Сонми-451. Съдбата на Сонми твърде ми напомняше за тази на Емико от The Windup Girl – и от нея лъхаше същата обреченост. Хората трудно понасят нещо да е по-осъзнато от тях – нали се гордеем, че сме единственият вид, който може да мисли и твори? Да, ама ако не е така?
„– Съжалявате ли, че животът ви протече така?
– Как бих могла? Съжалението предполага свободно избрано, но погрешно действие; в моята история свободната воля не играе никаква роля.“

В нашите истории обаче свободната воля (ако изобщо може да се говори за такава категория) има своето място в мизансцена. Кой би могъл да каже дали Мичъл е бил прав, пишейки своята „младежка приумица“, както я нарича той? Всички се въртим по миниатюрните спирали на живота си и устремно се носим към края им. Хубаво е да помислим и за онова, което става след това. То може да е по-истинско, отколкото сме способни да си представим.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews7,301 followers
September 1, 2012
I have no idea if the movie version of Cloud Atlas will be any good, but it was worth making just so we could get that excellent trailer. In fact, they probably shouldn’t even release the movie. Just use the trailer to promote the book. It worked on me because once I saw that thing I couldn’t get this read fast enough.

An American notary crosses the Pacific and encounters many unsavory characters in the mid-1800s. In 1931 a young man fleeing his creditors cons his way into the home of a respected composer. A female journalists tries to expose a dangerous conspiracy involving a nuclear reactor back in 1975. In the early 21st century an aging publisher finds himself in hot water after his biggest professional success. The near future has an Asian society based on corporations using genetically modified fabricants as slave labor, and the far future finds a young man in Hawaii living a primitive tribal lifestyle playing tour guide to a woman from a place that still has technology.

These are the six stories that David Mitchell links together. They’re nested one within another and also mirrored in the first and second half of the book. If that’s all that he accomplished here, then it’d just be a really clever way to structure a novel, but it’s the way that Mitchell hit six completely different tones yet uses the same themes in each that the book really shines.

I’m beyond impressed with the way he made each story feel like it’s own separate tale. If someone had told me that this was a book written by six different authors, I would have believed it, and each is intriguing in it’s own right. Themes of slavery and people being controlled in one way or another along with depictions of misused or corrupted power come up again and again, but whether it feels like serious dystopian sci-fi or a beach read thriller, Mitchell makes it all hang together until it really does feel like one epic tale. And the thoughts at the conclusion lead to one of the greatest ending lines I’ve ever read.

I don’t even think I need to see the movie now.
Profile Image for Jaidee .
651 reviews1,338 followers
October 14, 2018
3 conflicted stars !

Gosh I struggled with this book.

Is this book well written? No doubt about it.

Is this book overwritten and too stylized? At times, yes it was.

Were the stories wonderfully original? Yes they were.

Did the stories fail to move me? Alas, they did.

This was the main crux of the matter. The stories did not resonate with me one bit. At times I could enjoy them but I found them so empty and unsatisfying. These stories were intellectually brilliant but emotionally bankrupt. (there I said it and I apologize as I am aware of how many people adored this book.)

I'm glad I read it but I am more relieved that the book is over.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,143 reviews734 followers
April 13, 2024
Some have claimed this to be a masterwork. Others say it’s unreadable. For my part, I have more sympathy with the latter view. Before reading the book, I deliberately hadn’t read any reader reviews, but I had seen the film trailer that seemed to promise a helter skelter race through the ages with the hint of reincarnation and sci-fi shootouts abounding. Well, disappointingly, that's not quite what I found between its pages.

I don’t mind having to do some thinking when I’m reading and, as a fan of Haruki Murakami’s books, I’m willing to suspend belief and go with the flow, even when I’m not sure where it’s going – or later, where it is I’ve arrived. My problem with this book was that I just didn’t enjoy the journey, or rather, I didn’t enjoy most of the journey.

Of the six stories – all told in a different style and each tale using a vocabulary of its own – I only really warmed to the account of the British composer evading creditors in 1930’s Belgium. I found all of the others a bit of a struggle. It is very clever in the way the stories interrupt each other and flow chronologically to halfway and are then completed in the second half of the book in reverse order. And they all are fully completed, with common references popping up and an overall picture forming… if you’ve managed to stay with it long enough. But was it worth the effort? And that's where it fails for me - my answer is no, not really.

I’m pretty sure I’m not really clever enough to have fully appreciated this complex offering. I also believe a second reading would (if I could face it) increase my appreciation of the book and allow me to draw out elements I’ve missed. But I’ve subsequently read in-depth reviews from people far more erudite than me, and I’ve yet to glean much more than I had already managed to absorb.

Readers will clearly have their own reaction to this book, and some will take more from it than others. I didn’t take very much, but I’m sure others will have a very different experience. Good luck to them, I’m filing this on my ‘too fanciful by far’ shelf.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
907 reviews2,427 followers
August 12, 2016
In Memory of Double Bills

I saw a lot of double bills in the heyday of independent cinemas.

They weren’t just two current release films that had been packaged to eke out some extra dollars for the exhibitor. They were carefully curated films that shared a theme and formed part of a whole season of similarly matched films.

Usually, the season was promoted by a poster that illustrated each film with a fifty word capsule review. For many years, I kept these posters in a folder, at least until I got married and had to start hiding what I hoarded.

The double bills themselves were where I learned about the greats of film culture. Hitchcock, Ford, Godard, Truffaut, Woody Allen, etc.

They whetted an appetite that continues to this day.

The thing about a double bill is that the films could be enjoyed individually, but they also fed meaning to each other.

One of my favourite matches was Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and Polanski’s “The Tenant”, both of which involved a character adopting the persona of another character and then embarking on a journey or travelling under the guise of the other character.

Both films benefited from the juxtaposition, and it made for great discussions between friends when you emerged from the cinema.

Almost 20 years later, I was sitting next to a very appealing, strong, independent, older woman at a film industry lunch, and I told her this story.

She smiled and said, “That was me. I curated those seasons.”

She was then a co-owner of one of the most successful chains of independent cinemas. Unfortunately, her chain didn’t survive the multiplex, nor did double bills, as far as I know.

Film culture is the poorer for it. It can’t just be learned from books, it must be learned in front of a screen, preferably a big one.

Why Don’t You Show Me?

I’ve started with this diversion, because, even though this is my second reading of “Cloud Atlas” and the first was well before I learned there was to be a film, the novel always struck me as filmic.

If it wasn’t made to be filmed (however challenging the prospect), it seemed to be influenced by film, particularly genre film, and possibly the sort of double bills that I had consumed.

I love the fact that David Mitchell’s works ooze film and cultural literacy, not to mention cross-cultural diversity.

It’s one of the things I hope doesn’t disappear as audiences become less genre and art form diverse.

Just as James Joyce alluded to the Classics in “Ulysses”, many modern novelists allude to diverse art forms.

If we restrict our interest to only one or a few, we might not “get” the allusions. And not getting them, we might not pay sufficient attention.

To this extent, I'd argue that “Cloud Atlas” isn't so much a difficult novel, as it just requires an attentive reader.

I’ve Tried and I’ve Tried and I’m Still Mystified

I originally rated the novel three stars on the basis of a reading several years ago, before I joined Good Reads.

Having re-read it with a view to a review, I’ve upgraded my review to five stars. So what happened?

When I finished my re-read, I had decided to rate it four stars.

There were things I still didn’t get, even though they were there on the page in front of me.

As I collated my notes, things started to drop into place and I started to get things, at least I think I did.

My initial reservation was that there were six stories juxtaposed in one book, and I wasn’t convinced that they related to each other adequately.

If together they were supposed to constitute a patchwork quilt, some patches jarred, others weren’t stitched together adequately. I couldn’t see the relationship. It wasn’t manifesting itself to me.

I didn’t think Mitchell had done enough to sew the parts together. I couldn’t understand why the six films on the same bill had been collected together. I didn’t know what the glue was. There was no bond. They were all just there.

If they were supposed to be connected, I couldn’t see the connection.

Who was to blame: Mitchell or me? Was anyone to blame, or did I just need to exert myself a bit harder?

In a way, this review is the story of how I exerted myself a bit harder, got back on top and managed to give the author his due.


I'll try to discuss the novel with minimal plot spoilers. However, many of the themes revolve around aspects of the plot in the six stories.

In an effort to reduce spoilers, I’ve limited the mention of specific stories and characters.

I apologize if this detracts from your enjoyment of the review or your desire to read the novel.

”Where is the Fundamental Mystery?”

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a mystery or the fact that a mystery might retain its status after some investigation.

Not all mysteries are intended to be worked out or revealed to all. Some things are intended to remain secret. Some things need a password or a code to unlock them. Some things just require a bit of effort or charm or both.

The thing about “Cloud Atlas” is that it consists of six quite disparate stories (a “Cloud Atlas Sextet” in its own right), five of which have been broken into two.

The result is 11 sections, ten of which surround the unbroken sixth story in the middle.

Without disclosing the titles of the stories, they follow the following timeline:

• 1850;

• 1931;

• 1976;

• The present (?);

• A highly corporatized future; and

• A post apocalyptic future (the middle story).

Once you’ve got half-way, the book works back towards 1850 in reverse order.

Getting your head around this structure is the first task. The second is to work out the relationship between the stories. The third is to work out how to pull the whole thing together into one integrated whole.

Choosing a Structural Metaphor

The structure has given rise to metaphors like Russian or Matryoshka dolls or Chinese boxes.

Each successive story is nested or nestled within the next. [One character’s letters survive the burglary of a hotel room, because they are nestled in a copy of Gideon’s Bible.]

Another way to think of it is to pretend that you have opened up six separate books to the middle pages, then sat them on top of each other, starting with the oldest on the bottom, and then bound them together, so now hopefully you’ve got one idea of the structure.

A third way to look at the structure metaphorically is to see the past as embracing the present, and the present embracing the future.

Thus, the past has within it the potential of the present, and the present has within it the potential of the future.

This metaphor raises the second question of the relationship between the layers.

Does one determine the next? Does the past determine the future? What is the relationship or connection?

Where does Mitchell and his novel stand on the continuum between Determinism and Free Will?


Apart from the question of how all 11 sections contribute to an integrated whole, there is a narrative connectedness between the 11 sections.

Characters or objects from one section reappear in others as important narrative elements. In a way, they are like screws or pegs that lock one part of a piece of modular furniture into another, so that the whole doesn’t dissemble.

Various characters (in five out of the six stories) have a comet-shaped birthmark between their shoulder-blade and collarbone.

They also share other personal characteristics, despite not necessarily sharing genders, and there is a suggestion that the five characters with birthmarks might be reincarnations of the same soul.

From a narrative point of view:

• the Journals in Story 1 are found in Story 2.

• The Letters in Story 2 are written to a character in Story 3.

• The music in Story 2 is heard in Story 3. (When Luisa Rey hears the music, she feels that she might have been present when it was composed, hence the implication that she might be a reincarnation of the composer, Robert Frobisher.)

• Story 3 is submitted to a character in Story 4 for publication.

• The character in Story 4 writes a memoir that is filmed, and watched by the character in Story 5.

• An interview with the character in Story 5 is recorded and becomes the “holy book” or “scripture” for a post-apocalyptic religion in Story 6 (even though it is an audio-visual work, not a written work, embodied on an “orison”).

Eternal Recurrence in and of Time

Time is a silent partner in the narrative of the novel.

We start in the past and move forward into the future, before reversing or heading backwards (or forwards into the past?), so that eventually we come full circle:

"Time’s Arrow became Time’s Boomerang."

In this sense, the narrative is revolutionary, if not necessarily gimmicky.

We must assume that the cycle continues to roll or revolve in this fashion ad infinitum.

In Nietzsche’s words, it is an "Eternal Recurrence":

"Everything becomes and recurs eternally - escape is impossible! - Supposing we could judge value, what follows? The idea of recurrence as a selective principle, in the service of strength (and barbarism!!)": Nietzsche

Culture and Civilization, whether good or evil, positive or negative, sophisticated or barbaric, are conveyed through time by people.

Human beings are vessels through which human nature passes into the future, from the past via the present (and vice versa, it seems).

Each of us carries aspects of human nature, ideas, beliefs, biases, prejudices, goals, ambitions, aspirations, appetites, hunger, thirst, desire, the need for more, the inability to be satisfied, the inability to be appeased.

Human nature is concrete, permanent, eternal, continuous, recurring.

Individuals are separate, discrete, temporary, dispensable, ephemeral.

Like an oak tree, we are born, we grow, we die.

A body is just a vehicle for human nature (within a family, its DNA).

You can see that, if each of us is a vehicle, then when we pass the baton onto the next runner, we (or the human nature that we carried) is reincarnated in our successor.

If our characteristics continue, they succeed, instead of succumbing.

In this sense, a comet birthmark is just the mark or marque or ink or stain that we pass onto our successor as evidence of the eternal chain of which each of us is but a link.

You Can’t Stop Me, Because I am Determined

It’s arguable that there is a determinism or fatalism going on here.

However, I think Mitchell acknowledges Free Will as well, again, both in a positive and a negative sense.

Much of the novel is concerned with the Nietzschean will to power, the ascent to power, the acquisition and abuse of power, the use of power to victimize and oppress.

The character, Alberto Grimaldi, the CEO of the Corporation Seaboard Power (surely the name is well chosen) argues:

"Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’...

"Yet how is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity.

"First: God-given gifts of charisma.

"Second: the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity’s topsoil id fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will ever flower – for want of discipline…

"Third: the will to power.

"This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority of their compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival? Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause.

"The only answer can be ‘There is no ‘Why’. This is our nature. ‘Who’ and ‘What’ run deeper than ‘Why?’ "

While human nature shapes us, I don’t think Mitchell is positing a completely Determinist cosmos.

What people do impacts on their Fate.

Some rise to the top as Supermen or Ubermenschen, some fall to the bottom as Downstrata or Untermenschen.

Some Men are predators, others victims. Some rise, some fall. In between, some are “half-fallen”, Mitchell calls them the “Diagonal People”.

Like the character Isaac Sachs, their tragic flaw is that they are “too cowardly to be a warrior, but not enough of a coward to lie down and roll over like a good doggy.”

Virtue Incarnate (or Reincarnate?)

Mitchell’s six stories feature heroes (of sorts), five of whom are or might be reincarnations of the same soul.

Each of them has the courage to fight against evil or power or oppression or cruelty.

They are idealists, liberals, [affirmative] activists, boat rockers, shit-stirrers, young hacks, non-conformists, dissidents, rebels, revolutionaries, rogues, rascals, “picaros” (the Spanish word from which the word “picaresque” derives), messiahs and naughty boys.

They eschew duplicity, dishonesty and falseness, they seek authenticity, honesty and truth:

"Truth is the gold."

"Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths."

"The true true is presher’n’rarer’n diamonds."

They oppose power, corruption, and lies, tyranny and mutation. [They must be fans of New Order and Blue Oyster Cult.]

Talkin’ About a Revolution

Our heroes create messages and symbols to overcome tyranny: journals, epistles, memoirs, novels, music, films, video confessions, “orisons” (a word that actually means “prayers”), scripts, catechisms, declarations, even new post-apocalyptic languages.

Like hippies ("the love and peace generation"), they oppose mainstream culture with their own counter-cultural artifacts, as if the reincarnated souls, the Grateful Living, are perpetuating the Grateful Dead.

The eponymous artwork, the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", is composed by Robert Frobisher, a bisexual wunderkind:

"Cloud Atlas holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework."

Just like Guy Fawkes, it’s explosive and revolutionary.

Frobisher composes the work while engaged as an amenuensis for the older composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who believes that the role of the musician or artist is to “make civilization ever more resplendent”.

Perhaps ingenuously, for one of the reincarnates, Frobisher counters:

“How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are mere scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”

His own composition resounds throughout the entire novel. It also describes the central metafictional device that Mitchell uses to construct his fiction:

"A sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J is in my bed. She should understand, the artist lives in two worlds."

Artists might live in a private world and a public world, but there is a sense in which they also live both in the present and in the future.

An Atlas of Clouds

At a more metaphorical level, the Atlas contains maps of the human nature that Mitchell describes.

The Clouds carry the vagaries of human nature across time, encircling the world on their journey, obscuring and frustrating our aspirations and desires:

"Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides... I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."

Revolutionary or Gimmicky?

Mitchell directly asks us to consider whether his own work is gimmicky.

Superficially, it is, but what finally convinced me that the novel deserves five stars is a conviction that his subject matter and his metafictional devices are genuinely and effectively stitched together.

It wasn’t easy to come by this realization. I had to work on it, but it was worth it.

Men and Women and Eroticism

Women play a significant role as both characters and subject matter in the novel.

To a certain extent, they represent an alternative to the corrupt corporate culture symbolized by Seaboard Power (even though its Head of Publicity is a woman):

"Men invented money. Women invented mutual aid."

There is a sense in which men [males] are driven by the hunger, the acquisitiveness, at the heart of the novel’s concerns, far more so than women:

”Yay, Old Un’s Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more…Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.”

Still, men and women still get into bed with each other, and the sexual encounters in the novel are usually either entertaining or slyly erotic, no matter how economically they are described:

”Accepted this proxy fig leaf cum olive branch and our lovemaking that night was almost affectionate.”

”Our sex was joyless, graceless, and necessarily improvised, but it was an act of the living. Stars of sweat on Hae-Joo’s back were his gift to me, and I harvested them on my tongue.”

[For all the talk of comet-shaped birthmarks, this view of sex as an act of the living will stay with me for the rest of my life, even when I can no longer lift myself up on my elbows.]

"Eva, Because her name is a synonym for temptation...all my life, sophisticated idiotic women have taken it upon themselves to understand me, to cure me, but Eva knows I'm terra incognita and explores me unhurriedly...Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning...here she is, in these soundproofed chambers of my heart."

And isn’t this exactly what life is all about?

To be understood, to be cured, to be explored (unhurriedly), to be laughed at, to be sprayed all over, to be in love, in the soundproofed chambers of your heart.

David Mitchell, this image alone deserves five stars.


Jordi Savall - "Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina"(Sephardic Jewish music from Sarajevo)"


This music is playing in the Lost Chord record store in the novel.

Tracey Chapman – "Talkin’ About a Revolution"


"Don’t you know
They're talkin' about a revolution.
It sounds like a whisper.
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share."

Bob Dylan - "Shelter From the Storm"


'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Joni Mitchell - "Both Sides Now"


I've looked at clouds from both sides now...

+Post 125
Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book1,033 followers
February 4, 2021
A few pages before the end of Mitchell’s novel, one of the narrators, a young composer, discloses the unusual structure of his musical “masterpiece” — at it happens, Cloud Atlas is originally the title of a piano sonata:
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the 1st thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep. (Sceptre edition, p. 463)

This simple, yet entirely original idea is, by way of metaphor, the one that governs the whole novel. Mitchell interlocks six stories into a A-B-C-D-E-F/F’-E’-D’-C’-B’-A’ Matryoshka / palindromic series. A creative and surprising device that could put Mitchell almost on par with Nabokov, Calvino and Borges.

These six stories are written in different genres: seafaring adventure, spy fiction, science fiction, comedy, etc. Should we try to unravel the symmetrical mosaic of the whole sextet and consider each of these six novellas individually, much of the charm and effect of Mitchell’s novel would probably vanish. The fifth story, titled “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, written as a sci-fi novella (loosely inspired by Soylent Green) is powerful enough and would make an excellent stand-alone; but the rest of the lot can sometimes feel a bit uneven.

Still, interwoven as they are, and spanning across continents and centuries, they map out at their core a vast polyphony on the unrelenting oppression and exploitation of human beings by other human beings. According to Mitchell, it is everywhere and ever-present: on distant colonies, in art and trade, within political and industrial endeavours, in the treatment of vulnerable people, in social inequality. As says one of the characters, probably alluding to Schopenhauer or Nietzsche:

The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions and the borders of states. (p. 461)

All this is, one way or another, the many manifestations of universal cannibalism. Or, to put it in an aphoristic manner: “The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat.” (p. 508)

Yet, Mitchell truly shines as a writer in his ability to give each story “its own language of key, scale and colour”. In other words, he is a true virtuoso of mannerism, able to emulate just as well the style of writing of a 19th-century American mariner (cf. Moby-Dick) or the sci-fi neologisms-ridden lingo of a late-21th-century Korean clone, and every widely different type of language in-between, just as convincingly and with just as much knack and chameleonic finesse. Coming from someone who suffered from a stammer and had a hard time expressing himself as a child, this ability to bend the English language every which way (sometimes almost to the limit of readability) is nothing short of a stroke of wizardry.

Cloud Atlas is probably Mitchell’s most famous novel, thanks to the 2012 movie adaptation directed by the Wachowskis, with (among others) Tom Hanks and Halle Berry — it is still in my to-watch list. By the way, Mitchell also worked on the TV Series Sense8 with the same directors. While the LGBT+ themes come undoubtedly from the Wachowskis themselves, the idea of individuals interconnected across great distances is certainly David Mitchell’s trademark. Better still than the series, though, Cloud Atlas masterfully illustrates this concept.

So, is this whole thing “revolutionary or gimmicky?” Shan’t know until you’ve read it, and by then it’ll be too late. For my money, it’s probably somewhere in the middle, but I did enjoy this intricate, playful, stimulating novel tremendously.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,609 reviews1,033 followers
May 16, 2012

I finished the book 10 days ago, and I still hesitate to start this review. The first reason is that I loved the book so much, I am left with a feeling of inadequacy :

The second reason is the nature of the story. I can't begin to explain why I think this is important to me without going into the message / the core of the narrative. All the stories assembled into this map of clouds/beliefs/attitudes are variations on a given theme, and the interrupted nature of the narrative is important in maintaining tension and in cloaking the philosophical foundation of the ensemble. So discussing the hidden message can be consider slightly spoilerish. My preference is to read the books first and come to the discussion forums after I formed my own opinion.

This said, the first comment is that very little in the Cloud Atlas is accidental or irrelevant. If the six stories appear initially random of pointless, I would counsel patience : it will all be made clear, eventually. I cannot claim credit for the following analogies - they are part of the text: the author uses the Matryoshka doll style of embedding one story into another in order to illustrate how the present encompasses the past and is in turn enveloped by the future, while the classical sextet composition explains how each of the six characters (piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin) picks up the main musical theme, give it the instrument's specific tonality and introduces variations and soloist cadenzas.

The books opens with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing - a narrative of the voyage of an American accountant in the Pacific, cca. 1850. A pious, timid and undemonstrative man, he witnesses the effects of modern civilization on the natives of the Polinesian islands and the harshness of life aboard a sailing ship. The precarity of his health turns him toward introspection in morality disertations in his journal, a journal that will be discovered by the protagonist of the second story ( a plot device that will be repeated with each new main character)

Letters from Zedelghem is set in Belgium in 1930 and follow the picaresque adventures of Robert Frobisher, a young rake spurned by his rich family and forced to abandon his musical studies and live outside the law. Penniless, he flees England and tries to find redemption in the sumptuous estate of a celebrated composer whose poor health may prompt him to accept an assistant (amanuensis - a new word I learned today) . As proof of Mitchell's talent in masking the true intent of this second installment, I didn't care much for Frobisher amoral attitude, despite his humorous snarky comments in the letters, but he became my favorite character of all six after reading the second half of his story.

Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.

For a cynic and a crook, Frobisher shows quite a lyrical streak once he encounters love:

Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning. Because a man like me has no business with this substance - beauty - yet here she is, in these soundproofed chambers of my heart.

A character from these letters features in the third story : Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery . This one is set in California around 1975 and is another change in form. After an intimate journal and an epistolary exposition, the story is told as an eco thriller of one idealistic journalist fighting the big business bent on destroying the environment and putting thousands of lives at risk.

The unpublished manuscript of Luisa Rey reaches the hands of a contemporary London publisher in the fourth story : The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish . This is another thriller, with a strong flavor of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" . Cavendish is in his 60's, and forced here to admit his age and act accordingly, even if the pill is bitter:

We - by whom I mean anyone over sixty - commit two offenses just by existing. One is lack of Velocity: we drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman's memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny eyed denial if we are out of sight.

With the fifth story we arrive finally at the science-fiction part of the novel. An Orison of Sonmi~451 was my favorite initially, with its portrayal of a dystopian society dominated by consummerism and at the mercy of super-corporations that use genetically altered human clones (fabricants) as indentured laborers while the purebloods enjoy unlimited merchandise and entertainment. As a funny commentary of how fast things change in the world economy, the author mentions among the corporations of the future Sony and Kodak, both of which are in dire straits in 2012, only a couple of years after the novel was written.
The story of Somni reminded me strongly of The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, among other classics of SF literature.

The dystopian tale of Somni is followed by the sixth and final installment Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After a post-apocalyptic story of the survivors of a global holocaust trying to survive among the Hawaiian islands. This is the core, the innermost Russian doll, and the ambitious plans of the author begin to be revealed. The form of this final tale is the one that gave me some slight problems because the apocalypse brought not only the collapse of the economy, but also the degradation of language. The format is the oldest form of storytelling, orally around a campfire. One aspect of the story that initially bothered me was the inclusion of the supernatural in the form of prophecy (I'm developing an allergy to it as a plot device in most of my fantasy books) , but I believe it is quite a smart move of Mitchell used to illustrate the circular nature of history.

After this point, the author ramps up the philosophical discussion and turned most of my expectation on their head. Every page written turns out to be a debate on the Meaning of Life: the nature of civilization, the human nature and the survival of mankind. According to David Mitchell, the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, is fought not in the war rooms of superpowers or in the secret hideouts of secretive organizations bent on world domination, but inside each and every one of us, choosing to give in in the face of aggression or to stand up and affirm the belief in a better option. Starting with the central story, and going back to the first, here are what I consider the relevant quotes:

So, is it better to be savage'n to be Civlized?
What's the naked meanin bhind them two words?
Deeper'n that its this. The savage satfies his needs now. Hes hungry, hell eat. Hes angry, hell knuckly. Hes swellin, hell shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an if his will say-soes, Kill! hell kill. Like fangy animals. [...]
Now the Civlized got the same needs too, but he sees further. Hell eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he wont go hungry morrow. Hes angry, hell stop'n think why so he wont get angry next time. Hes swellin, well, hes got sisses an daughters what need respectin so hell respect his bros sisses an daughters. His will is his slave, an if his will say-soes, Don't! he wont, nay.
So, I asked gain, is it better to be savage'n to be Civlized?
Listn, savages and Civlized aint divvied by tribes or bliefs or mountain ranges, nay, evry human is both, yay.


Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. [...] In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only rights, the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.


What sparks war? The Will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, the actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.


the weak are meat, the strong do eat.


Scholars discern motions in history and formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises and falls of civilizations.
My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world.
Why fight the natural (oh, weaselly word!) order of things? Why?
Because of this: one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.


I will end my review with a commentary on the title. I see Cloud Atlas as the antithesis of Atlas Shrugged , probably not intentional on Mitchell's part, but this here is the ultimate argument against selfishness. One of the six characters, looks back at his younger days and muses on the volatility of happyness and meaning:

Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides. I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

My recommendation - read this and don't give up before the final page because, like Robert Frobisher says, A half-read book is a half-finished love affair
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
April 8, 2014
Given that to review Cloud Atlas has become a perilous activity in GR, since it can elicit all kinds of backlashes and from a variety of stands, I will only include an innocent declaration of intent.

In respect to the book and to the following incumbents: the author David Mitchell, the publisher, the editors, the printers, any reading groups, any member readers in GR, whether friends or followed or followers, any member of Management in GR, and even, yes! even the new owners of GR.

I, Kalliope of GoodReads, and any other of my possible avatars, both past and future, as well as my mortal and limited self, do not wish to:

Annoy, pester, criticize, torment, blame, madden, provoke, badger, despise, anger, bother, vilify, exasperate, scorn, displease, insult, irritate, tease, mock, taunt, vituperate, reproach, revile, affront, slam, rile, deride, abuse, outrage, irk, offend, vex, bully, belittle, nor show any disrespect to the aforementioned.

Nor do I, Kalliope of GoodReads, and any other of my possible avatars, both past and future, as well as my mortal and limited self, do not wish to:

Congratulate, applaud, cheer, hail, laud, pay homage, honor, admire, eulogize, flatter, sanctify, commemorate, acclaim, glorify, idolize, boost, cherish, venerate, revere, exalt, rave, fete, esteem, praise, celebrate, approve, solemnize, chant, adore, commend, bless, extol, compliment, proclaim, nor endorse anything nor anybody of the aforementioned.

I also wish to add that the above declaration has been submitted with the conviction that it is reliable and that it has been narrated in good faith.

As for my stars… well yes, I’ll have to admit the five stars.

P.S.: I just hope now that with the above disclaimer I shall not fall prey to anyone or to anything and that civilization will continue its proper march undeterred.
Profile Image for Matthias.
107 reviews376 followers
April 2, 2016
1. Counting
I don’t remember exactly when I learnt to count. It feels like one of my earliest memories, and one of my most profound. Things started to make sense right there and then. That mountain of peas on my plate felt a lot less menacing when I could count that there were only 36 of them. My collection of Dinky Toys was all the more impressive when I realized I had a whopping 24 miniature cars to play with. My enjoyment of candies increased when I realised 5 became 4 and 4 become 0 real quick. I enjoyed counting. I would count cars, trees, birds, buildings, pens, clouds, ants, marbles, blades of grass and the freckles on my father’s arm. I counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and beyond. And I counted on a world of possibilities that are as infinite as they are manageable.

2. Drawing
The holidays were over and the grey clouds of September carried the overpowering smell of the school’s soup with them. It’s a smell that was embedded in the classroom’s walls, in my books, in my clothes. A smell that could only be shaken off by a warm summer breeze and rolling around in the grass. Presently I found myself in a school made of concrete, holding down the grass and keeping out the breeze. The first assignment the teacher gave us was to look back on that beautiful summer and draw our best memory. The smell of soup filled my nostrils. Pea soup. It wasn’t always pea soup but it always smelled like pea soup. And the thing with soup is that there’s no telling how many peas were in there. How could I recall anything of summer in this environment of grey walls and brownish green soup? The teacher was hovering over me when I had just started drawing. I had begun like I always began: a smiling sun in the top left corner. “The sun doesn’t have a face.”, the teacher told me flatly. The foundation of every drawing I had made crumbled and so did my childhood. But I had a drawing to finish. A drawing of happier times where the sun was still allowed to smile, a drawing of times that suddenly seemed miles away.

3. Caring
Summers in my childhood street were beautiful. The street was a loop, shaped very much like a “b”, with houses on all sides. Only cars who had to be there would pass by, so the street belonged to us, us being me and a friend who was visiting. We had met each other on holidays in Rhodes, and given that we were the only two Flemish kids there, at an age where our differences didn’t matter as much as the games we could play together, we got along really well. His parents dropped him off for a week every summer since then. Christopher was a lot more adventurous than I was and whenever he came around we explored new areas, climbed trees, built camps and stole apples. One summer we were at a little creek, at the tip of the “b”, and heard the sound of frogs. “Did you ever catch a frog?”, Christopher asked. I hadn’t. I didn’t like little living things. They scared me, as I pictured them jumping into my eye or crawling under my skin. I had seen Christopher catch huge bugs in Rhodes that were resting on trees, insects that terrified me and would haunt many of my nightmares. But I never wanted to show him my weakness in this regard. “I’ll show you how to catch a frog.”, he said. And I told him “ok”, with a heart that felt like the size of a pea.

4. Joking
Language camps were my parents’ favourite thing to send me off to. It was a great way for me to make new friends, learn another language and get out of the house without them needing to worry. The first language camp I went to was on a farm that was called “The Falcon”. The idea was to have the children speak in English to each other all the time, and thus learn new vocabulary as they were playing. So getting out of the house? Check! Learning another language? Check! Making new friends? Kcehc… I had just started wearing glasses and was still pretty insecure about them, with camp being the first time I’d be wearing them in public. I thought things would be fine because I knew a friend who was going as well, so at least I’d have him to hang around with. Sadly, he abandoned me the first day, even before my parents’ car drove out of sight. He had a really cool cap from the Charlotte Hornets, green and purple, with the visor bent into a “U”. I had a cap too. It was white, aside from the rims that were yellowed by months of perspiration, and had the logo of a cheap beer brand. The visor was as flat as an ironing board. Who could blame him for looking for other friends with cooler caps? I was mocked and ridiculed within the first hour of being at camp, even before rooms were appointed. Eventually I got to share my room with an asthmatic kid, who was my only competitor for being the camp’s social outcast. While I sympathised with his condition, his loud snoring at night made it difficult for me to be genuinely warm to him. And after he pulled down my pants in the middle of a football game, with the entire camp (girls included) watching, difficult became impossible.
One of the highlights of the camp was the camp fire. At that time the children were asked to prepare something, like a dance or a sketch, to show in front of the others. Groups were eagerly formed and as the other kids were practicing their singing and their acrobatics, I found myself alone and without ideas. Until I saw an empty bucket with the label of a brand of mayonnaise.

5. Writing
High school was pretty good to me. I had a nice group of friends, my grades were okay, and I didn’t have to exert myself too much in order to obtain them. One teacher tried to change all that. Mr. Vekeman, who gave courses for Dutch, didn’t like me. In fact, he hated me. He had noticed that I was lazy and that I didn’t pay attention. While that was true, the problem was that he took all of this personally. As if my lack of devotion for Dutch somehow brought to light his own failure at being an interesting person.
One day he gave us an assignment: to write an essay on the topic of “responsibility”. He showed an example of a particular type of essay, the one where a fictional story is interspersed with social commentary, both feeding in to each other. It looked pretty cool. Finally an assignment I liked!
I started writing about a guy left home alone, his parents leaving on a holiday. He organised a big party instead of doing his homework. This story ran parallel with some remarks on how responsibility is obtained or bestowed and the ways in which one can wriggle out of them. Of course, the whole thing blew up in that guy’s face, allowing me the conclusion that the vomit of his drunken friends in the pool was what brought home the importance of responsibility. The lesson that it was only when you took your responsibility that the luxury of swimming without finding a stray pea in your course would be yours. I handed in the essay with confidence and discussed it with my friends. They smirked. They told me I hadn’t understood the assignment correctly. We were supposed to write a normal essay, without all the fiction that our teacher deemed ridiculous. He had given us an example in class, not because he liked it, but to show us how it should never be done. An example which I followed. A style that my teacher despised and would find in an essay with my name on it.

6. Reviewing
I’m on Goodreads, present day. I’ve just read Cloud Atlas, a wonderful achievement by a gifted author. A book that is difficult to summarize because of its scope. It’s a tale that spans six different times, places and genres . There are many lines that connect these tales, but the first one worth noting is the brilliance of David Mitchell. It takes daring to write a book like this, and skill. He’s got both. First of all, there’s his mastery of English language. Just consider the following quotes:

”A ringing phone flips Luisa’s dreams over and she lands in a moonlit room."

I wouln't be surprised if David Mitchell has a similarly shaped birthmark as Charles Dickens had.

”The cold sank its fangs into my exposed neck and frisked me for uninsulated patches.”

Not convinced?

” Hot glass office buildings where the blooms of youth harden into aged cacti like my penny-pinching brother.”

Okay, just one more:

” The memory cracked on the hard rim of my heart and the yolk dribbled out.”

This book uses many different styles. Some stories are presented in the form of a letter, others are a journal, still others are an interview. Given that it spans different centuries, language itself is transformed. The chapters set in the 19th century made me grab my dictionary once in a while, while the stories set into the future are an experiment much in the same vain as “A Clockwork Orange” or “Riddley Walker” are. The language that Mitchell foresees for the future is less pleasing to both the ear and the eye than Burgess’ Nadsat. The stories set in the future registered a bit less in my mind for that reason.

Aside from his mastery of language and his propensity of delivering powerful aphorisms, Mitchell can enter the mind of any character one can imagine. He knows the workings of an ageing publisher as well as those of a gifted musical composer, he describes the life of a mass-produced clone as well as that of a 19th century notary traveling on the Pacific.

Six stories are contained in Cloud Atlas. The way they are connected is usually very subtle, though the author sometimes can’t help himself and waves a certain birthmark in your face. The blurb at the back says it’s about power, and true enough, many insights from many different perspectives are given on the nature, pitfalls and omnipresence of power and mankind's thirst for it. But I think that the true essence of this book, for me, can better be summarised with the author’s own words:

"Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds and contrary tides. I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds. "

Aside from this central and ethereal theme, the stories in Cloud Atlas each have their own plot. There’s one about an escape from a retirement home, which is my favourite. It’s got the perfect mix of humour, tension and philosophical musings. The protagonist, Timothy Cavendish, is a bit embittered and looks at the world around him with a very sceptical, but nonetheless thoroughly perceiving eye. His ghastly ordeal is the best thing I’ve read this year and that story alone is worth reading this book. The letters from Zedelghem castle, located in a little Belgian town, were also a highlight with the usage of refined language and a rather direct protagonist.

What cost this book a star is the story about the first Luisa Rey mystery. It’s got a good villain and one good line (the one about dreams flipping over), but other than that it brings the book down. First of all: it’s not a mystery. The story, pulled by its hairs as it is, is riddled with plotholes and clichés. . Was this a conscious choice by the author, employing the superficial, no-attention-to-detail “Hollywood”-style to give yet another flavour to Cloud Atlas? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I should like it.

But the overall experience of Cloud Atlas: Mesmerizing. Inspiring. Amazing. What really makes this book shine is its structure, the prose of an author who swims in English like an otter in a pond, and, of course, the grand idea of trying to make, draw and write an atlas of clouds, and succeeding.

5. Writing
A couple of days had passed and I had almost succeeded in forgetting about that essay. The sword that was dangling above my head had disappeared over the weekend, but come Monday morning that very same sword shot through the stars on a course straight for the top of my head. I could feel its heated presence in the air and was just wishing it would all be over soon when the teacher came into the class with a bundle of papers. THE bundle of papers. My essay, my biggest failure to date, was in there. Mr. Vekeman had a sorrowful look on his face. He was displeased. He started handing out the essays without having spoken a word. Slowly. I looked at my classmates’ reactions and saw despair written on their faces. The only sound in the class was the ruffling of papers and little gasps of disappointment. Of shock. Everyone around me had had their essays handed back to them. Some had gotten zero out of twenty. But where was my essay?
The teacher stood in front of the class with one paper in his hand.
“Now I will read the essay of the one person who managed to get it right. The one person who got the maximum score.”
He started to read.
I beamed with pride.
My classmates looked at me and smiled.
They liked it too.

4. Joking
The preparations for the camp fire were well under way. The firewood had been stacked, the music installation was set up, the tables where the hotdogs would be prepared were in place. Most kids were already returning to their rooms to get dressed for the big night. The shadows were getting longer, the breeze was getting cooler as I set to work on the bucket. I had made the children laugh already once during that football game, and I resolved to do it again, only this time not at anyone’s expense. I felt ready. I giggled at the scenario that played out in my head. I felt ready. I pictured Lea’s blush and playful look as I was gracefully accepting the laughter and applause. I felt ready.
The show was already well underway when I started to get nervous. Kids had been dancing and singing, sure, but there were also some that had been funny. Funny was my plan! And suddenly, after some kids were done impersonating Andrea Bocelli, it was my turn. Me and my bucket of mayonnaise. There I stood, in front of the very same audience who had seen my p-p, an audience that might as well have been a mouth to hell. I began.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you this new brand of paint!”
I showed them the side of the bucket that I had covered with a piece of paper, with the word PAINT scribbled on it.
“It is the thing to get in your homes, ladies and gentlemen. It can be used in your living rooms, garages, kitchens, for your garden shacks, for walls and ceilings alike! Get this paint now! It’s water resistant! It’s whiter with a delicate touch of yellow! It’s wonderful!”
Timing was everything. I turned around the bucket, showing people the label of mayonnaise.

And then, there was silence.
A silence I will never forget.

3. Caring
We went into the creek in search for the frogs. A part of me was hoping the little amphibians would be too quick for us, too clever, but after what seemed like only a couple of seconds Christopher had already caught one. “Look, it’s a big one!”, he said. I looked and expressed my high esteem for his frog-catching talents, hoping he would free the animal soon. He did. But he wasn’t done yet. He would teach me to catch one for myself. I was taught to combine luring with patience and swiftness. The trick is not to grab them, but to just make them jump into your hands. I went about it rather half-heartedly, but that day I learnt never to underestimate a frog’s eagerness to be caught. Without really trying I had caught a frog. Not entirely according to procedure, as it was dangling from my hands with one of its legs stuck between my fingers, but got it I did! I showed it to Christopher and quickly threw it away. “What are you doing? We’re taking them home! To show to your mother! We can build them a little park in a Tupperware box, they’ll have the time of their lives!” Back to square one. I was dreading the return journey with a frog in my hands, so I expertly managed to not catch one. To no avail. Christopher quickly caught two and gave me one to carry. “Be careful so that it doesn’t jump away.” he said. The frog was placed gently on the palm of my hand. I put my other hand over it and thus we walked back home, talking about the things we’d build and the fun the frogs would have. Having a frog in my hand wasn’t all that bad. After a while it stopped feeling so cold and it didn’t move around as much as I expected. I started to feel connected with the little creature. My little friend would be a hero among frogs, with plenty of stories to tell about Tupperwarepark. By the time we got home I felt like a Crocodile Dundee in the making. Excitedly I shouted to my mom to get us a box. She hurried out and asked us what we were up to. Proudly we showed our catch. A beautiful frog in Christopher’s hand. A squished pancake of peas in mine.

2. Drawing
I erased the sun’s smile. I drew some faceless clouds and faceless trees, a little house and a breeze. How did I draw a breeze? I just drew some flowers that tilted to the left. I drew children playing with a ball. Not because I played with a ball that summer, but because drawing a kid playing with miniature cars was too difficult. The cars would come out too big or the stance of the kid too awkward, so I decided to just keep it out of the drawing. Looking at those happy kids playing with that ball, I kind of got angry. Stupid kids. Stupid ball. What could ruin their dull everyday day? I pondered. And then I drew a bee. A big, fat bee that was caught in the middle of their ball throwing shenanigans. A big, angry bee that would enact its vengeance on those big blue eyes. A fat, crazy bee that would turn those hapless smiles upside down. The vengeance didn’t take place in the drawing. But it took place in my mind. And on the classroom window. You see, the teacher had the idea of having every kid copy something from their own drawing and paint it on the window. The teacher saw many drawings with children playing with balls, with houses and trees and even flowers in the breeze, but he only saw one with a bee. And so it was me who got to draw a big, fat bee in the summer scenery of the classroom window. A bee that would stay there for the rest of the year. “Who needs a smiling sun, high up in the sky?”, I thought, “When there’s so many reasons to smile right inside my head.”

1. Counting
I don’t remember when I started to tire of counting. The numbers seemed to lose their magic as they got bigger. Three houses seemed so much more interesting than hundreds of buildings. The five apple trees in our garden paled in comparison with the forests I saw on TV. My little world of twenty-sixes, seventeens and fours divided by twos seemed so insignificant. What’s the good of counting if it never stops before it gets boring, or if it never stops at all? What’s the sense of having a number like 76983? There’s just too much to handle. I’ve only got two hands and one head, so how can I be expected to count all those stars above? So I stopped looking up, and I looked down. Down at my hands. I put my hands on the table and looked at the back of my left hand. My pinkie was one. My thumb was five. 1-2-3-4-5. My right hand became 5-4-3-2-1. I made my thumbs overlap. 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. Who needs infinity? Now this was counting that I could handle. Symmetrical. Harmonious. Leaving for a trip and coming back home. Counting that I enjoyed. Counting that I could never tire of. Counting up towards a crescendo and counting down to a blissful conclusion of peace.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,120 reviews1,989 followers
August 2, 2010
One morning while reading Cloud Atlas I was leafing through The Lie that Tells the Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne and I opened to a page talking about how you have to leave room in a book for the readers to do some of the work. The readers need to fill in some of the gaps. According to Dufresne, this isn't just some advice that a writer can't give every piece of minutiae in a book, because that will make it unreadable, but also that readers want to put in some of the work. It makes them feel involved in the work, it invests them. Maybe Dufresne says this, but I was only leafing through the book while going to shelve it, but I think that this is one of the most important parts of a novel and something that maybe everyone else is going to be like, 'well duh', but that I only have somewhere in the back of my mind and rarely put words to the dim thought.

Two days ago I wrote the first paragraph. Now is two days later. I've thought of this some more. I realize that DFW talks quite a bit about this idea in the Lipsky book.
I've also thought of a rough scale of books that expect you to bring something to the table / put some time into them to get something out of them.

Children books
Newspapers / Self-Help-ish type books
Average Non-Fiction / Journalistic books
Average work of fiction
Literary Non-fiction
Literary Fiction
Philosophy / Poetry / Avant-Garde (whatever the fuck that means) Literature.

I have more distinctions to draw in almost all of those categories, and seriously your average newspaper / new bestselling 'expose' by Glen Beck, or a how to big up a woman using lying and deceit book all demand the same amount of work on the part of the reader, zilch. It's better actually in all those cases if the reader just doesn't think much at all it lets the message seep into the mind better that way.

Your awful boilerplate James Patterson-esque novel requires a higher degree of reader interaction with the text. Even if it is just to (un)consciously fill in the appropriate gestalts that will allow the author to work his / her twists of the plot on the reader. In this case it's the readers mind working against the reader and for the author as the reader attempts to solve the mystery going on and the author and mind are working in tandem at misdirection. As one continues up the ladder here more and more is expected on the reader's part for the work to succeed.

Part of the trick to finding a book one will enjoy is to find a work that is in synch with the amount of work you are willing to put into the book. A lot (but not all) of the people who say they only read non-fiction are in effect saying they are pragmatic people, when they read they want to be told what to think and get the meat out of the book ASAP. They want to know X so they read a book that will tell them X. For example if X is the secret to existence, they want to read something that tells them the secret (even if it's wrong) than say wrestle with a hundred pages of say Samuel Beckett to find out what that secret may be. This is a very silly example but it's sort of the kind of thing that people do in fact read books for. I'm not going to say anything about critical faculties or correctness, it's just that a self-help / new age book is going to present material in a way that the reader takes on a relatively passive position, they are told things; as opposed to other types of literature where if the reader doesn't bring something to the text there is just a bunch of words that tell some story that who really cares about. Like, I didn't read Proust because the thought of reading a few thousand pages about a guy who spends a lot of time laying around in bed was riveting to me. There is something more that I'm hoping to gleam from the book, and the book isn't going to just spit that something up without a bit of something from myself.

This is one of those books that demands a bit of work on the part of the reader to put the whole thing together.

I don't really know what the book means. I feel kind of the same way as I do about Infinite Jest as I do about Cloud Atlas they both are big in scope, but at the same time so myopic. The book almost feels like it could have been a TV show from Jonas Wergeland's "Thinking Big" TV series in the Kjærstad novels. The novel is a bunch of stories whose sum is greater and smaller than the whole, depending on what way you decide to look at the work.

Cloud Atlas is six temporally successive stories broken up into 11 sections. The first five stories are split into two, with the first part being told in the first half of the novel and the second in the later half. Only the sixth story is told without any interruption. One could re-read this novel by reading the six stories as six complete stories and look for different connections between them, and maybe they would read differently than in the way Mitchell lays them out. The way that he does put the stories though creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold. I want to almost say that there is something of a mobius strip quality to this novel, but I don't want there to be any Joycean undertones here. If there needs to be a literary anchor for the term than maybe John Barthes' short story "Mobius Strip" as a referent.

I'm saying a lot without saying much at all.

I want to say that this book is awesome, but that you have to want to work with the book. The book might ultimately fail to fully do everything that Mitchell wants it to do, but I'm not sure what he does want it to do. There are arrows pointing to where the author might possibly want the reader to go, but there are also nods and winks that give the reader the choice to pursue other avenues of thought. The only problem with these winks and nods is that the narrative is not fully contained. There is no big act of misdirection being played where the reader can be surprised but ultimately comforted, and without the comforting part there is an unease left in this kind of novel. But it's the really good kind of unease that authors like DFW, Evan Dara and Pynchon expose for us.
Profile Image for Guille.
840 reviews2,184 followers
October 5, 2022

Terminé este libro decepcionado y hasta irritado con el autor.

La novela tiene un pase como proyecto de fin de curso de escritura creativa. No niego que está muy bien escrita, que los cambios de estilo y de registro estén muy conseguidos, que las historias sean entretenidas, pero ahí se queda la cosa. Para mí no deja de ser una colección de cuentos juveniles presentados de forma... digamos que ingeniosa. Aunque también podría decir tramposa.

Claro que también puede ser un problema de expectativas. Uno esperaría (al menos yo lo hice) que todo ese fuego de artificio de capítulos interrumpidos, de historias dentro de historias, de antojos viajeros, de búsqueda de relaciones, terminara con algún tipo de justificación, ese algo más que llevara a estas historias a un punto por encima de esos fogonazos llenos de color pero con poco contenido calórico. Pero nada de nada; no hay más que esa moralina para jovencitos impúberes de que todos tenemos una semillita de bondad dentro de nosotros por muy perversos que nos creamos.

Bueno, sí que hay más. Como el propio autor nos dice en la penúltima de sus historias: “Una nota de violín horrísona: ése será el final de mi sexteto.” ¿Y qué puede ser peor final que ese discurso happy-flower que nos endosa Adam Ewing al final de su capítulo?

“¿Idea revolucionaria o efectismo insustancial?” Pregunta en un momento dado el autor acerca de su obra. La respuesta seguro que se la imaginan ustedes.
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