I've seen Cloud Atlas
called everything from Buddhist science fiction to a brilliant matryoshka doll of a novel to a gimmicky stunt by an author trying to be more clever than he is. Given that it contains six stories within its pages, each of them wildly different and tied together only by the self-referential conceit of a single reincarnative thread running through them, it lends itself to being interpreted any way the reader likes. Did you like the stories? Then it's a great novel. Did you kind of like them, or like some but not others? Then it's an overrated stunt. Hate them? The author's a wanky smartypants. Find them brilliant and sublime? Then you agree with the Man Booker committee that put this on its 2004 short list, and Peter Boxall's committee who put it on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
I am not sure I'd say Cloud Atlas
is a book everyone must
read before they die, but you should read it — count me among those who loved it.
First of all, David Mitchell is a great story-teller. I know, that's so low-brow, valuing a book for its stories rather than weighty things like Theme and Metaphor and stylistic flourishes. Though there is a fair bit of all that too.
Looked at one way, Cloud Atlas
is an anthology of six stories, spanning centuries and genres. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
is the journal of a 19th century American notary who finds himself on an unasked-for adventure sailing to New Zealand and back to San Francisco by way of Polynesia and Hawaii. Letters from Zedelghem
are from a caddish prodigal musician, telling about his misadventures in Belgium seeking a sugar daddy and a musical mentor as he composes his own great work. Half-Lives — the First Luisa Rey Mystery
is a noir thriller set in 1970s California, starring plucky investigative reporter Luisa Rey, trying to uncover a conspiracy around a new nuclear power plant. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
is another eponymous story about a conniving vanity publisher who finds a bestseller on his hands, which leads him only into trouble. The Orison of Sonmi~451
is a science fiction story about a fabricated person who becomes a revolutionary in a corporate-dystopian futuristic Korea. And finally, at the book's center, is the far future post-apocalyptic tale Shoosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
And then, once you've worked your way through those tales, you work your way back out. Each story is a story within another story. And there are hints of each main character being a reincarnation of the next, if you care to read that into the meta-narrative, or you can just enjoy the cleverness of Zachry worshiping Sonmi, who watches an old movie about Timothy Cavendish, who reads a manuscript about Luisa Rey, who reads old letters from Robert Frobisher in Zedelghem, who finds the missing half-volume of Adam Ewing's Pacific journal. Clever or too-too-clever and precious? You decide. Taken individually, each story was a real page turner, though none were particularly original in themselves, and Mitchell shows his gifts in writing each one in an appropriate and very different style. But yeah, I liked the cleverness and the conceit of wrapping them inside each other. The whole is better than the sum of its parts. So this was definitely a great read for me, and since I also enjoyed Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
, I'd say he's got the stuff.