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Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

What is literature?  How do we decide what is worth studying and what is not?  LD#2 asked me this the other day and I found myself faced with the same questions that troubled me years ago when I was deciding whether to study English or Maths at University: Maths is real but is English Literature just words?  How do you study just words, when they don’t constitute anything tangible?

I was recently sent a BBC/Goodreads “How many have you read”
challenge
and while I had read and enjoyed many of these, I couldn’t help noticing that 14 of the 100 books were written by Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare alone, a bias towards the established canon of respectable dead writers, which I felt sidelined the canon of modern literature.

Also included on this list was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which seems to have been absorbed into the framework of modern literature. Curious to see whether this was justified, I dove in.

Cloud Atlas consists of six stories, loosely linked by the slenderest of motifs – such as the discovery of a diary, the watching of a film. The first story begins with a missionary in the freshly colonised Antipodes, and from here we go through a self-exiled composer in pre-WWII Holland, an adventurous reporter investigating nuclear goings on in the 1970s, a modern day vanity publisher caught up in a Kafka-esque romp, a manufactured human clone bred as a slave in a futuristic dystopia, and ends up in a post-apocalyptic world, where they speak a dialect I found so annoying that I skipped this section altogether and looked up what it was all about on the internet – Cloud Atlas has been made into a film, thank goodness, which means that there are several film buff sites around that helped me with my navigation and comprehension of it.

Having reached the heart of the story, the layers then peel outwards again, so that we travel back out in time and find out what happened to the characters that we left on a cliffhanger.

Cloud Atlas is a curiosity in its scope. It is a book that has attracted plaudits from literary magazine Granta and daytime TV’s Richard and Judy. It boasts a literary confidence that is very much “show not tell”, making it a read where you have to concentrate and work your mind, yet it is also an international best seller.

It isn’t immediately obvious what it’s all about. Actually, it isn’t even ultimately obvious what it’s about. If someone asked me now, the closest I could get to saying what it’s about is that it’s about every that is huge, the swell and movement the evolution of life and society, and it’s about everything that is tiny, like a moment of happiness in a world profoundly without feeling.

On a grand scale, the book is about the way individual and society fit together, with the worst, most repressive aspects of societies, large and small, against both individuals and other peoples memorably presented. It shows a vision of society from the beginnings of the globalisation movement, through to a future in which the evils of globalisation become so intense that the world is taken full circle back to times both simpler and more primitive. In this way, it is itself a “Cloud Atlas”, skimming at breakneck speed as if through the clouds, on an attempt at mapping the world in four dimensions. At the same time, the tangible “Cloud Atlas” of the novel is one of our Holland-adventuring composer, Robert Frobisher’s, pieces, whose fragments and echoes are sought in the future he never knew.

To come back to my original question, literature to me is the following:
– It has something to say, both timelessly in ideas, and about the ideas of its time
– It is well written ie internally consistent, with characters who have plausible motives, and a sense of place
– It is written with the intent of making its reader think

So, yes, it’s very much literature. And strangely, it invoked the same feeling in me as Dickens and Hardy do: I admired it, and thought it was important to read it, but I didn’t love it. Much of it felt rather distant to me. However, there were a few moments, shown through the bravery and predicaments of some of its characters, that will always stay with me, for example, the condemned slave who wishes as a last request to finish an experience begun when “for an hour in my life, I knew happiness”.

And the way the book could be summing up both itself and the whole experience of life in the question: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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20 Comments

  1. kateatthekeyboard

    This has been on my TBR pile for ages but after reading your review I want to pick it up right now. It sounds fascinating.

    • It’s a really “different” book.  I know that sounds faintly damning, but it’s hard to think of a book that compares.  The stories get more and more interesting as you get into the book, so if you find the first in particular a little distant, keep reading!

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  2. Good review. Cloud Atlas is one of my favourite books, most interestingly, I think, for the reasons you give for admiring it. I’m in awe of Mitchell, I think he’s an incredible writer and I love books that push boundaries in terms of style and structure.

    • Awe is definitely the word. To write so timelessly in a style across all centuries and into the future – you have to be a genius to master all that, and the ideas too.

      I think the book took me out of my comfort zone. The happy ending or satisfaction was there to be taken only on a large scale. I like uplifting personal fulfilment, I like characters to find themselves and a “conclusion” to their troubles. Yet life isn’t like that.

  3. I liked your review a lot, I too love Mitchell’s writing (particularly No9dream) and ai found Cloud Atlas to be surprisingly moving. Unlike the film version which I switched off after 20 excruciating minutes!

    • No9 sounds very interesting and maybe a bit more coherent as a story, which would be nice too (I liked the massive structure of Cloud Atlas but wouldn’t hurry to repeat the experience). Maybe this is just wishful thinking though… I will find out soon!

      Thanks for dropping by.

      • I could never manage to make it through Cloud Atlas – Number 9 Dream was good in parts, and I found it utterly frustrating at other times – but after reading a few much more straightforward books recently, I’m hankering for something more complex again. Maybe it’s time I had another crack at it…

    • There are two sorts of review that I think are the very best: the ones that introduce you to a book you have never heard of and turn out to love.  And the books you read about in the papers, and on Amazon and think, “Shall I?” until you read the bloggers’ reviews and think, “I shan’t.”

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      • I agree with you.

        Cloud Atlas is one of those books of which I cannot dispute its literary merit, the particular talent and skill of the author in creating a work of art; but I prefer literature that speaks to my heart on a deeper level, just as I prefer paintings, sculpture and theater/dance when they make me feel as if my time was well-spent in contemplating/appreciating. That, of course, is an entirely subjective thing, and that’s why I now look to certain bloggers’ reviews even more than I trust the newspaper reviews. Another elucidating article by you! 🙂

    • PaperbackPrincess,
      I agree: it’s an excellent review and I don’t want to read the book!

      Denise,
      What did you end up studying at University? Maths or English?

      • I did Maths, which has been useful in finding a job whenever I needed one. My sister did English and History but didn’t really enjoy it. I think it’s a shame that our degree structures tend to be so polarised at English Universities. I am really an all rounder and don’t specialise well. Actually, that’s a fancy way of saying I get bored really easily and have a short attention span.

  4. David Mitchell is very high on my list of absolutely-must-read-authors, though I haven’t got around to him yet. Shamefully, I possess a hardback of this book, which I think came as part of a Book People package of Booker shortlist candidates. I don’t like to think how many years ago that was! I’m very curious to read this one because it IS always described as being so literary. When I was teaching, I used to judge a book entirely by how much teaching interest it held. It wasn’t until I’d been blogging and not teaching for several years that I began to remember there was another way of reading, one based more on pleasure and engagement. Now I find it interesting to go back and flex those old lit crit muscles through my more pleasure-seeking eyes. It can make for very different reading experiences. David Mitchell’s book sounds like a good candidate for that sort of reading process.

    • Interesting to hear your view on a book’s teaching potential. These days my criterion teind tends to be – what can I learn about the process of writing? I was just fascinated by the fact that Cloud Atlas became such a best seller.

  5. Denishe I haven’t read David Mitchell but I will after our review. I am nominating you for the Sunshine Award, as you have encouraged me to keep writing for instructions on how to get the picture etc please click on the link to Bob’s page; https://decidinglybob.wordpress.com/
    Thank you, have a great week.

    • Hi, Maria.
      Thanks for the Award! I am not good with Awards, but I would encourage everyone to go and check out the very sweet Bob at the link you’ve provided.
      Hope you are well, Denise

  6. Your reviews are always so good Denise but I’ve not read any of David Mitchell’s books. I love Dickens but I adore Hardy so perhaps this is a good read for me. Hmmmm. Food for thought!
    I seem to have missed this post. I’ve not been getting all my email notifications lately (seems to be a myriad of technological problems lately) so maybe that’s why.
    I’m going to be really cheeky here but I value your insight and feedback of my writing so much that I wonder, in case you haven’t seen my last post, if you would take a look at my memoir book blurb I’ve just posted on my header? I really struggled for ages with what to say but this is what I came up with so at least those who might be in the slightest bit interested might at least want to read some kind of summary. I know how busy you are these days but just in case, and when you have a moment, here is the link: http://sherrimatthewsblog.com/memoir-book-blurb/ I can’t tell you what this would mean to me. Thanks so much Denise 🙂

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