Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

>>Published: August 2004

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012


Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase affair off its pedestal—E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now, smashed figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milkmaid, then Saturday’s Child—orgy of shrapnel filled the air, divine harmonies in my head. Ah, such music! Glimpsed my father trotting up the smashed items’ value, nib flashing, but had to keep the music coming. Knew I’d become the greatest composer of the century if I could only make this music mine. A monstrous Laughing Cavalier flung against the wall set off a thumping battery of percussion.


Crossing oceans and spanning hundred of years, from a Pacific voyage in 1850 through present times and extending into an imprecise future where humanity has managed to come within a breath of extinguishing itself, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an exercise in linked narratives, the nature of man and man’s predication towards both good and evil, and a parable about the existence of an eternal soul that passes between bodies through time and place.

Employing a pyramid structure—five chronological half-narratives, one apex narrative, then the concluding halves of the first five narratives completed in chronologically descending order—Cloud Atlas is frustratingly ham-fisted. Embracing artifice over architecture and emotional resonance, Mitchell’s linking narratives are hollow excursions. Independent of one another, they offer academic (and creatively bankrupt) windows into several lives, including that of an American lawyer crossing the Pacific in 1850, an investigative journalist with an environmental conspiracy on her hands in the 1970s, and a manufactured clone facing execution in a potentially far-off corporate run future dystopia. Together, they form a tepid examination of our cyclical and reactionary natures, and very little else.

Long have I been a proponent of grand, planned-to-the-Nth-degree narratives, but Mitchell’s stories never achieve the same heights as his clear ambitions. Cloud Atlas abandons all semblance of character for the sake of this narrative conceit, and fails dramatically as a result. Focusing too much on style and diction (to a degree that destroys all interest in the narrative with its impenetrable, terribly written apex story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”), Mitchell’s expansive, proto-science fiction epic is a hot mess that crosses the line from affecting specific styles for the sake of the narrative into being a painful, half-baked prototype.

Cloud Atlas is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. Mitchell is an intelligent writer with grand plans, but his third novel is evidence not of a storyteller, but of an academic humanist. His thesis is sound, though not terribly original. However, it is in the creation of his world and his characters where his brilliance fails to convince.

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