Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Format: Trade Paperback
Cloud Atlas is a novel that is difficult to categorize. First of all, it is not really a novel, but more of a collection of six interrelated short stories. The time peroid spans from the mid-1800’s to the far future where clones are commonplace and later when civilization has fallen.
The first story is “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” stylistically reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville. It takes place during the 1850’s, dealing with the themes of slavery and colonization. The writing reflects the time period, which requires a bit of patience on the reader’s part to get into the story.
The second story is “Letters from Zedelghem,” an epistolary account of composer Robert Frobisher and his humorous escapades working as a scribe for a famous composer. He writes letters to his friend/lover, Rufus Sixsmith, who we don’t gain much knowledge of throughout this narrative. Frobisher is connected to the first story when he finds the journal of Adam Ewing.
The third story is “Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” This story is the simplest of the bunch, and tells a murder mystery that involves journalist, Luisa Rey, and a corporate conspiracy. The pulpy crime thriller involves none other than Rufus Sixsmith, the scientist receiving Frobisher’s letters.
The fourth story is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” dealing with an aging publishing agent who reads the Luisa Rey mystery with the intent of publishing it.
The fifth story is “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” written as an interview that questions the motives of a slave clone who defies her masters. This story has many science fiction elements, closely related to such dystopian works as 1984 and A Brave New World. Sonmi-451 watches one of the greatest films ever made, called “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.”
The sixth and final story is “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” As one can guess from the title, the language is challenging to read, reflecting a time in the far future after civilization has fallen. Zachry finds a recording of the interview with Sonmi-451 and believe her to be some type of god. Later, their valley tribe is invaded by an advanced civilization known as prescients, uniting the final story to the first.
I can appreciate what Mitchell has done here. The six stories are nicely nested within one another, each written in a completely different style. There is ambiguity into the truth of each story, but it’s not important for the reader to separate reality from fiction. What prevails is certain themes that carry from one story to the next. It deals with slavery and freedom, religion, culture, and power. The number twelve becomes symbolic throughout the stories as does a birthmark, which finds its home on the skin of multiple characters. Mitchell pays homage to many great literary works and in the end, he writes a very clever and intelligent collection.
Despite the novel’s cleverness, I found myself slogging through much of it. Some of the writing is difficult to read. I also had a difficult time developing any kind of emotional connection with the characters. So while I can appreciate the literary quality of this work, I would not call it an enjoyable read. The way the stories nested together left me somewhat satisfied at the end, but it did not come anywhere near achieving what I felt Dan Simmons did with Hyperion, also a collection of stories written in the style of Canterbury Tales.
With the upcoming movie of Cloud Atlas, there are many people discovering this novel for the first time (I am one of them). For casual readers, I think you will be disappointed. For those who enjoy literary fiction, you may find yourself right at home. Mitchell clearly is a good writer and he was able to put together a thoughtful and original collection.