Published in 2004, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is one of the more ambitious works of genre fiction in the last decade, and it gained a new surge in popularity when the film adaptation was released in 2012. Cloud Atlas follows six loosely-connected stories, each of which are able to both work separately and intertwine into a grand whole.
Unorthodox and ambitious
Cloud Atlas is quite unlike anything I’d previously read. The six stories that comprise the novel follow what I’ve come to think of as a “parabolic” structure. Before I explain that, however, I should give a brief chronology of the stories: the first story takes place in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in present day, the fifth at an unspecified time in a dystopian future, and the sixth in a post-apocalypse Hawaii.
I describe Cloud Atlas’s structure as parabolic because of the way in which these stories are arranged. They are presented in chronological order, but each of the first five stories breaks off at a critical point. The sixth story is then presented in its entirety. After this, the first five stories are returned to and concluded in reverse order, so the book ends with the same story as when it began. While such a format may seem gimmicky, it works quite effectively; Mitchell doesn’t use it as a cheap trick, but rather as the foundation upon which he constructs his novel. With the stories spanning a wide range of genres, Cloud Atlas could have very easily become a haphazard collection of tales in the hands of a lesser writer—but with Mitchell, the transition from drama to thriller to comedy to dystopian science fiction is as smooth as silk. Furthermore, Mitchell wisely refrains from giving any direct context for his stories; without explanation, he simply drops you into six radically different settings and trusts you to keep up, a task which is enjoyable and rewarding due to Mitchell’s clean and effective worldbuilding. Each story is interesting and complete in its own way, but due to the subtle linking and thematic resonance, Cloud Atlas becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Six distinct voices
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cloud Atlas is the way in which Mitchell is able to harness such distinct styles of writing in each of his six stories. The first story, told in the format of a journal written in the mid-1800s, feels shockingly authentic to its time period. This holds true as the book progresses: the writing in the subsequent stories matches the settings perfectly, even as they continue into the future. If you had given me each of the stories in Cloud Atlas separately and told me they were all written by the same author, I would not have believed you. Mitchell’s talent for creating such distinct and authentic voices is downright astounding, and Cloud Atlas is worth reading for this reason alone.
Unfortunately, while these distinct voices are perhaps Cloud Atlas’s greatest strength, they are also its greatest weakness. The dense prose of the first and second stories and the stylistic language of the sixth can make them extremely difficult to get through. While I enjoyed the content of the stories themselves, I frequently found myself bored and frustrated with the writing in these sections and became eager to return to the more contemporary parts of the book. This isn’t a huge issue in retrospect—I didn’t fully appreciate what Mitchell was trying to do with Cloud Atlas until I had finished the book—but certain sections of the book can be a struggle for someone trying to get into it for the first time. If you find yourself having a hard time with the early parts of Cloud Atlas, stick with it. You may feel like abandoning it, but it’s worth it to keep going.
Why should you read this book?
Cloud Atlas has that singular trait of all great art: even after it’s over, it lingers in your mind. It took me a long time to get into the book, but now that I’ve finished it, I can’t get it out of my head. I keep thinking about it, and the more I do, the more I fall in love with it. Mitchell is clearly an author of immense talent, and in Cloud Atlas, he offers up to his readers a wealth of material to ponder and enjoy. While I’ve only read it once, I suspect that Cloud Atlas is a book which becomes deeper and richer upon rereading, which I fully intend to do. Cloud Atlas may be more fulfilling for some readers than others, but I highly recommend reading it so you can find out for yourself.