Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. New York: Random House, 2004.

Summary: Six stories told in a chiastic structure in different genres of writing, in different voices, from the past to a post-apocalyptic future, with characters whose lives and stories are connected.

This is one of those books I will probably re-read at some point. Not only are the six stories connected, one to the next, but the themes of power abused, of societal dissolution, flight, and the quest for significance leave one pondering.

Some have described this collection of stories as a series of nested or Matryoshka dolls because each story both exists on its own and is found within the next. That is the case, but the book has a chiastic ABCDEFEDCBA structure as follows:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
    • Letters from Zettelghem
      • Half-Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery
        • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
          • An Orison of Sonmi – 451
            • Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
          • An Orison of Sonmi -451
        • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
      • Half-Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery
    • Letters from Zettelghem
  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

The stories are connected by a birthmark all six main characters share, suggesting perhaps each is a reincarnation of the previous one. The stories connect as well. Adam Ewing’s journal chronicles his time among the Moriori tribe on a Pacific island, and a desperate journey home while he is being treated for a brain parasite by his physician companion. The first half breaks off mid-sentence, which is being read by Robert Frobisher, the subject of the Letters from Zettelghem to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher, a young composer disowned by his family and desperate for funds attaches himself to a famous, but syphilitic composer as his amanuensis. While here, he composes the Cloud Atlas sextet–six instruments, distinctive individually, woven together evocatively, as are the six stories that make up the novel. Sixsmith, a nuclear physicist, appears some years later n the next story as the lone dissenting scientist in a safety assessment of a nuclear reactor. When this is quashed, he manages to get the report to Luisa Del Rey, an energetic young reporter, who is pursued by corporate hit men committed to seeing that her story doesn’t get out. The account of her ordeal lands in the possession of publisher Timothy Cavendish, who escapes heirs of one of his authors only to be confined in a nursing home. The film, or “disney” of his ordeal is seen by a “fabricant,” a clone, Sonmi – 451, who is part of an experiment to produce the first “ascended,” fully human fabricant. As such, she is a threat to the totalitarian utopia of which she is a part, and her account is presented as an “orison,” an interview before she is taken to the “Litehouse.” Zachry, is part of a group of survivors, one of two tribes, fighting for a primitive existence in a post-apocalyptic world on the big island of Hawaii. A “Prescient,” a visitor who arrives on a great ship, plays the orison of Sonmi – 451, who becomes a kind of god to him, guiding him as he and the Prescient ascend to the abandoned observatories on Mauna Kea, and achieve a harrowing escape from Zachry’s tribal enemies, the Kona. As he escapes over straits to a neighboring island, he reflects:

“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow. Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

The stories also share an element of flight–Ewing to the mainland for a cure, Frobisher, to Belgium and his composer, and then away to assert his own artistic greatness, Luisa Del Rey from the corporate hit-men, Cavendish, from the angered heirs, from debt, and from his nursing home captivity, Sonmi, from the society that perceives her as a threat, and Zachry, from the Kona. Each in some way is asserting their own existential worth against those who would deny it for their own ends.

Mitchell uses multiple genres–a travel journal, a collection of letters, a suspenseful thiller, first person narrative, an interview, and another narrative (“Sloosha”) in a primitive form of English. It is a fascinating writing accomplishment to put all this together into a work that coheres.

Because of the unfolding connections of the stories, and the “souls” of this novel, I found myself liking this work far more than I anticipated I would. As one discovers how Mitchell is birthing each story out of the other, one is intrigued to see where all of this will go. Moreover, his stories explore the human condition, what it means to be human, a perennial question that spans ages, and civilizations.


5 thoughts on “Review: Cloud Atlas

  1. Sounds contrived, a work of authorial self-indulgence. I saw the movie, which was equal parts nonsense and indecipherability. To what end or purpose is the reader’s (viewer’s) torment? We should cherish trees more.

    • From what I gathered, the movie did not serve the book well. I was prepared to dislike the book for the reasons you mention. Biblical writers use chiastic structures as a device to point to meaning and connectedness. I suppose one person’s genius is another’s self-indulgence!

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2018 | Bob on Books

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