I’d never heard of Cloud Atlas—published in 2004—until my friend Dan mentioned that he was reading it in advance of the film version. I checked out some reviews, and it sounded intriguing and possibly amazing. One Good Reads member described it as life-changing. How had I missed this book?
Soon after, I read a New Yorker article about the Wachowskis—siblings Lana and Andy—who, along with Tom Twyker, directed Cloud Atlas, the movie. I was more convinced that Cloud Atlas had to be my next book; I didn’t want the film to be my first experience of this work.
Alas, the book was not quite what I’d hoped. Six so-so stories don’t get better because they’re chopped and reconfigured as a nested doll of five openings, one central story, and five closings. Not even when they share profound themes of enslavement and freedom, delusion and truth-telling, good and evil. Not even when they offer cunning breadcrumb trails of related characters and shared motifs: the first half-story—a diary—is found by the second half-story’s protagonist; the “Luisa Rey” story is scanned by a subsequent story’s protagonist, an editor, who minimizes it as “artsily-fartsily Clever…neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay.” I guess those comments are meant to underscore the editor’s earlier rant about “flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices: they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.” How cloyingly clever of Mitchell to pack potential criticism right into his own book.
I’ll admit that I was invested in some of the narratives: Adam Ewing’s decency toward the escaped slave Auta and his gradual poisoning by a “friendly” doctor; Timothy Cavendish’s escapes from thugs and nursing home jailers. But other stories seemed like girders propping up the novel’s overarching form.
I’m not so tied to older literary forms that I can’t appreciate Mitchell’s attempt to tell stories in an ambitious new way. But for me, Cloud Atlas was more bag of tricks than virtuoso turn. I felt manipulated by the devices, not charmed. For a more emotionally-satisfying version of the linked-story form, I’d recommend Kate Atkinson’s excellent Not the End of the World.
I’m always looking for great books—and I’m sorry Cloud Atlas wasn’t one of them. Still thinking about my earlier post on genre literature, it occurs to me that it’s this fear of disappointment with “straight literature” that drives readers back to the tried-and-true forms of genre literature.