Book Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
In short, Cloud Atlas is a freaking beautiful book. I have not enjoyed reading a book this much in a long time (as you can probably tell simply by the long period of time that has passed since my last book review). The artistry and craftsmanship are stunning, and reading it is joyous as both a reader of books and writer of them. So often did I gape into the open pages of this fine work, seething with envy for Mitchell’s clever and poetic awesomeness, that I ended up having to read with a bib because I was soaking my shirts with drool. His prose rocks. End of story.
So, glowing adulation over, I’ll get to something more meaningful for those who might have not read it yet and are looking for one guy’s careful consideration of the books pros and cons. There aren’t many cons, but I’ll toss the one I had out as part of what comes below. But, pros first.
First, the most major pro for me is a matter of style, in part prose and in part the way he built the story, it’s structure. The book is in sections, each written by a different narrator or about a different person in a different period of time who are connected in certain ways. There’s more to it than that, and I’d give a little more summary if I could, but to say anything at all would risk sucking the guts out of this wonderful experience. But beyond that cool structure, the sections themselves, written “in” a given time period each comes with a correlating narrative style to match or emulate the trends in writing for that time. This is my favorite thing about Cloud Atlas, the execution of those parts and those voices across time.
David Mitchell can flat out write “voices.” He deftness with language is fun to observe. The book is in “English” but only in that the words are all in the same dictionary of English. Well, okay, sort of. First, you need a really fat dictionary to have them all (probably an OED required), because his diction spans centuries of writing in English, and second, he starts inventing language too (making that OED worthless too). The flow of time through the book begins in the past, I’m going to say around 1845ish, and moves forward in time from there through five other periods: again guessing a little, call it 1930s, then 1970s, then around our time, then maybe a century or two in the future, and then maybe another 300 or 500 years beyond that—it doesn’t really say, or does it matter at that point. (And it may say, or insinuate, and I just missed it somehow, but that doesn’t change much for my review.)
The point is, he moves through time in this really cool way, and with the same alacrity that he so wonderfully deploys the language of the last three centuries of history, he follows the evolution of language as it continues to evolve into the future, allowing the language to shift and grow and shrink as it very well might based on how it has developed all along. It’s really cool to watch as a reader and especially as a writer who reads. Pronouns become plain nouns, conventions of usage, grammar, spelling, syntax change. It’s all entirely believable. He’s as seemingly pedantic with the 19th century diction in the beginning as he is barely holding on to recognizable langue for the readability of the far future stuff. The language has evolved, and as we’ve been reading, we’ve internalized the language he makes for us so that when we get into the future, we understand it anyway. The pattern of the heavy-handed use of 19th century diction (artfully heavy-handed mind you), leads brilliantly across the book to the heavy-handed use of words that aren’t even real, or that have completely thrown off their original meanings, the meanings we know today, in favor of entirely new meanings that are grounded in the old ones, where individual words have layers, like strata, in which each period in history is in the etymological anthropology. It’s absolutely the most amazing thing, though I realize for many they likely won’t geek up as much as me on that. So, with that said, I’ll move on.
So, beyond that part, and knowing that a lot of people don’t get their jollies with the craft of writing like I do, I would also like to point out my next pro for this book in that it is just awesome as a story. There is a marvelous symmetry to the way the sections of the story unfold, and each has an engaging character and an interesting plot, all of which is told with poetic clarity (sorry, I can’t help it … dude can write). So each part is simply good as its own tale, and as you read along and begin to fancy you’re catching little clues, starting to draw parallels, the story starts to get richer and richer. The underlying metaphors and the philosophy reveal themselves, and it becomes simply more fun to read. I just loved it, and I was fascinated and burning down the late nights reading it, which for me is really rare because I keep myself on a schedule for my time, and reading, especially when I’m doing a first draft of a new book, is just not easy time for me to find. But I did because I couldn’t stop thinking about this book.
So, I did say I’d share what I think are this book’s cons, and if I’m being honest, the only thing wrong with this book is what I consider to be a flaw in its philosophy, or maybe not even so much a flaw as a failure to recognize what it was leaving out in order to support that philosophy. Again, I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, so I’ll try to tippy-toe around it as best I can, and I think I’ve done a good job of not spoiling anything in what comes below. However, if you are super sensitive to that sort of thing, sensitive to the point of not even wanting to think you’ve spotted a spoiler because you have been trying to read between the lines the lines of what I’m about to write and discover something you think I might be giving away, then you can jump off this review here and just know I recommend this book very highly. So, that said, my one very minuscule little beef with this book is this:
The book has an underlying philosophy which is, in my opinion, by the end is less inspired that it seemed to have started out to be. It seems to me that the story addresses a common bit of good versus evil, respecting the fellow man, love thy neighbor over conquer them, give rather than receive (or take, steal or enslave), etc. So nothing new there. Which is fine, since there isn’t anything new anyway and hasn’t been for thousands of years. Besides, that’s a great message, and this book does a wonderful job of showing the continuity or sameness of that age old conflict in humanity, the seemingly inevitability of it—and no, I won’t tell you if it ends portraying that inevitability as “seemingly” so, definitely so, or not necessarily so at all. You have to read it to decide what it says on that front, or even if it says anything at all on that front. All of this is just one man’s opinion after all.
But what I think it misses philosophically, perhaps as a problem of its wonderfully clever structure, is the opportunity for escaping the cycle it shapes, or suggests. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I say there is no space travel in this book. So in one small way, Cloud Atlas is kind of like a book of entrapment, like Stephen King’s Under the Dome or even the Lord of the Flies. By failing to allow for continued expansion, continued growth, which I admit is a grim possibility in our future, the total failure to get away into space—despite the fact that the history of humanity has proven that nothing seems to be beyond our reach if we work hard and try hard—is perhaps the missing silver lining in the clouds of this book.
It philosophically disallowed room for growth in human nature by disallowing it physically, spatially or galactically. So while the book’s ending may (or may not) hold in its language a philosophy that provides insights for how we might be able to, as a species, avoid being consumed by the dark side of our nature, I think that the final thoughts of Adam Ewing are at least in one way, somewhat disingenuous or contrived. The character might believe that philosophical last two pages or so we see, but given the structure of the story and this lack of advanced space travel as an option for continued growth, I think that the philosophy itself gets pruned by the author inserting his will at the very last. It kind of reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s ending of The Road in that way, seemingly in service of outside expectations or of the market or maybe personal feelings rather than the authentic-feeling natural conclusion to the whole story I’d just read.
But hey, it’s his story, and it’s hardly fair for me to bitch about something he didn’t put in. That’s me inserting my own particular brand of optimism into the ending that he actually wrote (or his editors made him write, who knows?), be it optimistic or pessimistic or simply nebulous. Go read it and come back and tell me that I’m wrong—I can totally live with that. Or ignore all of that if you’d like. I’m honestly not sure if Mitchell is an optimist or a pessimist, so I’m not just saying that either, and I’m not even saying knowing is a good thing or even possible. It’s more likely entirely beside the point anyway. Likely, given how clever this book is, it’s operating on something that can’t be confined by some tired old binary anyway.
The bottom line is: I loved this book. You can see how hard I had to work to find anything to bitch about when it comes to this book. It really is simply an absolutely enjoyable read, and I would totally give my 100% complete endorsement to it for anyone considering paying their hard-earned money for it to read. Do it. It’s freaking awesome. You will love it. I did. I plan on reading it again. And watching the movie now.