Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

I have to keep reminding myself, not that David Mitchell. I think I read Ewing’s chapters in his voice though. Oops.

It actually took me a while to get around to reading this; it was recommended to me a few weeks back now. I was, however, so consumed with reading Dresden and Verus and whatnot, that I wasn’t in the mood for something heavier until the last few days. All in all, I think the change was worth it, but only because I had the time to properly dedicate to reading this close together. If I’d had to spend a few weeks on it, I’m not sure I’d have taken it in as properly as I ought.

That said, I’m going to want to read it again to take it all in properly, so *shrug*. The structure is cool and exciting but also has my brain a bit confused. A bit a lot confused. I am a simple soul, and I like things spelled out and clear and possibly with appendices. I do not like understanding things to be left as an exercise for the reader (shut up, Vellum is different, understanding things is optional there). So I kinda have mixed views, overall.

The structure is cool, I won’t deny. The nested stories please me (and remind me a lot of my Latin literature lectures on Virgil’s Eclogues… this is legit, honest… the poems within the collection relate back to one another in a similar pattern… or so four year old memory tells me) but I have strongly varied views on the individual chapter voices. Books with multiple character viewpoints always have this issue, but Mitchell compounds it by writing in very different language for each different viewpoint character. There has clearly been an awful lot of thought gone into the styles he picks, sometimes in very subtle and clever ways. That does not, however, stop one or two being incredibly irritating to read. There are only so many apostrophes a soul can take, and the sixth character’s chapter exceeds this by many miles. It hurt me deep in my soul, I have to say. It was apt, it made sense for the character… it was still bloody annoying. As I say, I also rather strongly disliked some of the characters. Would it be spoilers to name them and remark on the actual structure and language choices? Possibly slightly. You’ve been warned.

Of them all, I think I liked Sonmi’s chapter best, both linguistically, character-wise and for the plot and story. But I only came to this conclusion after I read her second chapter. For those who have not read but care not about spoilers, there are six characters, and they get chapters in the pattern 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and the sixth chapter is rather longer than the rest, as all his story is in one go. 1 to 6 are in chronological order from the nineteenth century to an unspecified future, and then the order reverses, obviously. The first set of narratives break off quite abruptly (in one case mid-sentence), so you sort of have to flip back to the end of the first one, if, like me, you have a poor memory for these things. A lot of my opinions on the first set of chapters got revised when I read the second lot. Sonmi’s most, I think. Her first chapter, for me, was a bit… meh. It’s exciting, and it has some very cool world-building (it’s set in a highly corporate nearish future, and the language has become just as corporate as the world, with no cars, only fords, and no shoes, only nikes and so on), but it’s not as compelling as the others. But her second chapter introduces a whole lot more character development and depth and pretty much overhauls how I see her, and it makes it a lot better, for me.

The way the chapters link together is also interesting in that they call into question and validate the reality of the chapters around them. What reads like truth in Rey’s chapter is the fiction of Cavendish’s. They also tie together in odd little ways. Locations and themes and relations recur, and it’s all so seriously interwoven that I doubt I spotted even a third of it, nor will I until I read it again. The purpose of this interweaving is not entirely clear. Frobisher, in his second chapter, spells it out as clearly as anyone ever does, but even then, it is still a sort of nebulous notion of circular, interlinked lives, repeating and never-ending. The film, however (which I watched the evening I finished the book), as well as changing a lot of things, seems to push much harder on the idea of reincarnation, instead of any looser ties. Which makes me think I’m misinterpreting the subtlety of the book as an implication of complexity, when it could just be hinting what the film spells out more obviously. I don’t know. I rather prefer the idea of something less clear. It’s somehow more pleasing.

Back to the book. I think what was the biggest like and dislike for me was the language. But I can’t complain, because the book would have lost an awful lot if Mitchell hadn’t done what he did in the chapters with annoying styles. It is a very good way of conveying distance and the passage of time and the utter difference in viewpoints of the characters (and also Sonmi’s own development within her own chapter). However necessary and good, though, it’s still reeeeeally irritating. SHUT UP ZACHRY is basically the sentiment I can convey about the middle chapter. Personally, I think I enjoyed Sonmi’s chapter the most, Frobisher’s narration and Sixsmith’s character (even if he doesn’t get his own chapter, he’s still by far the best character in the book; I feel for him terribly and had a very long conversation about him the day I finished the book which I would summarise and include here if it wouldn’t be thoroughly tedious for everyone and make this post about 4000 words long). But even though I don’t like some of the characters, I feel how they play their parts and do as they’re supposed to and how they are completely necessary precisely as they are, which takes some of the annoyance away rather. You need the whole thing, as it is, to draw everything together and make it as wonderful as it is. And it really is a very wonderful book.

Back to the film, I am not certain. Because I watched it the day I finished the book, I seem thoroughly incapable of treating them as separate entities and assessing the film in isolation. I cannot help but go “they changed x; why did they change x? x was amazing” rather than look at the film as a whole. Some of the big changes, like the structure, don’t bother me, because the book’s structure would have been impossible in a film they want people to sit all the way through. It’s the little things, often seemingly insignificant, that annoy me more. Frobisher’s chapters, for instance, are set in Edinburgh in the film. Why? I don’t think anything is gained by it, and you lose a lot of the inter-war overtones and themes from the book by it. Some characters are also cut for reasons of necessity, but this, I feel, at least, cripples Sonmi’s part because you lose a lot of the complex thinking behind what has happened to her. I think they took the teeth out of her story and made it softer and a bit… soppy almost. Makes me sad. That said, the casting was fantastic, especially Hugo Weaving (especially in drag), and the guy who plays Sixsmith manages to look terribly tragic and pathos-inducing and just right. Oh and the film was properly beautiful. So… so-so? Possibly would have been better if I’d waited a week to watch it.

As for the book, the book is thoroughly, wonderfully amazingly good. I would strongly recommend. To everyone. Go read it. Then go find someone to talk to about it, and discover layers and layers more than you already thought were there (and if you’re me, have a massive rant about redemption arcs and archtypes and suchlike). And get excited all over again. It really is very, very good.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

  1. I really enjoyed your post :). I also quite enjoyed Cloud Atlas which I read a few months before you did – similarly to you, I liked Sonmi’s story most and Sixsmith (although I kind of wanted to slap Frobisher). On iTunes there’s a free World Book Club podcast with David Mitchell talking about Cloud Atlas which I think you’d enjoy listening to – I think lots of the complexities really *are* “the author enjoys playing with the idea of interlocking and with subtle themes” more than anything else. I haven’t seen the film – I would like to at some point, although I am sad to hear that Sonmi’s part is diminished.

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