A Review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (by Bethany)

cloud atlas cover image

I held out a long time before I read Cloud Atlas; until recently, I was the Cloud Atlas equivalent of people who still aren’t on Facebook. Several years ago, one of my book clubs read David Mitchell’s number9dream, and I read the first thirty pages or so and really hated it. I don’t remember much about it except that it was set in Japan and took place in an internet café or some similar establishment. Even typing the title – the lowercase letters, the lack of spaces between letters, that damn numeral that doesn’t belong there – irks me. Later on, another one of my book clubs read Cloud Atlas. I bought it, thinking that I would give David Mitchell a second chance, but I ended up not reading it and skipping that week’s meeting. One of the women in that group – a history professor at Brown – said later that Cloud Atlas was the best book she had ever read. I knew this to be high praise, but I still didn’t crack this book’s spine until a few weeks ago.

It’s good, of course, and it’s complicated in a good way. But it’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not the best book I’ve ever read. Even to say that I “enjoyed” this book is a little off the mark: my feelings toward this book were intellectual, not emotional, and are better described as “respect” and “admiration.”

Cloud Atlas is structured as a set of frames (or “nesting boxes,” in the words of the blurb on the back of the book; I like “frames” better). Each frame is a separate story, and the only connections between the six frames appear to be only small details: the brief appearance of a character from one frame in another frame, the fact that one character in each frame has a birthmark shaped like a comet on his/her shoulder blade. Chapters 1-6 move forward in time from the mid-19th century to a couple of centuries in our future. Chapter 6 is the pinnacle or capstone – the only chapter that appears only once in the novel. After chapter 6, the novel moves back in time again. By the end, a linear narrative does more or less emerge, but the reader has to participate quite actively in the process of keeping track of the narrative. David Mitchell is no hand-holder.

If you would prefer a simplified explanation of how the novel is structured, here it is:

Chapters 1 and 11: “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” (written in journal form during a voyage from British India to San Francisco sometime between 1848 and 1849; the year is never mentioned, but Ewing makes several references to the Gold Rush, which seems to be in full swing, so I extrapolated the time period.)

Chapters 2 and 10: “Letters from Zedelghem” (In 1931, a quite-possibly-sociopathic young musician named Robert Frobisher schemes to become the live-in assistant to Vyvyan Ayrs, whose blindness and hand tremors prevent him from continuing his   once-brilliant career as a composer [this portion of the novel reminds me of The Aspern Papers, by the way]. This section is told entirely through Frobisher’s letters to a man named Rufus Sixsmith, which consist of pleas for money, complaints about the fact that Ayrs doesn’t recognize Frobisher’s genius, notes on Frobisher’s daily life, and rants about Frobisher’s sexual frustrations. In chapter 10, we learn that Frobisher is composing a piece of music called the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which is clearly important since it’s a reference to the title, but its symbolic importance went a little bit over my head.)

Chapters 3 and 9: “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” (To me, these chapters were the least interesting in the book. Rufus Sixsmith [of “Letters from Zedelghem” fame] is an old man now – these chapters are set in the 1970’s. Luisa Rey is a young journalist and the daughter of a famous foreign correspondent who specialized in Asia and Latin America – this is important because as this novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that the action of this novel swirls [like clouds!] around the Pacific Ocean in general and Hawaii specifically; more on this later on. This chapter takes place in a fictional California city called Buenas Yerbas, where Sixsmith and Luisa become acquainted when they are stuck in an elevator together during a power outage. Shortly thereafter, Sixsmith is murdered in his hotel room, the scene carefully staged to make it resemble a suicide rather than a homicide. It seems as if Sixsmith was in possession of and intended to publish a report revealing that a planned nuclear reactor was dangerous and had been specifically planned in a way that would make rich people richer at the expense of public safety – and we are presumably supposed to assume that the government and/or private corporate interests arranged Sixsmith’s death in order to prevent him from publishing the report.)

Chapters 4 and 8: “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” (These chapters seem to be set some time in our near future – maybe the 2020’s, 2030’s, or 2040’s? – and Timothy Cavendish is a washed-out editor and publisher of tabloids and other lowbrow reading material. He is also perpetually drunk and broke. At the beginning of chapter 4, Cavendish calls his brother for help, and his brother tells him to go to a place called Aurora House, which Cavendish assumes is a hotel at which his brother has arranged for him to spend the night. When he arrives, though, he is locked into a room and his property is confiscated. He soon figures out that he has checked himself into a nursing home for the elderly and thinks his brother has played a practical joke on him. We soon realize, though, that Aurora House is not a retirement home like the ones we know today [some of which can be pretty awful – cough, Tunnell Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco, uncough] but seems instead like a “re-education” sort of place like the kind I imagine existing under Mao or Pol Pot. Cavendish is subjected to all kinds of manipulation and horrific punishments, the significance of which doesn’t come clear until chapter 8. In spite of the darkness of their plot, these chapters are probably the most amusing ones in the book. The comedy is almost slapstick.)

Chapters 5 and 7: “An Orison of Sonmi-451” (These chapters are my favorite. They take the form of a transcript of a conversation between an “archivist” and a “Sonmi” – a clone bred for restaurant service. The setting is Korea [North or South, you ask? I don’t believe the novel ever says] at some time in the mid-distant future – my guess is sometime in the 22nd or 23rd century. Chapter 5 did more than any other chapter to orient me in this novel’s world and clarify the connections between the many chapters and characters. These chapters are the first to use the word “corpocracy” – the rule of corporations, of course – and to sketch out the nature of the dystopian society that has emerged in the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean. Sonmis and other clones [which I can’t help thinking of as American Girl dolls – the Felicitys churn butter and deliver leaflets against the Stamp Act, the Mollys save tinfoil for the war effort and organize their ration cards, etc.] are bred for a specific purpose à la Brave New World [remember “Alphas have to work much too hard, and Gammas and Deltas are frightfully stupid. I’m glad I’m a Beta”?]. All Sonmis are bred and conditioned to work 20-hour days in a restaurant chain called Papa Song’s. After they are raised and trained, they work for twelve years in their assigned field and then are sent to a place they’re told will be an island paradise where they can live for the rest of their lives as a reward for their hard work – but of course, they are actually herded into a room and killed. [Urinetown, you ask? Never Let Me Go? Yes, this novel is extremely allusive, and it’s in chapter 5 that I really started to see how the chapters in this novel are related to one another and to other works.] When she is speaking with the archivist in these chapters, Sonmi-451 is about to be executed for rebellion. She holds back nothing because she knows that her fate is sealed and wants simply to leave a record behind for people who come later. It’s also worth mentioning that by chapter 5, the language of this novel has changed a great deal. All languages change over time, of course, but not all writers who write about the future incorporate language change into their works (although many do – George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, and others).

Chapter 6: “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” (Finally the big reveal – the pinnacle of the novel, the summit of Mount Cloud Atlas that should help everything else to make sense. Except… well, except nothing. This chapter does continue the process of laying out the dystopian future world of this novel. By these chapters, some kind of disaster has made “deadlands” of most of the world. Zachry, the protagonist of this chapter, lives in Hawaii. He and the others in Hawaii live in horrific squalor and seem to know nothing different, although they do make reference to some event called “the Fall,” which I assume is the nuclear disaster that Sixsmith’s report predicted back in chapter 3. In this sense, chapter 6 is another The Passage or The Road or A Canticle for Leibowitz – it concerns the struggle of a tiny band of survivors to maintain some semblance of human dignity and preserve some parts of human culture in a post-apocalyptic world. The language change that began in Sonmi’s Korea has become even more pronounced. Zachry speaks a sort of patois or pidgin English and says things like “The only Valleysman who’d ever lived to fifty an’ weren’t flakin’ with redscab or dyin’ of mukelung was Truman Third, an’ ev’ryun knowed how he’d done a deal with Old Georgie one hurrycanin’ night, yay, that fool’d sold his soul for some extra years” (253) and “Could it be old Georgie come back to stone my soul some more? Or jus’ a hermity Mookini wandrin’ for grinds? I’d got my spiker an’ I crept nearer the firs, nearer the firs…Roses sat straddlin’ a mossy fat stump. See you got fresh comp’ny, she said politesome, but there was a furyin’ dingo bitch in her eyes” (255). You see what I mean: Sort of like a cross between The Clockwork Orange and Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy.

Would you mind a quick digression? You wouldn’t? Oh, good. It will be a good one, I promise.

My friend Mary used to be (or still is – I’m not sure) a connoisseur of TV shows like Cops, and once, back in 2008, she called me to tell me about an episode of Cops that she had just seen. The police officers received a domestic violence call and arrived at a house to find a man sitting on the front steps holding his head in his hands. They asked him for his name and identified him as the person who placed the 911 call. A woman ranted incomprehensively in the background. The police officers asked the man what happened, and he said, “I’s just goin’ to get some slickum for my hangdown; Bitch hit me over the head with a smoove.”

There was a moment of silence when the cops considered whether
to ask the man what “slickum for my hangdown” meant, but they eventually decided that they could make a good guess about that particular phrase – just as I assume you’ve done. So, instead, they asked the man, “What did she hit you with?”

“A smoove!” the man replied.

“What’s a smoove?” asked one of the cops.

“You know – that thing!” the man said. “That thing you smoove your clothes with!”

In other words, she hit him with an iron.

The purpose of this digression is that every character in this chapter (except for Meronym, who comes to Hawaii from a place called “Prescience”) talks exactly like the “slickum for my hangdown” guy, and I heard that voice (which was really Mary’s voice) on every page of chapter 6 – which was funny, but also distracting.

OK – I’m just going to say one more thing about chapter 6, and then I’m going to wrap things up. Zachry and the other people who live in Hawaii believe in one god – and do you know what that god’s name is? I’ll tell you: it’s Sonmi! And if THAT doesn’t make you want to read this novel, I don’t know what else will.


The overarching narrative in this novel traces the forces in the modern world that allowed corporations to become more powerful than people. Chapter 11 is particularly revelatory, as Adam Ewing reports the way the trading companies of the 19th century deliberately made sure that Polynesian natives became addicted to cigarettes – “by instilling in the slothful so-an’-sos a gentle craving for this harmless leaf, we give him an incentive to earn money, so he can buy his baccy… from the Mission trading post. Ingenious, wouldn’t you say?” (482) – and charts the ways that Europeans very deliberately created a world-wide race-based hierarchy and placed themselves at the top (and the novel’s structure, I suppose, mimics this hierarchy. Interesting…). In reply to a statement that whites have dominated the globe because they are innately greedier than other races, Adam Ewing’s shipmate, Henry Goose, says, “Wolves don’t sit in their caves, concocting crapulous theories of race to justify devouring a flock of sheep! ‘Intellectual courage’? True ‘intellectual courage’ is to dispense with these fig leaves & admit all peoples are predatory, but White predators, with our deadly duet of disease dust and firearms, are exemplars of predacity par excellence, & what of it?” Later, the same Henry Goose says, “The second law of survival states that there is no second law. Eat or be eaten. That’s it” (490).

My least favorite thing about this novel is its lack of traditional structure. It sounds lame to always want a novel to follow Freytag’s silly little mountain (exposition, rising action, crises, climax, falling action, resolution), and of course I am aware that many great novels don’t follow this formula exactly, but in general when novels are complicated, as this one is, I want it to follow the usual structure. However, as I write this review, it occurs to me that this novel actually does follow this formula; it’s just that the pieces are out of order. Exposition takes place in chapters 1 and 11, and probably also in 2 and 10. Every time a person’s individual freedom is threatened or co-opted by a larger entity, that’s a crisis. The climax, I guess, is the nuclear explosion that reduces human civilization to a few scattered islands – so, in other words, the climax happens entirely off page, which is neat. Confusing, but also neat.

So that’s it. I’m happy. I’m happy that this book exists and that I read it. I’m happy that this novel is beautiful and complex and rich and that we live in a world complex enough to inspire art. Most of all, though, I’m happy that I finally found a way to tell the “slickum for my hangdown” story on this blog. Because – well, never mind. You know why.

This entry was posted in Authors, David Mitchell, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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