Cloud Atlas Is
Ambitious Yet Accessible
Bargain Book Reviews
Modern Times Magazine breaks down works of literature that are readily available in the bargain bin or at your local discount bookstore.
MTM Rating: 8.5/10
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 528 pages
First printing: 2004
By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine
Oct. 8, 2013 — With multiple intertwining storylines that span generations the world over, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an ambitious novel that leaves the reader pondering serious existential questions throughout.
Due to its status as a former New York Times Bestseller and the recent film adaptation, copies of this novel are spread far and wide, which means your local secondhand store or favorite Amazon used bookseller are likely to have a cheap copy on hand.
Despite what appears on the surface as an intimidating novel due to its complex plot and sheer size (509 pages in paperback), Cloud Atlas has garnered this enormous following due to Mitchell’s ability to expertly mold his weighty themes and complex structure into something palatable and understandable to the average reader.
The story follows six different storylines that take place in different physical spaces and times. From an American notary in South Pacific during the 19th century to human clone rebel in a dystopian future Korea, Mitchell creates a historiography of the human condition from modernity and into the future. Through specific and intimate stories of differing characters’ lives, the author explores what makes humans tick and why contemporary culture has a fascination with its own destruction.
Mitchell really develops the story beyond a generic cautionary tale when he gradually reveals the interconnectedness of these seemingly unrelated characters through shared traits, feelings and, most importantly, by having them experience each other’s stories in various forms, from books, to journals, music and film.
It is in this way that Mitchell, in addition to commenting on humanity’s condition, also opens a discussion on how we choose to pass along our stories to the next generation and how those generations choose to selectively accept or reject the realities of the past.
While many modern science fiction novels are either too base in content or too sloppy in structure to make the profound societal statements the genre is known for, Mitchell’s third novel manages to reach the lofty heights that it’s plot sets out for it because the author is so conscious of the world he has created. It is so easy for sci-fi melodramas like this, that take place over multiple settings in place and time, to lose focus and cause the reader to fall out of pace with the story.
Cloud Atlas does not have this problem. Mitchell pays fine attention to the small details of every plotline in order to make the small connections he weaves between the characters believable. He creates a world that is not exactly our own, but by the end the reader really believes it could be.
Much like an actor who so fully disappears into a role that we no longer recognize him on screen, Mitchell has hidden our reality within this critique of globalism, love and the interconnection of life that we almost forget that what is on the page is fiction and not a vision of our dystopian past/present/future.
Because the plot is so heavy and the construction so complex, the novel can be somewhat difficult to become engaged with at the ‘get go.’ So much of the content seems irrelevant on the first read, and does not become truly a part of the story until later on.
Additionally, at some points, Mitchell so intimately develops his characters that it borders on over-indulgence. Certain sections become so preoccupied with the character at hand that it risks losing the reader’s attention from the larger drama being laid out.
This is both a piece of praise and criticism as it enhances the reader’s ability to relate to the characters, but has the ability to detract from the overall message of the novel by removing the reader from the grander discussion taking place.
Cloud Atlas is a book that both entertains and challenges the reader — a grandiose experiment that asks truly important questions concerning the causes and consequences of human behavior.
Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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