David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas


Twitter is great for snooping and horning in on things. I saw that two of my favorite bloggers, Amy of My Friend Amy and Iris of Iris on Books, were planning to read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas , and asked to join in. Then a fourth blogger, Zibilee, decided read along, too. Zibilee’s blog, Raging Bibliomania, is new discovery, another great thing about twitter. Our plan is to read a chapter or two a week, and rotate the posts around. This post is on the first two chapters.

First some background, from Wikipedia:

Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel, the third book by British author David Mitchell. It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards.



Cloud Atlas is now a film to be released in October. While I adore the films of Tom Tykver (Winter Sleepers, Run Lola Run, Heaven, Perfume), I couldn’t be less happy with the Wachowskis or the “ensemble cast” headed up by one of my least favorite actors, Tom Hanks, but maybe it will be great:

The novel was adapted to film by directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis. With an ensemble cast to cover the film’s multiple storylines, production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The film is scheduled to be released in the United States on October 26, 2012.

Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure. It has eleven chapters, and six intertwined narratives. The first five chapters present the first part of each of five distinct narratives. How distinct? In terms of both setting and style, very. Ranging from mid-19th century Chatham Isles, near New Zealand, to 1930s Belgium, to a 1970s California political thriller, to a contemporary assisted living facility in London, to a near future Korea dominated by corporations and genetic modification of humans. The sixth chapter presents one whole narrative. Then chapters 7,8,9,10,11 present the second half of each of the first five narratives, in reverse order. So it goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Here’s a screen shot from the Table of Contents in my Kindle edition:


In an interview with The Paris Review, Mitchell says that

“Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title.

In the same Paris Review interview, when asked how he came up with the idea for Cloud atlas, Mitchell responds:

The first time I read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I thought we’d be going back to the interrupted narrative later on in the book, and I very much wanted to. Finishing the novel, I felt a bit cheated that Calvino hadn’t followed through with what he’d begun—which was, of course, the whole point of the book. But a voice said this: What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning? That idea was knocking around in my head since I was eighteen or nineteen years old and, by my third novel, had arrived at the front of the queue.

The first chapter is the South Sea Pacific journal of an Adam Ewing, a Californian aboard the Prophetess, who journals his experiences including the white Christian missionaries’ work on the islands. What I enjoyed about this one is Ewing’s moral compass getting all screwy as he navigates new fields dealing with colonizers, missionaries, native peoples, and seamen. His voice is not delightful to read (unless you love Defoe?) but when I fought through the priggish formal tone of his diary I liked what he said:

As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.

Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 17). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


The second chapter is the letters of Adam Frobisher, a musical genius, rogue, sexual omnivore, written to his lover and best friend, Sixsmith, in Cambridge, about his life in the town of Zedelghem in Belgium where he is charming and lying his way to become amanuensis to a reclusive and irascible English musical legend Vyvyan Ayres. Adam is irresistable. A complete narcissist but astute and very compelling:

Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again.

Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 75). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I could understand some readers who feel Cloud Atlas is gimmicky, or that it apes too seriously other literary styles, or is too precious, or too knowing. As the NYT’s Tom Bissell put it, “The novel is frustrating not because it is too smart but because it is not nearly as smart as its author.” I’m sure I missed most of the literary allusions. I certainly had to use the Kindle dictionary more in the first two chapters than in any other book I’ve read. But I like everything about Cloud Atlas so far. I like the structure, I like the fact that the style and tone changes dramatically to reflect the setting, I like the surprising but sense-making connections between the stories (will I destroy my nonexistent literary cred if I compare that to Crash?), and I like the implied author I sense behind the words. I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote, again from the Paris Review interview:

Is there such a thing as overreading? Just because it wasn’t part of my grand design doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Things do happen in books that the writer is too submersed in bringing the narrative to life to notice. To put it a little pretentiously, Cloud Atlas is a novel about whose echoes, eddies, and cross-references even its author possesses only an imperfect knowledge. That’s not unique—many writers can say the same about many books.


There is much more to say about this book, but alas, I chose the week I am on vacation with my family to post! Have you read Cloud Atlas? Any thoughts?

10 responses

  1. I went to buy the book yesterday and ended up getting The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet instead. We’ll see how it goes. Can’t wait to hear read your thoughts.

    Also, I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes Tom Hanks!


  2. I’ve seen this book mentioned and I’ve been really curious about it, but haven’t read yet. I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say about it. I don’t mind gimmicks if they’re used well, and I’m somewhat of a sucker for stories layered within stories, so I have a feeling I’ll cave and read this one eventually.


  3. The first section was a big struggle for me, but the second went more smoothly. Like you, I liked the connection between the stories established. I’m looking forward to reading more of the book, and have been promised the first section was the most difficult!

    Like you, I didn’t know a lot of words and often had to reread sections, which I guess places this book outside of my comfortable reading level. And lol, that quote about faith stuck out to me, too.


  4. I have not read up to the second part yet, as I am struggling with the first a bit. The writing is definitely smart and gifted, but I have yet to make the emotional connection that I know is going to be integral to the understanding of this book. I have heard so much about it, and it’s brilliance, both as a book and as a puzzle, yet I wonder how Mitchell will pull it off. I am just about to go back to it now, and give it the attention that it requires. It’s definitely not a book for the easily intimidated, that is for sure. I look forward to getting to the next section, which people seem to like a bit more than the first. I am really excited to be joining you all though, and glad that you let me read along with you!


  5. As a fellow lover of books and social media, I think your blog is pretty wonderful.

    September 4, The Time Keeper, the latest work of fiction by Mitch Albom will be released. We are really excited for the release and can’t wait to share his latest work with our favorite bloggers. Naturally, you are on the list.

    Based upon your love of reading and reviewing new books, Mitch wants to share his latest work with you, now.

    To receive an advanced copy of The Time Keeper and join #TheTimeKeeper conversation, please respond with a mailing address and we’ll get your copy in the mail right away.

    Can’t wait? Learn more about the book and join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & Instagram.

    Thanks so much for your time & happy reading.


  6. The first part’s style was difficult for me too. Definitely not the easiest to read! I was, of course, intrigued by the reference to colonialism, sea travels, power, and missionaries, but I’m not really sure what to make of it yet. I do know that I was a little confused about the narratives cutting off mid-sentence on page 39. I even wondered if I had a misprint, until I figured out that the sentence continued in the very last part of the novel.

    The second part was much easier to read, though I didn’t like the character at all! I smiled when they referenced the previous part. And I admit I hadn’t read the doctor on board the ship as was sugested by the character in the second part at all – I guess I am naive too 😉


  7. Brie- I happen to be vacationing at a house with a “take one leave one” book pile. That Mitchell you chose happens to be in the stack! I think I may take it.

    And yeah, Hanks became insufferable after Philadelphia. It is a shame because he and my husband used to look exactly alike! 😉

    Lynn – you may want to follow the discussion to see. If all else fails, you can always watch the film !

    Amy – Yes, outside comfortable reading is how I would describe the first section, too. I felt quite confused a lot of the time. But I really enjoyed the second one.

    Hey Zibilee- yes, stick with it. The first section gets more coberent and easier to read as it goes, and the second flows very smoothly.

    Tess, thank you for the kind words. However, I think you need to go back to social media marketing school, because it is very bad form to horn in on a discussion of one book to promote another. If you want to offer a book to a blogger, you should find her email address, usually located, as mine is, on the About or Contact page, and email her.

    Iris — Mitchell says in the interview I linked to that he actually wrote six novellas straight through, and only later broke then in half. He says that he did have a feeling as he was writing each one where the break would happen.

    As for Frobisher … I loved him in terms of an interesting and complex character… but I didnot like him in the sense of “this guy could be my friend.”


  8. Apologies, Jessica. After reading your most recent book review I simply thought you’d be interested. Sorry if my comment was out of place.


  9. Pingback: Cloud Atlas Buddy Read [Sections 5 & 6] | Iris on Books


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