No review of Cloud Atlas could do it justice. I should just type the title in bold, followed by four stars. Hell, I’d like to change my rating system to give it five. Yes, it’s that good, a work of literary genius that transcends genre. Unfortunately, the cover sure as hell doesn’t do the book any favors. I get the impression that the artist didn’t know what to do, so he just Googled a bunch of cloud imagery and Photoshopped them together. The back flap states, Mitchell is, clearly, a genius, and while I typically hate this kind of more-often-than-not false praise, I can’t help but echo the sentiment. Few writers have intimidated me like this guy has. Cloud Atlas is on a whole other level, brilliantly written and conceived, deeply textured, and so meaningful you could base an entire religion around it. And yet, I am neither bitter nor jealous, simply overjoyed to have found something so profound to read (this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey). While Cloud Atlas isn’t for everybody (it’s challenging), it exists, proving there is still a market for brilliant writing, and I am thankful for that.
There may not be enough words in the English language to describe Cloud Atlas (except to read it), but I’ll give it my best shot. You’ll first notice when picking it up that it’s a challenging read. I strained my brain with the first five pages, trying to recall the French and Russian classics I studied in college. My mind turned to the difficulty rating system my daughter uses to pick books at Barnes & Noble. I think adult books should have those too, but anyone over twenty will likely have too much pride to check out anything below a college reading level. The novel is broken down into a series of smaller, interconnected novellas, each dealing with different time periods, and Mitchell, incredibly enough, changes his writing style to suit the period. The nautical journal that opens the book reads as if it were written by someone from the 18th century, with two-hundred-year-old British colloquialisms, outdated turns-of-phrases, outdated spellings, and words you definitely won’t find in any recent publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. Moving forward into the future, Mitchell delves into 19th-century classical music, where some of the dialogue is in French (I kid you not). Careful readers must infer the meaning based on context. As if that isn’t bad (or is that brilliant?) enough, Mitchell invents his own dialect for a far-distant future, imagining how the language will change in a world far removed from our own. At first, this seems pretentious and show-offy, but as the novel progresses, you understand how Mitchell incorporates language and grammar to set the tone and setting for each story. For instance, in a future where corporations have replaced the government, brand names take the place of common words, so kodak comes to mean photograph, sony computer, and ford automobile. While the writing may seem off-putting, I found the challenge enjoyable. It is remarkable how your brain decodes difficult text after a while, so I had no problem understanding what was on the page by the end of each story. Without a doubt, Mitchell’s ever-changing style adds richness and a level of realism to the world that is Cloud Atlas.
No amount of literary wizardry, however, can make up for a lackluster story. Fortunately, Cloud Atlas delivers a tale that is no less remarkable, or should I say, a sextet of tales that are each as impressive as the last. You might consider it an anthology if you never stop to consider how each story alludes to and complements the other. What’s more, Mitchell explores genres the way he does styles. To a writer like myself, this is especially impressive, like a musician who can pick up a guitar or a violin and perform just as masterfully on either one. In Cloud Atlas, you will find historical drama, tragic romance, murder mystery, heady dystopian Sci-Fi, and post-apocalyptic fantasy, and somehow, Mitchell manages to tie all the threads together. Each story deals with a different character in a different time, yet their soul remains the same, passed from one life to the next. Sometimes the character is male, at others, female. Often, the connections between them seem tenuous and inconsequential, but as the novel unfolds, you learn how each narrative plays a role in Mitchell’s grand theme of conflict between the powerful and the weak, the haves and the have-nots. The powerful define history to favor their causes, to maintain the divide between themselves and those they must oppress to hold power. This is nothing new in fiction and is, in fact, a central aspect of dystopian literature. Unlike, say, the Hunger Games or even A Brave New World, what sets Cloud Atlas apart and, dare I say, improves upon the classics is how Mitchell deals in time scales of hundreds of years, starting with the early 18th century and continuing into the distant 22nd, revealing not just the what of a dystopian future but more importantly the how, the root of humanity’s Fall sowed from the beginnings of history. Through reincarnation, Mitchell sends the reader on a journey through the lives of his protagonists showing the gradual, almost imperceptible growth of industrialized power, from early British missionaries’ exploitation of the aboriginals of the South Pacific to the nuclear energy companies of the 1970s. Moving beyond our own time, he extrapolates where unchecked power and rampant consumerism will inevitably lead the human race, and it isn’t a pretty picture. But Cloud Atlas is even grander in scope, exploring one of the big philosophical concepts shared by Buddhists and Nietzsche, the idea of eternal-return, that time itself is cyclical and everything that has ever happened has happened before and will happen again. To illustrate the point, Cloud Atlas leaves each novella without a conclusion, leading to the middle and most climactic piece, then returning, symbolically, to each story, ending where the novel begins. Does this mean society is doomed to repeat a never-ending cycle of disaster? That a dystopian future is inevitable? That the corrupting influences of power are intrinsic to humanity? Like any masterpiece, Cloud Atlas raises more questions than it can ever hope to answer.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious, brilliantly realized, grand in scope and imagination, and most of all, it deals with the big questions only the very best authors have the audacity to tackle. This is a book I wish I had written. It is one of those things I am overjoyed to have discovered, despite knowing nothing about it before seeing the trailer for the film starring Tom Hanks. Buried among the glut of tired and formulaic fiction, it’s nice finding a gem. I am often dismayed by the limited scope of modern writing, due largely to the limited imagination of agents and publishers, who like their plots reduced to single-sentence explanations and insist on narrative hooks in the first five pages. The first five pages of Cloud Atlas does nothing to elucidate the brilliance that follows, but to condense a work of such scope into a single gimmicky hook can only do the novel a disservice. Is it any wonder the book was first published in Britain? Cloud Atlas makes me feel good about writing and wanting to be a writer. It reminds me of what fiction can be and sometimes should be. It’s a book I could read a second time (a rare thing for me). For these reasons, I’m putting Cloud Atlas in my no. #2 spot (as of this writing) beneath T.H. White’s The Once and Future King for my favorite novel.