No review of Cloud Atlas can 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 all genres. Unfortunately, the cover sure as hell doesn’t do it justice. I get the impression the artist didn’t have a clue what to do, so he just Googled a bunch of cloud imagery and Photoshopped them together. The back flap simply states, Mitchell is, clearly, a genius, and while I typically hate this kind of gushing 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 a whole religion around it. And yet, I am neither bitter nor jealous, simply overjoyed to have found something so profound to read. In other words, this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. While Cloud Atlas isn’t for everybody (it’s challenging), it exists, which proves there is still a market for brilliant writing, and for that I am thankful.
There may not be enough words in the English language to describe Cloud Atlas, but I’ll give it my best shot. The first thing you’ll notice when picking it up is that it’s a hard read. I literally strained my brain with the first five pages, trying my best to recall the French and Russian classics I studied in my college days. My mind turned to the difficulty rating system my daughter uses to pick books at Barnes & Nobles. I think adult books should have those too, but anyone over twenty will likely have too much pride to check out anything with a high school 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 writing styles 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book reads as if it were written by someone from the 18th century, with two-hundred year old British colloquialisms, outdated turns-of-phrases, outdated spellings, and words you definitely won’t find in any recent publication of the Oxford English Dictionary.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 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 come to 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 government, brand names take the place of common words, so kodak comes to mean photograph, and sony computer, and ford automobile. While the writing may seem off-putting, I found the challenge enjoyable. It is truly remarkable how your brain decodes difficult writing after a while, so that by the end of each story, I had no problem understanding what was on the page. Without a doubt, the style adds a 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 as remarkable as the last. You could consider it an anthology, except in the way each story alludes 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 and time period, yet their soul is one and the same, passed from one life to the next. Sometimes the character is male, at others female. Often, the connections between them seems tenuous and inconsequential, but as the novel unfolds, you can see how each story plays a part in Mitchell’s grand theme of conflict, between the powerful and the weak, the haves and the have-nots. Throughout time, the powerful define history and morality, to favor their own causes, to maintain the divide between themselves and those whom they must oppress to maintain power. This is nothing new in fiction, and is, in fact, one of the central aspects of dytopian literature. Unlike, say, the Hunger Games or even A Brave New World, what sets Cloud Atlas apart and, dare I say, above the classics, is how Mitchell deals with time scales of hundreds of years, from the early 18th century to the distant 22nd, to reveal 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 takes the reader on a journey through the lives of his protagonists, to show 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 1970’s. Moving further into a future beyond our own time, Mitchell 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 questions, a concept shared by both Buddhists and Nietzsche known as eternal-return, the idea that time itself is cyclical, that everything that has ever happened 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, so the book ends essentially where it began. 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? As in every masterpiece, Cloud Atlas raises more questions than it can ever hope to answer.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious, brilliantly realized, grand in scope and in imagination, and most of all, it deals with the big questions only the very best authors have the audacity to take on. This is a book I wish I had written. It is one of those things I am overjoyed to have discovered, despite that I knew nothing of it before the trailer for the film with Tom Hanks. Buried among the glut of tired and formulaic fiction, it is always nice to find a gem. As a writer, I am often dismayed by the limited scope of modern writing, due largely in part to the limited imagination of agents and publishers, who like their plots reduced to single-sentence explanations and who prefer narrative hooks in the first five pages. The first five pages of Cloud Atlas does nothing to elucidate the brilliance that follows, but to even attempt to condense a work of such scope into a single gimmicky hook would be to do the novel a disservice. Is it any wonder it was first published in Britain? Cloud Atlas makes me feel good about writing and wanting to be a writer. It reminds me 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 and more, 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.