From the first few pages of Cloud Atlas, you might think you’ve picked up a period novel. Adam Ewing, a humble American notary, is on a missionary expedition to New Zealand circa 1850. This is a period novel, but it extends far beyond the nineteenth century’s sailing ships and archaic spellings. Mitchell also travels through 1930s Belgium, 1970s California, present-day England, the 22nd century, and into a distant future that resembles a prehistoric past.
Lost yet? That’s how Mitchell likes it, at least for a while. His six storylines may bewilder at first, but there’s a reward for those who stay the course. After the book reaches its midpoint, it doubles back on itself. While the first half moves forward through six time zones, the second moves back, revealing the missing pieces of the novel’s initially puzzling plot. Suffice it to say that Mitchell’s six protagonists—Ewing, bisexual composer Robert Frobisher, investigative journalist Luisa Rey, aging publisher Timothy Cavendish, clone waitress Sonmi-451, and humble Hawaiian goatherd Zachry—are connected. Each character leaves behind a record that another eventually finds. Six disparate voices become a harmonious sextet, like the one Frobisher is busily writing. As a familiar past gives way to a dystopian future, Cloud Atlas confronts the pessimist with the disturbing possibility that the human race will destroy itself. For the optimist, it offers the comforting thought that the past is never lost. And for everyone in between, it serves up enough poisonings, kidnappings, car chases, and ghost stories to make a little bewilderment worthwhile.
Random House. 509 pages. $14.95. ISBN: 0375507256
Diverse genres: Each of Mitchell’s six storylines pays homage to a different literary tradition; the Washington Post praises his "obviously sincere affection for the oft-maligned genres of mystery, science fiction and fantasy." Underlying Mitchell’s genre-hopping is a concern with fiction itself, and with its "myriad misuses … the seductive lies told by grifters, CEOs, politicians and others in the service of expanding empires and maintaining power" (Washington Post).
We’re all slaves: Cloud Atlas is deeply concerned with power politics, and its characters frequently find themselves somehow enslaved. Much of the novel deals with the consequences of bondage and imprisonment. Some situations are hilarious, as in the Cavendish story, but most are disturbing. Either way, "Mitchell’s exploration of power and greed is riveting" (Rocky Mountain News).
Are we doomed, or not?: Critics compare Cloud Atlas to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 in its dark vision of humanity. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Mitchell’s dystopian future implies "an annihilative flaw in humanity itself," each triumph of the power-hungry moving the race closer to destruction. But Cloud Atlas offers hope as well. Some of Mitchell’s characters show that "one life, one action—a mere drop in time’s ocean—can change the world" for the better (Washington Times).
"Each section of Mitchell’s sextet is finely worked and strong enough to stand alone. The interrupted stories and the links between the narratives only serve to drive home his desperate theme, one that encompasses both serious warning and tentative hope." Robin Vidimos
"Cloud Atlas is powerful and elegant because of Mitchell’s understanding of the way we respond to those fundamental and primitive stories we tell about good and evil, love and destruction, beginnings and ends. He isn’t afraid to jerk tears or ratchet up suspense—he understands that’s what we make stories for." A.S. Byatt
"Exhilarating, challenging, full of invention, this book may show where the future of the novel—and of humanity—is headed." David Walton
"[W]hile there exist fictions of similar bent and scope in our tradition (in addition to Huxley and Orwell, one should mention Walter Miller’s 1950s classic A Canticle for Liebowitz and possibly the early Thomas Pynchon), Mitchell’s achievement is so present in its particulars as well as its imaginative extrapolation of the salient features of our time as to preclude the charge of imitation." Gordon Weaver
New York Observer
"The elaborate structure enacts a theory of history that’s part of the novel’s core meaning; the stop-and-go narrative reveals itself as a continuous cycle; the separate stories achieve a weird unity; and what seemed at first mere cleverness begins to look like wisdom." Adam Begley
"Mr. Mitchell holds our attention by becoming progressively bolder in vision and technique as he approaches the book’s core, and beyond it, sustaining the momentum with heightened suspense and pathos. This is a writer who likes to take risks, and time and again, they pay off." Amanda Kolson Hurley
"What we do today in our private lives may have consequences for people in the next millennium. … It’s a heady idea, and with Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell delivers a story that will make readers sit up and pay attention to this truth." John Freeman
San Diego Union-Tribune
"The novel’s only weakness lies close to home. Close to our home, that is; the author is English, and the Southern California chapters strike this near-native’s ear as a quarter-tone flat." Arthur Salm
Los Angeles Times
"Mitchell seamlessly deploys various genres, including historical and epistolary fiction, murder-thriller, sci-fi and memoir. … Though it is easy to find the influence of literary predecessors such as Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov (and cinematic sensibilities reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino), Mitchell’s nimble voice distinctly reflects our fragmented, frantic cultural moment." Carmela Ciuraru
"Here, too, are Melville’s maritime tableaux, the mordant satire of Kingsley Amis and, in the voice of Robert Frobisher—Mitchell’s most poignant and fully realized character—the unmistakable ghost of Paul Bowles. … completely original." Jeff Turrentine
"The one problem is that because each voice varies significantly in tone (only one is not written in the first person) the sections also vary in effectiveness. The composer and publisher sections are the most engaging, while the longer Zachry sections occasionally feel forced and can become tedious." Paul Moore
NY Times Book Review
"If Mitchell’s virtuosity too often seems android, one suspects this says less about his achievement and more about the literature of formal innovation. This is a book that might very well move things forward. It is also a book that makes one wonder to what end things are being moved." Tom Bissell
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic rave over Cloud Atlas, British novelist Mitchell’s third novel. Many of the accolades focus on his flair for setting and character. He seems just as comfortable in far-future Hilo as in contemporary England, and he crafts believable voices for characters as different as the rakish Frobisher and the simple tribesman Zachry. One reviewer found the Luisa Rey storyline less convincing than others, while another got bogged down in Zachry’s tale. Mitchell may jump around in time, but his skill remains consistent.
This skill—the technical expertise that allows Mitchell to adopt a different genre for each of his six storylines—gets him into a little trouble. The New York Times Book Review complains that Mitchell’s writing "too often seems android," that his chameleon-like shifts render his work coldly impressive rather than "fallibly human." However, most reviewers found Mitchell’s unorthodox structure captivating. After an initial period of confusion, Cloud Atlas becomes a challenging puzzle most were eager to solve. When the storylines finally coalesce, the result is a novel that stands above its peers in both emotional impact and philosophical import. As the Los Angeles Times notes, "Cloud Atlas offers too many powerful insights to be dismissed as a mere exercise in style." By all accounts, Mitchell has produced in Cloud Atlas a wholly original work. For most, it is also wholly satisfying.