The most striking thing about David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is that it doesn't behave the way a story is supposed to. Normally when you read a novel, within a few pages you start to get a sense of what the story is. You understand why you're following the main character, and you can probably guess at the general sort of arc the story will take. If this information isn't apparent within a few pages, you'll certainly have a handle on it within a few chapters.
CLOUD ATLAS isn't like that. I was a quarter through the book and still unclear who these characters were and why I was reading about them. But this experience wasn't frustrating, because the problem wasn't a fault with the writing but rather a deliberately mysterious structure that Mitchell was building and playing with. I found this book fascinating, fun, and only rarely boring (the first 25 pages in particular are a bit of a difficult slog but well worth pushing through).
If you're willing to dive into CLOUD ATLAS based on that description alone, and you've managed to avoid learning anything else about the book, I suggest that you stop reading this review now and give the book a try. I enjoyed my relatively uncontaminated reading experience.
On the other hand, if you're not likely to pick up the book without some idea of what you're getting into, read on for an explanation that will still leave you with plenty of surprises.
The book opens in the middle of a diary describing a nineteenth century journey, written in the style and language of that time period. The traveler's adventures continue for some 40 pages before ceasing abruptly. The next section of the book presents letters written by entirely different character at a later time in another part of the world. There's no discernable connection between the characters, but eventually a small link appears.
After a while the series of letters are interrupted by a new story, and then that one breaks off in the middle to be replaced by something else, until we've spent time with six sets of characters, each in a story that uses a different literary form. The stories take us forward in time, into the far future. While the connections between stories gradually get stronger, they don't come together to form a single plot. At the sixth section, the book pivots, and each of the previous tales is concluded in turn, until we end back with our nineteenth century traveler.
It's a wild ride. I haven't even touched on what the stories are about, because though the six distinct plots are each fairly interesting, they aren't really why you'd decide to read the book. I liked some of the stories better than others (and in listening to people talk about the book, not everyone has the same favorites), but the nice thing about the structure is that if you're not wild about one story, you'll be on to something completely different soon enough. I found the sections set in the future most interesting because of the speculative worlds they developed, so in my opinion this is a good science fiction read.
I still couldn't tell you why these particular six stories were the ones that Mitchell chose to bring together in the book. But the question of "why this story?" could arguably be raised for any work of fiction. What I liked best about CLOUD ATLAS is that it repeatedly pokes at and subverts the nature of storytelling. It's a book that encourages appreciation on a meta level, but it's also an engaging set of stories.
Once I'd finished reading, I enjoyed listening to a World Book Club episode with David Mitchell from 2010. The author answers reader questions about the novel and addresses many of the subjects I'd wondered about. Thanks to commenter M. Jacobs for recommending this podcast.
The movie version of CLOUD ATLAS is in theaters now, which is what led me to read the book. I was very curious to see if the filmmakers could pull off the challenge of adapting it, and I was impressed with the results. Overall, I thought it was a well-made movie that captures the spirit of the novel.
Turning a book into a movie always requires compression and changes, and I'm tolerant of even big differences if it's the best way to tell the story onscreen. The CLOUD ATLAS movie is close to three hours, but of course the six plots still had to be abridged and simplified. I think the writers managed to leave in everything that was most important about the situations and characters, with the exception of one story that felt weaker than the original because the level of world-building and exposition couldn't translate to film.
The movie uses a different structure than the book, jumping around more quickly between stories, and this format worked well. The movie also focuses more heavily on the theme of connection than the book does, and parallels between the stories are highlighted and added. This is a reasonable choice, since the less complex individual stories leave the audience wanting more from the whole. It also had the effect of helping me to see more similarities between the stories than I'd spotted while reading.
My one major issue with the movie concerns a different filmmaking choice: The same actors play multiple roles, appearing as different characters across the stories. I found this more distracting than illuminating. The use of radical makeup and prosthetics to change the actors' appearances was even more distracting. I wish the movie had been made with more actors, one per role.
Other than that complaint, I was happy with the adaptation and would recommend it to anyone interested in an unusual but engaging film. I saw it with people who hadn't read the book, and they were able to follow it without any trouble.
If you're thinking of reading the book but aren't sure, it would be perfectly valid to watch the movie first and see if it's something you'd like to delve into further. Knowing the basic stories won't cheat you out of a good reading experience. There's so much going on in the book that you'll still have lots to discover.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Joe Queenan describes a life organized around reading: "I've never squandered an opportunity to read. There are only 24 hours in the day, seven of which are spent sleeping, and in my view at least four of the remaining 17 must be devoted to reading." (Thanks, The Millions!)