Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell

PUBLISHED 08.17.2004

06.23.2013 – 07.05.2013

GENRE Fiction


Letting the gimmick do the work

In general I don’t like reading books that are clearly written to become Literature, which was this to a T. I felt like David Mitchell used a gimmick with only moderate success and tried to get away with it by acknowledging the gimmick and by condescendingly explaining his concept periodically through the book. I could have had a conversation with a somewhat haughtily intelligent teacher and come away with the same feeling.

He touches on some interesting stuff, like Somni~451 becoming the god of the Valleysmen, but we never find out why or how, which is the most interesting part to me. (Similarly, I get that Ewing and Frobisher are connected because Frobisher reads Ewing’s journal but I don’t see an impact from the former on the latter.) The evolution in language is kind of cool but goes nowhere and doesn’t have any effect except to make me feel by the middle like I’m rereading Huck Finn.

I could have had a conversation with a somewhat haughtily intelligent teacher and come away with the same feeling.

Basically, if the point was “everything is connected!!!!,” I found myself at the end wondering why I just read 500 pages if he could have written three words and had just as much emotional impact on me.

Edit: I wrote this post on my blog on June 8, 2015 (so, much later) and I’m editing it down here very slightly for length & clarity but thought it was worth including, especially since I’ve demoted this mentally & now officially:

i have very little memory of the plot [of cloud atlas] but for once very clear memory of why i found it disappointing

because there was no effect, just cause. like, [mitchell said] “i’m gonna intertwine some stories” but then neglected to actually intertwine them. he was like, ok this clone’s going to be a goddess in the future, but never how she got there or why that affects tom hanks (whoever he is in the book). the composer reads the diary but doesn’t do anything with it… and tbf how can any of those stories affect any other? they’re so deeply rooted in being mini genre pieces that escaping their own tropes to interact in a substantive way with any other story would tear down any kind of tenuous intra-story structure

they’re such disparate people and diverse stories – which is i guess a writing accomplishment, but one that i’d have more appreciated in a book of short stories – that you can’t even tell they’re connected beyond having a birthmark and consuming each others’ stories. 

and.. it was supposed to be a hopeful story about all being connected but by the end it felt nihilistic – no matter who we ever were or were connected to in the past, our future barrels on unaffected, unknowing, unchanged. no one learns anything from the past – it’s not like we, as readers, see them making the same mistakes over and over and understand those specific connections. any plot threads that join them together were so generic and archetypal they were missable. being betrayed by someone you trust? being trapped in a situation? like these are tenets of western literature and he’s not even interacting with the tropes, just kinda letting them play out and it’s not even clear if that IS the connection?

anyway, that’s what i mean when i keep saying it’s trying too hard to be literature and that it’s purely a gimmick. i don’t really mind gimmicks per se (c.f. mad max’ 3 hour car chase), but it has to be supported by a plot and characters and all that other stuff that makes a story. this gimmick was “impressive” but not successful or convincing or entertaining, and fundamentally i don’t want any gimmick to turn into a chore to read.