07 May 2005

Cloud Atlas

This afternoon I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I liked it. Many parts delighted me, even though reading conditions were not the best: I spent a week reading the novel instead of two days because I’m moving on May 18th and that puts a crimp in everything.

Still, I would say that the novel is not top of class because the structure made it impossible for me to become intractably committed to any character or story line. One story cuts off mid-sentence—a new one begins. This happens five times. The sixth and middle story is the longest and written in a relatively exhausting invented dialect. After story number six ends—the first story that actually comes to a natural end before being interrupted—the fifth story resumes where it left off, if you can remember where that was. I couldn’t and had to flip back. After the fifth story ends, the fourth story resumes; etc. I flipped back three out of the five times.

I found all but one story extremely interesting, but I hate being preached to, and by the end, I’d been preached to as follows: people who fight and kill to gain money and power will eventually destroy the world, and if only individuals would realize that and fight against it, we could prevent that horror. Great. Thank you for sharing. Sorry to be so negative, but I guess I don’t read fiction for that sort of thing. I read fiction because I love to read about complicated people and the messes they get themselves into. I’m even willing to swap contexts, but if the author makes me do it in such large chunks that I forget who I’m supposed to be worrying about, well then, I don’t deeply worry about anyone.

Nevertheless, David Mitchell writes breathtakingly well. He has the great stuff. The Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher stories were terrific. He does thriller genre in the Luisa Rey story and science fiction with Somni-451. Weirdly enough, the middle story, the one in the boggling dialect, might be my favorite. It’s called “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and takes place on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here’s a scrap, not chosen but the first place I turned to:

I took the died babbit wrapped in a woolsack to the Bony Shore. So lornsome I was, wond’rin’ if Jayjo’s seed was rotted or my seed was rotted or jus’ my luck was rotted. Slack mornin’ it was under the bloodflower bushes, waves lurched up the beach like sickly cows an’ fell over. Buildin’ the babbit’s mount din’t take as long as Pa’s. Bony Shore had the air o’ kelp an’ flesh’n’rottin’, old bones was lyin’ ’mongst the pebbles, an’ you din’t hang ’bout longer’n you needed to, ’cept you was borned a fly or a raven.

Jayjo she din’t die, nay, but she never laughed twirly like b’fore an’ we din’t marry, nay, you got to know your seed’ll grow a purebirth or sumthin’ close, yay? Or who’ll scrape the moss off your roof an’ oil your icon ’gainst termites when you’re gone? So if I met Jayjo at a gath’rin’ or bart’rin’ she’d say, Rainy mornin’ ain’t it? an’ I’d answer, Yay, rain till nightfall it will I reck’n, an’ we’d pass by. She married a leather maker from Kane Valley three years after, but I din’t go to their marryin’ feast.

It was a boy. Our died no-name babbit. A boy.

Frequently he performs with such flourish that one needs to take a deep breath and go back and read it aloud:

We said we was herb’lists sivvyin’ for presh plants an’ maybe Yanagi b’liefed us an’ maybe he din’t, but he bartered us fungusdo’ for rockfish an’ warned us Waimea Town weren’t so friendsome as it’d been once, nay, Kona say-soed’n’knucklied ficklewise an’ you cudn’t guess their b’havin’s.

Imagine inventing this language and writing it ear-perfectly for seventy pages. Kudos. I look forward to more work from this author.


  1. Hmmm. I wonder if I'll get thru this. Perhaps? Good review, Caro.

  2. Yeah, Carol, I don't disagree at all. Frustrating structure, even though it was supposed to mean something, right? And the heavy dialect slowed me down big time. But overall worth reading, no?

  3. What was the structure supposed to mean? I assumed Mitchell got going this way and found it fun and therefore stuck with it. Meaning? I missed it.

  4. Mitchell has talked about the Russian Doll structure of the novel; for me, since there were historical links to the stories (I love how the composer discovers the sea journals), the structure meant that all of existence is interconnected in this way. There was also a link to the Cloud Atlas symphony, which had this structure, although why that is meaningful I don't know. In this interview, Mitchell admits the influence of Ridley Walker on the middle section that you quoted from, which I'm pleased to have recognized.


  5. hm, well, i didn't know about Riddley Walker, so thank you for this hookup.