Book Review: Cloud Atlas

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Well. This book.

So far since getting my kindle this book has taken me the longest to get through – 20 days. There is a reason for that.

The basic structure of this book consists of six different stories from six different perspectives. You read through them until the center one, which is double the length of the rest, and then read back through the first five in reverse chronological order. Generally I find this kind of structure gimmicky and went into this book expecting there to be a point to this. Unfortunately that point isn’t readily apparent.

What ends up happening is that you read through an hour of one character and then it radically shifts to a completely different universe, with a different tone, mostly different characters, and the implication that the previous section was fictional. Additionally Mitchell uses a literary device I hate – where the writing attempts to mimic speech. And I understand why he did it, but the middle story is incredibly difficult to get into for this reason.

Also – I’m incredibly bad at remembering character names. Especially when you were introduced to them 400 pages ago. 😉

I have read a lot of negative reviews on this book, wanting to agree with them, but the more I think about it, the more I think I get why he set the book up this way. And I think it’s actually kind of ingenious.

The point finally became apparent to me somewhere in the second section of the The First Luisa Rey Mystery where it comes out that the whole Swannekke power plant ordeal was supported by the department of defense because uranium was a byproduct. It occurred to me then that he was playing in reverse now how human greed and selfishness brought the world to its end.

Mitchell really hammers this point home in the end of the last chapter when he reiterates how Meronym told Zachary that people had “a hunger” in their hearts, “a hunger for more” as Goose tells Ewing that the only law of survival is “the weak are meat the strong do eat.” And Ewing extrapolates that “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” That “in an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness us extinction.”

And that is exactly what has happened. Mitchell carries you through these little worlds, exposing you to truths of human nature, and then wanders you back through how we ended up there, showing you that connection, that interacting and being with the people in your life, is what makes humanity great, and selfishness and greed will tear us apart. Far from being pretentious, the last line – “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” – encourages the reader to be the positive influence the world needs because if we all work together, the world will be a more positive place.

The idea is far from novel and I’m not sure the format was particularly conducive to getting the point across effectively. There is a lot that seems pointless and extraneous. But I’m left with the lingering feeling that I should immediately reread it and watch the way he builds towards the point now that I understand better what Mitchell was driving at.

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