Classics Club Review: Cloud Atlas

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It is very rare when I can begin reading a literarily popular book and have absolutely no idea what to expect.  But with Cloud Atlas, I had no idea what it was about.  I had never read a review about it.  The summary and back of the book blurb is very ambiguous, which in retrospect is a very fair thing to put on the back of this book.  So when I began this literary journey, I had no expectations, no ideas of what lay ahead.

I think that this both helped and hurt my reading journey.

With that being said, if you don’t really know much about this book and want to keep it that way, be cautioned. There will be some in depth analysis and spoilers discussed below.  So if you want to have the same reading experience as I did, skip this discussion review.

Knowing nothing of the structure of this novel, or the story-telling methods, I found myself immediately overwhelmed with the esoteric nature of the first few pages.  I was bombarded with many unfamiliar words and allusions, and that really stressed me out.  But I kept reading, slowly on account of me continuously looking up words (which helped me study for my MAT at least), until I began to realize that this was more of a “Same language, different words used” problem rather than a “Jennifer doesn’t know any words in the English Language apparently” problem. When I figured out that the characters introduced in the first pages, Mr. Ewing and Dr. Henry Goose, were of Pacific British origin, I began to relax.  And when I got to the next section of this book and realized that the entire book was not written in this extremely esoteric language, I was relieved.

This novel is broken down into six completely different stories taking place decades–or even centuries–apart from each other.  As I was reading a long, I found myself becoming more and more perturbed with this structure.  I would finally become invested and interested in the characters I was reading, only to have the book completely jump to a NEW story with NEW characters.  While in retrospect I understand–and even appreciate–this method of storytelling, this led to a very disjointed read for me. To me, it was like reading six completely different stories. I mean, actually, I was reading completely different stories. Different characters, different time periods, one similar birthmark. While having so many narratives within this one work is kind of exhausting and makes this story seem very disjunct, there is a single line that connects each part together.

AND THEN, I got halfway through the book. And all of a sudden, the structure of this novel became crystal clear, and a little more fascinating.  It is like an example of this idea:  “You are watching a movie. In this movie, the characters watch a movie.  In that movie, those characters read an excerpt from a book. That book tells the story of these people.  Those people do this.”  Only, instead of starting with you, you begin with “those people doing this.”  So the shape of this novel is a crescendo/decrescendo (in music terms), which looks like this on paper:  < > .  When I got to the middle of the book and understand what Mitchell is doing, I saw the whole book. I finally understood where I had just come from, and I could clearly see where I was going.

When I hit this climax, I once again found myself losing interest in the actual stories being told. Since I was backtracking through the stories in reverse order, I had forgotten many of the details of the stories and I had lost the essence of the characters.

But alas, I got to the end of the book and found this little quote of explanation for this entire novel:

“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”:  piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color.  In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor:  in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.  Revolutionary or gimmicky?  Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…the artist lives in two worlds.”
Cloud Atlas (sextet), page 445

This quote is the heart of the novel. I read this statement and I was hit with a WOAH moment.  All of the musical allusions within the structure of this novel is really interesting and new. I appreciate the experimental story-telling elements of this novel, I really do. But I feel like the structure of this novel is the only thing that makes this a NOVEL and not an ANTHOLOGY. There is a small detail in each story that connects them, which allows this novel to take a direction.  I liked some of the stories and characters, but some of them didn’t hold my interest BEFORE there was a HUGE PAUSE in the story.

I understand what David Mitchell is doing, and I appreciate his ingenuity in novel structure and story-telling methods. But at the end of the day, this kind of novel is not my favorite. This is a book I will not ever read again, but I am glad that I read it. I found it interesting and intriguing from a structural standpoint, though the stories themselves were hit or miss. But that is just me. I can understand why people love this novel. I just don’t. I think it is because I am a lover of story first. And this is a novel that doesn’t focus on the story being told, but rather HOW the story is told.

My Bookshelf Rating:  Middle Shelf Book (3 stars)classicsclub

509 pages.  This is Review #2 of my Classics Club Challenge.

Love and French Vanilla,

Jennifer

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