Book Review: CLOUD ATLAS


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Notes on Diversity:
This is another book like The Windup Girl that is what I would call “surface diverse”–as in scratch the surface and all the diversity is gone. It’s wrapped up in a veneer of diversity, but it’s just a veneer. And for a reader like me who craves non-mainstream narratives (because I am marginalized along multiple axes, and I am sick of dominant narratives being shoved down my throat) these surface diverse books really stick in my craw.

There are Asian characters in Cloud Atlas1. There are Moriori characters, though none of them are ever relegated to anything but side characters who must be rescued by an empathic/enlightened white man. There is Luisa Rey, a scrappy ’70s Latina private eye. There are far-future characters who live in Hawaii, who as far as I can tell, are not coded or explicitly raced, but I read them as white.

There are queer characters. Robert Frobisher, a brilliant young composer, and Rufus Sixsmith, smitten by Forbisher. The pair of them star-crossed and epistolary, and ultimately Tragic Queers–one of them suicidal and the other forever pining the loss. I don’t know much about Mitchell, but the narrative strikes me as the straight-person-writes-the-Bury-Your-Queers situation all over again. So, you know, it’s “diverse”…but is it the kind of diversity that really gets us anywhere?

So. The book.

I was expecting to love the book. I love narrative structures; I love audacious books that play with expectations of narrative structure. I knew very little going into David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas except that it was speculative fiction and that it was played with structure. Something about nested narrators.

It does play with structure. In fact, its whole conceit rests on the structure piece–if you can’t go with that, then the book folds up like a house of cards in a slight breeze. If literally any part of the fabulous dazzling structure of the book doesn’t work for you, then the entire book doesn’t work for you, which renders the book not really a book so much as a magic trick, a gimmick.

The structure is intricate and fascinating, unfurling as it does starting in the past, creeping up to the present, then into future-dystopian Korea, and landing in far-future Hawaii before furling up again in reverse, revisiting the narrators from the previous sections in opposite order. Each of the narrators has a distinct voice and tone; some Mitchell pulls off beautifully. For me, the Adam Ewing in the first and last sections worked well, as did the Luisa Rey sections.2 I was emotionally gutpunched by the Frobisher sections, but for the wrong reasons.3

The central piece of the book–“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”–did not work for me at all. Partly this is because as someone with a ‘dumb’ accent4 I am particularly attuned to the way certain accents serve as markers of stupidity/class and how writing in dialect by people without those accents serves to communicate that, and this generally rubs me the wrong way. I literally had to grit my teeth to read this section. Partly this section did not work for me because the book should have ended here. We did not need to re-furl after “Sloosha’s Crossin'”; everything that happens after are essentially drawn-out codas, stuck after simply for structure’s sake. The actual plot, what little there is of it, truly ends in this section. All the tiny reveals stuck in the ending codas could have neatly been worked in, as foreshadowing, beforehand.

All this is to say that I do love it when authors play with structure, but only if they have a depth of story to support that structure. Only if their actually doing something with that structure. I’m not certain that the structure served anything in Mitchell’s plot here but showing off. The plot was exceedingly thin, actually, stretched across some very fancy digs. The structure wasn’t enough.


1The Sonmi-451 section is set in a dystopian Korean state. I don’t have a specific enough sense of Korean culture to know if Mitchell succeeded in his representation of Koreans here. I know that Mitchell lived for a time in Japan, and I wonder if he got future-Korea right, or if it’s “Korea” with all the blanks filled in with Japan. I don’t know enough about either to be able to tell.

2We can’t even really sink into the Luisa Rey sections, either, as they are revealed to possibly not to have happened. In the Cavendish sections, Luisa Rey’s sections are revealed to be a manuscript he is reading, which makes me question if she is even real. If a Latina is not real in your story, does she count to your book’s diversity?

3Because I’m queer, basically any queer narrative is going to grab me by the shirtfront and not let me go. I was more heavily invested in Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher than any other characters in the book even though as soon as they were introduced I had an inkling of where that story thread was going. I strongly, strongly dislike the Tragic Queers trope, especially if it’s written by someone who does not identify as queer themselves.

4Even after years of trying lose it in my youth to make myself acceptably smart I still have distinct traces of my East Texas twang. Not a genteel southern drawl, mind you, but that harsh, chopped Texas twang. The stuff of Dubya.

2 stars

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