Re: Cloud Atlas

Back in November I watched Cloud Atlas, the wannabe-epic movie from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis that I ultimately panned as “more six mediocre movies than one good movie”. I was intrigued enough, however, to read the book the movie was based on, and I promised to report back on it once I had finished.

Evidently I wasn’t the only one with this plan, because when I put a hold on the book at the SF public library, there were over 250 requests ahead of me. Consequently, I didn’t actually get ahold of it until late January, and finished reading it only a few weeks ago.

And…um…while it differed from the movie in several significant ways, the underlying criticism still stands: there isn’t enough linking the six stories together, and as such we end up with six different stories, in six different styles, that are all “mildly interesting” and even edging up on “pretty good”, but were hardly extraordinary, and did not capitalize on the conceit offered by the form.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is six stories nested like Matryoshka dolls, with the first starting in the 1800s and the last two in the near and not-so-near future. Each story has its own set of characters, plot, and conflicts; additionally, each story is written in a different narrative style (journal, letters, screenplay, memoirs, transcript, and oral storytelling). Each story begins, establishes its setting and most of its dramatis personae, then cuts off right when things start heating up. Later, when each story reaches its conclusion, it somehow manages to reference the previous one (say, by someone finding the rest of the screenplay), which provides the requisite transition back in time.

The fact that the six stories were written in a different style had a strong effect on how much I liked each one. The present-tense, overly dramatic narration of “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” set me off for pretty much the entire story, while the postal format of “Letters from Zedelghem” is a conceit I generally enjoy (and have used myself), and this was no exception.

But either Mitchell was not as interested in linking the six stories together as Tykwer and the Wachowskis, or I was not paying enough attention to pick up on the connections. While there is the same occasional appearance of actual objects or even characters from one story in another, there doesn’t seem to be any overarching theme that ties the story together, nor do the protagonists seem to be linked in any significant way besides their comet birthmarks (also present in the movie). And without the continuity of supporting characters as well as the protagonists, the effect was even weaker. The ending of the first (or last) story (and possibly some of the earlier ones) does push at a more overarching theme, but it does so rather awkwardly and hastily, as if Mitchell realized it was necessary only after having written all six.

Where the movie weaves together six stories with brilliant production and composition, the book creates six stories that stand on their own, if each a little wobbly. There are entire scenes and subplots in each story that were omitted from the movie, which is of course true of every movie adaptation. (It went from over 500 pages to over two and a half hours, so…) Losing these scenes meant the movie had a simplified version of each individual message, though. Perhaps that’s for the best, though “An Orison of Sonmi~451” lost a great deal of its world, its characters, and its subversity in favor of becoming a simple sci-fi action movie.1

According to Wikipedia, Mitchell was inspired by Italo Calvini’s frustrating but ultimately well-crafted book If on a winter’s night a traveler, which contains several unfinished stories.2 Calvini’s stories also feel unrelated, deliberately so (I think), but Mitchell’s seem like they ought to be related but then aren’t. Or perhaps they are, but only in the way events are indirectly related and connected here in the real world. The thing is, that doesn’t make for an interesting conceit.

Final verdict: on its own, Cloud Atlas is a book of six moderately interesting but fairly generic stories that have cleverly placed interruptions, like mid-season cliffhanger episodes of TV dramas. It’s not bad, but there’s not so much reason to seek it out. Compared to the movie, each story has more depth and focus and stands a little better on its own, but the counter is that the stories feel like they have even less to do with each other.

So that’s Cloud Atlas. Next: hopefully catching up on some movie reviews from January.

  1. “Orison” also gives up the book’s more unexpected reveal, but amps up the horror of the you-know-what, taking advantage of the visual medium to provide more emotions than I got from reading the same scene in Sonmi’s verbal retelling. ↩︎

  2. I’m not going to be more specific because I don’t want to spoil If on a winter’s night a traveler; it’s short and you should read it for a quirky piece of atypical fiction. ↩︎

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