Cloud Atlas is a composed of a multitude of voices, some of which sound like nails on a chalkboard.
The excessive use of portmanteau words weaves a tapestry of anachronistic neologisms and inconsistencies. What separates this novel from ordinary science fiction or magical realism or literary fiction, is the balancing act, tenuous at times, Mitchell undertakes with his world-building. A bold move, but one that often reads like a role-playing scenario meticulously cyphered into Pig Latin.
Far superior to this novel, in my opinion, are the works of Jonathan Lethem. Mitchell straddles genres in the same way, but is so fond of quaint Britishisms and treacly gravitas, that his characters often flounder in the shallows.
My ranking of Mitchell’s novels so far:
1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (most wearisome title)
2. Slade House (surprisingly ordinary title)
3. Number9Dream (second most unbearable title)
4. Cloud Atlas (Infinitely better title)
5. Bone Clocks (Good title at least)
I don’t know about his 2 other novels. Not sure if I feel any desire to read them. Cloud Atlas made me ask, what is wrong with a clear message? Why cloud the message with a smokescreen of stylistic extravagances? Perhaps, if you are not confident in the story you want to tell or your ability to convey it beautifully, you feel the need to pull cheap gimmicks and use a lot of flash bombs? But Mitchell has solid research and a wealth of details to build on. Rather than focus on sustaining dramatic tension, he seems to have chosen a route of planting seeds in a novelistic foundation to sprout unending interpretations.
Finding the connections between the novella-like segments is a difficult exercise to ask of the reader. It would’ve made more sense to market this book as a series of novellas. There’s nothing wrong with insinuating connections between stories in a collection. Something like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. But the pieces stringing together this unwieldy book do not belong to the same family. You can blame the non-chronological ordering, or the density of the unanswered questions, but the focus of many scenes seem to me more arbitrary than successful.
I remember a scene of a character standing in line. An obnoxiously abundant use of the euphemism “ruddy,” and a few moments of witty Wodehousian humor. But I failed to discover the relation to his other disparate narratives. Clearly, I missed the point.
The building blocks for this novel were:
New Zealand tribes, a complicated interplay between a popular writer and his publisher, a future fabricant’s, or artificial human’s, societal opinions, a reporter, someone in World War 1, and greed on personal and corporate levels.
However, my reading experience was not a wasted one. There are intriguing moments to be had, and underneath all of the literary fizz, universal themes lie waiting. I am biased toward straightforward plot I suppose. And by reading the other reviews of this book you will see that it contains a lot of food for thought. I’d recommend reading it for the novelty and to form your own opinion.