Cloud Atlas, an appreciation

Author David Mitchell has a new book out: Utopia Avenue. This is the first time someone whose work I love has released something during the pandemic, so perhaps that explains my more-extreme-than-usual excitement.

Mitchell’s magnum opus, Cloud Atlas, sought me out in 2010. Most avid readers have a story like mine – wherein over the course of twenty-four hours, three unconnected people mention the same book, saying, “You must read this.” Then, and only then, you’ll be strolling through a bookstore or library, and the book’s spine will pop into your field of vision. You succumb to a pleasant sense of inevitability.

Thus it was with Cloud Atlas and me.

Prior to that book calling to me, I’d read Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet after hearing him on Fresh Air. Because he is an Irishman who overcame a stutter and married a Japanese woman, his delivery is distinctive, like he’s from his own country, which he kind of is.

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Within a day or so of this radio spot, I read a profile of him in the New York Times magazine. The profile mentions the real-life man made island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki, where much of the novel transpires. The next day I saw the gorgeous dust jacket on a bookseller’s shelf. I purchased and devoured this historical novel set in 1799, a love story between a red haired man from the Dutch East India Co., and a brilliant, beautiful, disfigured Japanese woman he can never possess.

Unbeknownst to me, I was entering Mitchell’s “ur-novel.” I.e., all his meaty, ambitious books — produced with astonishing regularity — are connected. His oeuvre is a sprawling multiverse of willpower, subtle magic, human monstrousness, science, and love. Characters from one book make cameos in others. The ur-novel – of which Utopia Avenue, a rock novel set in Sixties London, is a part – spans eras. Yet each individual book stands alone, too.

I recalled The New York Times piece mentioning Cloud Atlas as a book of interconnected stories in wildly different styles, spread over eras, a microcosm of the aforementioned ur-novel. It sounded complicated and arty, and I hesitated. Jacob de Zoet wasn’t really that complex. It’s an easy elevator pitch, eminently accessible.

No matter. Cloud Atlas had marked me, apparently. The next day, I saw the book on a library shelf. I finished it in a few days, screaming from my bed, “I love this book!”

At this point I must try to describe why Cloud Atlas is my favorite book.

You think you know how a story unfolds inside you. You’ve read a lot, and yes, authors employ myriad styles of revelation of character and plot, but the forms are somewhat predictable, and you feel them within you in a specific place. Not so with Cloud Atlas. It is a collection of “nested” stories. Although not immediately apparent, characters are reading or telling or writing or archiving the stories, each of which ends abruptly in the first half of the book, causing initial feelings of discomfort and confusion. But then, in reverse order, Mitchell finishes each story in the second half; that’s when they connect, and confusion turns slowly, then increasingly, to revelation. The narratives unfold like rose petals. Mitchell reveals them as all part of one story of love and daring and courage across the ages, from the ninrteenth century to a near, and then a far, dystopian future. The stakes go from personal to global. Each protagonist, it turns out, is a reincarnation of a specific soul, moving through time, tempted and touched by both destructive and productive forces. I do not know this as I read, but it doesn’t matter. I intuit a connection across the narratives, and it pulls me through, and the payoff is huge. My “intuition center,” wherever that is, gets goosed.

Derring-do of form aside, the content of the stories is rich, filled with drama and believable, relatable characters you root for (or loathe). But you do not apprehend the connective tissue until about midway through. You feel you’re learning to read all over again. A sense of wonder blooms as a newly lit place within you appreciates story.

I do not expect to feel that while reading a book again. At least not in this life.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

There is one comment

  1. Firannion

    Cloud Atlas is such a brilliant, game-changing approach to storytelling! When I try to describe it to people who haven’t read it, I usually compare it to Umberto Eco’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, because of the unspooling structure. But that’s a bit misleading. I found Eco’s book ultimately frustrating because it never makes its way back to the original narrative thread. Cloud Atlas satisfies because it wraps everything back up, without feeling forced and implausibly coincidental like the revelations at the end of a Dickens novel. The payoff is indeed huge!

    I too am looking forward eagerly to Utopia Avenue. Thanks for the reminder that it’s out soon.

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