Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Cloud Atlas is not as difficult to read as some of its reviews led me to expect. I suspect they did this because it is difficult to review (and I’m even going to be employing spoilers, though few and far between, those who have only a minor aversion to them will be happy to know). I’m going to ramble for a bit about my reactions to the book versus the movie and ruminate on the structure of the novel. Then I might actually say some things about the book as a whole. No promises.
I read Cloud Atlas now as a matter of some serendipity. The book has been on my to-read list for a while now, and my friend Vivike gave me a copy for Christmas. So, I packed it in my suitcase when I returned to England after the Christmas break, resolving to getting around to it within the next few months. The UK release of the movie forced my hand, with my roommate prompting me to go on the weekend it came out. As a result, I watched the movie before reading the book—something I don’t often do when the book is already known to me. This review is not a review of the movie, or even a review of how the book and movie compare—but it is an attempt to discover how viewing the movie influenced my reading of the book, so bear with me here.
All stories, on some level, are about story-telling. This somewhat reductive view is true if only because of the ego of writers; the very passion for the craft that makes a writer successful also means the writer views storytelling with a reverence and sense of awe. So, naturally, writers will work storytelling into their stories. Cloud Atlas, with its nesting structure of six somewhat separate stories, is about a lot of things, but storytelling is certainly one of them.
Firstly, each story is a different form and genre. There is a nineteenth-century travel journal, letters from pre-World War II Belgium, a 1970s mystery/thriller manuscript, a contemporary memoir, a science-fictional testimony/interview with a condemned clone, and a post-apocalyptic tale of redemption. Consequently, people with narrow reading tastes are probably not going to enjoy this smorgasboard of storytelling—though, I suppose those people would also find Cloud Atlas’ unconventional structure galling enough, even if every story were more of the same.
Secondly, Mitchell uses the nesting nature of the story structure to confuse the boundaries between fiction and reality. The previous level’s story is itself a story in the current level: Robert Frobisher reads The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, cut in half, during his time at Ayrs’ estate; Luisa Rey, in turn, reads Frobisher’s letters when she discovers them on the body of Rufus Sixsmith; Timothy Cavendish reads a manuscript of Luisa’s adventure, etc. And at every level, the previous story implied to be unreliable or outright fiction—Frobisher notes that there is something “off” about Ewing’s journal, as if it were not factual. Sonmi-451 views the film version of Cavendish’s experience of imprisonment and escape. Her own “orison” is testimony recorded by a representative of the totalitarian apparatus in power, and therefore liable to be censored.
So immediately, Mitchell presents us with a dilemma: is every story “real,” or is only the sixth and central story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” real, with everything else fiction-within-fiction? If they are all real, do they exist within the same continuum, or as separate, parallel realities? (Or is it possible that all fiction in our world exists somewhere as a Platonic reality of its own?) One could simply throw up one’s hands in exasperation and declare this dilemma irrelevant to the book. That would miss the point. Cloud Atlas is about the relationships we form with one another—and that includes our relationships with fictional characters, with the stories and myths that underlie our information and beliefs.
I generally enjoyed the movie of the book, but the more I reflect on the differences between the two, the more I have to say that Cloud Atlas the movie isn’t so much an adaptation of the book as it is a reimagining. In remaining faithful to the book’s themes, the Wachowskis had to jettison quite a bit of its plot and a fair number of its characters. The result is a very different animal from the book, even if both versions of the story ultimately aim at the same truths and that same fundamental reflection on our relation to storytelling. (Though the nesting story structure is less explicit in the movie, because it flits back and forth among the various stories in no particular pattern, they compensate for this by having the wizened and elderly Zachry begin and finish the frame narrative.)
The only alteration that remains a regret, for me, is one that I felt keenly: no Eva! I can deal with relocating Ayrs to Scotland, but the book also gives him a self-assured daughter who is a thorn, then a friend, then … something else … to Robert Frobisher. I really miss Eva’s presence now that I got to know her through Frobisher’s letters—I enjoyed how he described, with some pride and self-satisfaction, her venomous younger self as a female version of himself, as if he had finally met his match.
I also notice that in the movie, they don’t go full circle on the relationship between Unanimity and the Union in Sonmi’s story. They kept it as a much more straightforward, action-packed tale of revolutionaries fighting against a corrupt government. I think this robs Sonmi of something that made her unique; namely, in the book she recognized the Union’s artificiality but went along with the plan anyway, because she saw it as the best way to get her message out there. Though it takes courage to be a revolutionary, it takes even more courage and wisdom to be a fake revolutionary and know it.
The other changes are vast and manifest, and some I liked and some I didn’t. I like to think I’m tolerant enough when it comes to adaptations, since it really is a matter of translating story and theme from one medium to another. Indeed, for a book with such a restrictive structure as Cloud Atlas, such translation is more necessary than ever.
But I digress. I should probably talk about the book, and the characters, and, you know, the story(ies).
I’m not going to rank them. I enjoyed and loathed them all at certain points. Luisa Rey’s mystery probably elicited the most visceral enjoyment from me, simply because I am a child of the novel, and its format made for easy reading. The story that affected me most was probably “Letters from Zedelghem,” because of the haunting arc of Frobisher’s hopes and dreams regarding composing and his mentor, as well as his doomed love with Sixsmith. Finally, “An Orison of Sonmi-451” would get my vote for the most clever of the stories, merely for the way Mitchell uses language and other subtle cues to build this “corpocracy” of Neo Seoul with a minimum of exposition.
Each story somehow works on the recurring motifs of identity politics, oppression and repression, injustice, and honouring the truth. The nested structure and other connections—such as the comet birthmark—highlight how each story is merely a variation on these themes, a different way of saying the same thing. Whether it’s the racism and colonialism of the Pacific Islands or the oppression of the fabricants of Neo Seoul, Mitchell’s characters react against the inequity of their times and places. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas asks, why does this keep happening again and again? What is it about our various awakenings and enlightenments and moral revelations that doesn’t stick? Are we, as a species, doomed to repeat these moral failings until we perish of them?
Maybe we are. But there is a hope present in these stories alongside the danger: there will always be heroes. There will always be people willing to stand against injustice, in any of its forms, despite the handicaps of their background and upbringing. They don’t necessarily live to see the fruits of their labours—for some, like Frobisher, death seems like the only necessary conclusion to their labour, whereas for Sonmi, it is the inevitable outcome of her role in Unanimity’s carefully-orchestrated plot. Whatever their fates, however, these heroes have in common the capacity and willingness to strive against the status quo.
I can’t quite bring myself to rave about Cloud Atlas and call it a perfect novel. I’m not even sure it’s a great novel. It is carefully crafted in such a way as to be both satisfying and memorable. Does the visibility of the joinery and seams render this craftsmanship somewhat less impressive than it might otherwise be? I’m inclined to say no, because knowing how a house is built doesn’t take any pleasure out of viewing the product (unlike, say, knowing how sausages or law get made).
And I have to say that, whatever its flaws might be, I certainly found Cloud Atlas profound. It reminds me of 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, another book with interconnected stories that plays with genre and form and the realities of the characters. Murakami’s writing, even when translated, has an ineffable grace that Mitchell’s only approaches. Even so, Cloud Atlas is similar to 1Q84 in the expansive scope of its commitment to both philosophy and story. This is a book that will make many people scratch their heads (even though it isn’t all that confusing if you pay attention)—and that makes it precisely my kind of book.