Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I tried.  I really did.  But I just couldn’t finish ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell.  The whole concept/plot was just too damn weird.

I’m quite proud of the fact that there are very few books which I have never finished but this one definitely defeated me.  ‘Cloud Atlas’ interweaves six different stories which include the 19th century Pacific journal of Adam Ewing, the letters of Robert Frobisher living in Belgium in the 1930s, a thriller set in the 1970s, a comic story about someone who gets trapped in a nursing home, a futuristic  dystopian world… and this is the point where I gave up after nearly 200 pages.  Each of the first five stories are interrupted half-way through and are then resolved in reverse chronological order (although I didn’t get far enough to read these conclusions).    The summary sounded intriguing and the links between the different episodes are made fairly obvious, but that didn’t really make it any easier to follow and it was difficult to digest it all in detail.  Having read the Wikipedia summary of what happened after the point where I gave up, it doesn’t look like I missed much.  

suppose ‘Cloud Atlas’ has never been on my official TBR list because I always thought (rightly, as it turned out) that it was the sort of book I would fail to finish and I tend to avoid those if I can.   However, the film version has recently been released which drew my attention to it again so I thought now might be a good time to investigate the book.  The film has had decidedly mixed reviews and having attempted to tackle the book, I can definitely see why.  Even if you were familiar with the book, I can imagine the film is probably still incomprehensible because to me, the book itself is pretty incomprehensible and cramming it all in to a two or three hour film is surely neither going to improve it nor make it any less baffling.

The positive thing I can say about ‘Cloud Atlas’ is that it is an imaginative, ambitious, sprawling tapestry of a novel which shows off Mitchell’s talent for writing in several different styles.  On that level, I can admire it… from a safe distance.  When it comes to actually sitting down and reading it, my appreciation of the book dwindled somewhat.  Overall, reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a bit like wading through thick sludge.  It requires real effort and is ultimately not very rewarding.  

Did I give up on ‘Cloud Atlas’ too soon?  Or was I wise to quit while I still possessed my sanity?  Which other ‘classic’ books are best admired from a safe distance?

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

  1. I’ve never tried to read this book, but it’s been on my ‘To Read’ list for years. I have a friend whose opinion of it is exactly the same as yours, so maybe I should just listen to you guys and save myself the trouble. 🙂 I think you did well to get as far into it as you did.

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  2. You’re right – it DOES take work to get through. I see where you’re coming from. It IS hard to digest and comprehend.

    But for me, what made Cloud Atlas interesting (and worth reading) was the way it made me reflect on stories and what makes them REAL. The way the stories are all connected made me question which was the “real” narrative, which was enough to keep me interested enough to read to the end. Also, at some point I started thinking of it as a Russian matryoshka doll. That helped, somehow.

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  3. I did manage to finish Cloud Atlas… and although it didn’t completely succeed, I have huge admiration for David Mitchell. He’s a fantastic writer who continually pushes the boundaries of how a novel can work while writing absorbing characters and narratives. I prefer my artists to aim high and just fall short than to be predictable. I’d urge you read more of Mitchell – his last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a much more straightforward structure (!) but is a fantastic book. One of my favourites.

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  4. I loved this book, although I shouldn’t have. I’m not keen on loosely related stories, but for some reason it didn’t bother me here. But I can see that it’s not for everyone. In fact, while I consider David Mitchell a favorite author, I didn’t finish another book of his, Ghostwriter, which also has stories with some connection between them.

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  5. This is on my TBR and I keep avoiding picking it up for all the reasons you stated. I figure what’s the point of reading a book when you’re having difficulty understanding it and appreciating it. You read almost half the book and you weren’t motivated to continue. I say you gave it your best shot. From the description of the story I’m pretty sure the movie was probably a bust. Don’t feel bad. Maybe you could pick it up later where you left off. I had the same problem with Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie. I read about 220 pages and got tired of not knowing who was who. I went to my book club with a half read book for the first time. I don’t like feeling frustrated and in the dark when I’m reading. I feel the writer has let me down, instead of enticing me into their story they are alienating me from it.

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    • That’s funny because Midnight’s Children is also on my TBR list… probably for eternity!

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      • I just found Salman Rushdie’s writing so pretentious. I vowed to never pick up any of his books again. Never say never, I failed at that because I bought The Enchantress of Florence a while later and still haven’t read it. Who knows maybe I’ll eventually pick up Midnight’s children again. So don’t feel so bad about stopping. At the moment I’m trying to find a reason to continue reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I have to finish it by Saturday for my book club. It’s a whopping 525 pages and I am only on 200. I’m not loving it, but I’ll probably soldier on….

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  6. Time is valuable. So when I realize that I will gain nothing of worth by finishing the book, I will kindly close it and move on to the next more deserving read. It is indeed challenging to write a novel that has multiple interwoven plots. You have several main characters and in this case different eras. The key to keeping the reader, I guess, is to really go above and beyond in telling the reader upfront how these different characters, places and times are all connected. Some writers may feel that they don’t want to give the reader too much. They want the reader to figure out some things for themselves. I disagree. You don’t want your reader to work. You want them to enjoy.

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  7. What a coincidence. I just posted a review about how much I loved Cloud Atlas on my blog. I thought Mitchell’s ability to write different styles was really impressive and, after forcing my way through Adam Ewing’s opening section, I thought the idea, execution, and plot were incredible.

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  8. I did not finish this book either unfortunately, I’m sad to say it but I’m pleased someone else agrees with me that the book is too complex for the pages itself.

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  9. I love your expression “Admired from a safe distance.” I would say the next level would be the book that looks impressive on your shelf, but you seldom feel drawn to read. For me, the “admired from a safe distance” novel was one touted as a masterpiece of Symbolist lit: “Saint Petersburg” by Andrei Bely. Yikes. I slogged through it, but still have no clue what it was about…

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  10. kirkykoo79

    My “safe distance” list would include ‘Lord of the Rings’ (always get stuck at Tom Bombadil’s); ‘Crime and Punishment’ (gave up about a third of the way in); ‘Ulysses’ (gave up ten pages in and just read the Molly’s soliloquy) and ‘Clarissa’ (finished it but not sure it was worth it). Incidentally, I loved ‘Cloud Atlas’, though it took a while to get into it. In hindsight, I’d be tempted to read it out of sequence, keeping each story whole.

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  11. It would be a dull old world if we all liked the same thing. I would include Cloud Atlas in a list of the 10 best books I have ever read. I found it one of those inclusive books where you are not just an observer watching the story pass on the pages of the book but one where you tend to lose all sense of self and are drawn into the story and are an observer from within the story not from outside the page.

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  12. So sad to hear you didn’t like this. It’s in my top five all time favourite books and is a pretty strong contender for absolute favourite – I’m always recommending it to people with an evangelical fervour. I even liked the film and I’m a)not a huge film person and b)deeply sceptical of adaptations of books I like.

    .That said, I can see why people wouldn’t like it – it’s a definite love or hate book. I enjoyed most of the individual stories (I found the ship and the post-apocalyptic ones a bit hard going in places, but both the 1920s one or the dystopian one would almost make it onto my favourites list single-handedly), was really impressed by the cleverness of the structure, and loved re-reading to pick up on the cunning links between the different tales. Above all I think I like way it blends fun genre fiction into a literary whole.

    Did you like any of the stories as standalone works. or did it just not do it for you at all?

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    • I did quite like the 1930s one and I thought at that point that I might get into it a bit more after the slow beginning. But the dystopia just didn’t grab me and I think if you attempt an ambitious structure like that then all of the elements have to be consistently good for it to work properly.

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  13. l don’t know about the book, but l saw the movie and I enjoyed it. Maybe the movie is easier to follow. I will have to try the book eventually.

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  14. after reading your response to it…I will wait for some more recommendations. I also thought of picking it up after watching the movie. I liked the movie but it’s always different from the print. Still, I will keep it on my ‘to-read’ list

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  15. Had the same experience with Cloud Atlas and another book of his I read called The Thousand Autumns for Jacob de Zoet. David Mitchell writes very well but his books are a bit of a slog and not very readable. I wonder why he doesn’t make them more approachable for everyone since he has really great story ideas. I was tempted to bail on Cloud Atlas but had to finish it for a book club meeting, although I did not finish story 6 written in the dialect – just couldn’t manage it. In the end I was glad I had read Cloud Atlas because I recognized the genius, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless someone is already a Mitchell fan, which is really too bad. Why not make it more palatable for a wider market? Maybe his editor should have done more. The movie does a better job of keeping story lines straight but I still had the feeling I was missing stuff. Lots of great actors in it though!

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  16. I almost gave up Cloud Atlas too, but I felt I had to give it closure so that I could not blame myself for not trying hard enough. The plot is super werid and complex, but not in a good way. I love postmodernist literature and I think forcing the reader to make connections is great, but this one was just too weird. I have no desire to watch the movie either.

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone!

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  17. I did manage to finish this book…however once I did, I had no idea what I’d read or what the plot was about as I just couldn’t take it in. Think it was more a case of wanting to get it over with rather than enjoyment, which was a shame because I really wanted to like it!

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  18. Opinions on this book and the movie seem to be divided into “Love it” or “Forget it.” I’m intrigued enough to give it a try.

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  19. I finished the book easily and thought it very good if a bit depressing. I haven’t seen the film and am not sure I want to. Reading about dystopia is bearable but seeing it usually isn’t in my experience.

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  20. I am late to this, but I found certain stories a lot easier to “feel” than others. I really never got into certain stories, and yet I continued to push through because the ones that were written most annoyingly gripped me most as well (for purely plot-based reasons). So I can understand your reaction, but I also think it is really inventive in its use of language, and can see why it gets such good reviews. I am sort of in the middle!

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  21. I have not seen the film and I don’t intend to, but I picked up the book to read when I realised it had some science fiction in it (which has been my main reading, along with the “classics” of non sci-fi, for decades).
    If I had been reading the physical book I’m sure I would not have persevered, but I am reading it on Kindle, mostly on the bus, and it lends itself well to that. I am still only half way through but I know I will finish it now. I just hope there may be some connection between the episodes. But otherwise I will just accept it as a group of interesting short stories written in an accomplished variety of styles.
    One of the few books I gave up on was The God of Small Things, but I may try that again one day…

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  22. Just to add to my last comment – I did finish reading Cloud Atlas, and in the end I felt it was time well spent. Probably all of the atmospheric settings will stay with me forever, even if not the characters or plots.

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  23. I read the book because of the Booker hype and ended up reviewing it as an example of “Books whose structure overshadows the story.” There are many redeeming features, especially Mitchell’s ability to fabricate a believable post apocalyptic pidgin English, but overall it was a slog.

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  25. I persevered Cloud Atlas and was rewarded with several thrilling explorations of language. Unconventional storytelling.

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  26. I agree completely with your post. Cloud Atlas is brilliant, obviously (Booker Prize winner) but it succeeds more as a set piece novel than as a story. Actually, I wrote a blog post about how this book represents the sacrifice of story telling for structure. You can view it at: http://www.theGoatRodeoblog.com, blog post entitled “Structure” under the Writing Section.

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