Self-Interest and Cloud Atlas, The Strangest Book I’ve Ever Read

Cloud Atlas, number 82 on the BBC book list, is one of the strangest books I have ever read.  My sister loaned it to me after she read it for a college class.  At the time, I was a new stay-at-home mom and had a tiny baby who didn’t do much but eat, cry, and sleep.  I used to nurse her on the couch and a Boppy, after which she would promptly fall asleep.  However, if I moved she would wake up.  So, I learned to keep books, drinks, and remote controls nearby and I would just sit with her sleeping on my lap while I propped a book on the Boppy and read.  This is how I read Cloud Atlas (2004) by British author David Mitchell.

The story spans centuries, from the 1800s to a futuristic society in which clones are exploited and enslaved.  (That part of the novel reminds me a little of Battlestar Galactica.)  The stories are a lot like Russian nesting dolls.  You can take them apart down to the middle, and then you put them back together.  All the parts work together.  This switching between times and characters is confusing, but of that, Mitchell said: “All of the [leading] characters are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark. … The ‘cloud’ refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the ‘atlas,’ which is the fixed human nature. … The book’s theme is predacity … individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations” (Bookclub).

The six sections of the book follow:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

Letters from Zedelghem

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

An Orison of Sonmi~451

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

Some sections are more exciting and engaging than others.  Every time the narrative switched, I had a hard time reconnecting with the characters and understanding how they fit in with the previous stories.  I was intrigued by the musician/composer Robert Frobisher in Letters from Zedelghem.  His story is compelling, but just when it gets exciting, the narrative ends.

The sections are also markedly different from one another.  The narratives go from a historical setting, to a political study, to a mystery novel, to science fiction.  There’s something for every taste, but this pastiche is disconcerting at times.  It is hard to see the connections between the sections, which is why Mitchell’s explanation above of the novel is important.

The narrative arcs through the ages, and then slowly goes backwards, revisiting each character and time period.  It is interesting that society, because of its predatory practices on each other, tends to cycle downward in this dystopian novel.  As human kind progresses, times get worse for our kind because of the inability to follow the simplest of rules: Treat others the way you want to be treated.  Perhaps this lesson is applicable today.  We have all sorts of technology, gadgets, satellite capabilities, nuclear warheads, and information.  Yet, how do we treat each other?  Can we ever coexist peacefully?  This novel explores that question and ultimately answers it as no, we cannot.  Human beings are too self-interested and exploitative of the weak.

This reminds me of my American Heritage class as a freshman in college.  I don’t remember much from the class, except that I hated the economics section of it.  But what I did take away was the idea that America was built on self-interest, and that Americans continue to be self-interested.  I’ve not yet decided if this is a good and necessary quality, or if it will ultimately be our destruction, but that was the theme of that class.

I toyed with the idea of reading this novel again, in order to write a better review, but I ultimately decided against it because of self-interest.  There are too many books on my to-read list that I’d rather get to.  Have you read this book?  Can you add more to my skimpy thoughts?


“Bookclub.” BBC Radio 4. 2007-06. Retrieved 2008-04-19.


25 thoughts on “Self-Interest and Cloud Atlas, The Strangest Book I’ve Ever Read

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  1. Loved this book in college, and still do. It was the first novel assigned in a Feminist Theory class that I truly enjoyed reading. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again when we’ve settled into the new house and I can finally locate it amongst our boxes and boxes of books.

    It’s been a while, but your description of this novel reminds me of the highly celebrated HBO TV series The Wire, which has been described by its creator as being about the effect institutions have on human behavior. The show’s five season all take place within the criminal underbelly of Baltimore, Maryland. The narrative jumps around, never following the same plot points or characters from one season to the next, but the theme is the same, and it’s similar to the theme of predacity this book. You wouldn’t like The Wire – the language alone would likely turn you off immediately, to say nothing of the violence – but I am glad you seem to have enjoyed this book.

    1. I have been wondering about The Wire. It looks like I will just skip it. Let me know if you end up rereading Cloud Atlas. I would love to know what your feminist theory class discussed about it.

      1. Hey, Emily, yeah, I agree that the book is basically about humans being predatory to one another, this is the main idea, but I don’t think it affirms self-interest will ALWAYS prevail, in most cases, yeah, but do you remember the way Adam saved and was later saved by the Indian that hid in his coffin? The book actually ends in this part, right? I think the author meant to say that there can always be a light in the end of the tunnel. Also, Meronym saved Zach’s sister that was stung by a fish and Zach himself from the Konas, I also think that is a sign that sometimes self-interest is not above everything else. Great book, Mitchell is and incredibly imaginative writer.

        1. Thanks for adding to my thoughts, because I wrote this long after I read the book and had forgotten those parts you mention. I am delighted that you reminded me of this hope and the light at the end of the tunnel the book portrays, because I believe in those things. So glad you stopped by!

  2. I loved Cloud Atlas but found it an infuriating reading experience. I remember wading through the dystopian section at a writing retreat last summer and feeling like I was at war with the text, not easily settling into the odd dialect Mitchell created. But then after making it through the first half and then returning to already familiar narratives, I fell back into those worlds and devoured the rest. Loved it as a book. Definitely had mixed feelings about it as an experience because of how it pushed my view of what a book can do (and how it moved so far out of my comfort zone and into the future).

    The reading experience was made odder, still, by the fact that I was reading a tiny flipback version. If you don’t know what a flipback is, you can check out my post about reading Cloud Atlas in that form. That seems easier than trying to explain!

    Here’s the link:

    1. I have never heard of flipbacks, but I am sold! I used to buy purses based on whether or not I could fit a hardcover book inside. I also hate that my hands get so tired holding large books. Want a great idea! Thanks for sharing.

      1. I’m obsessed with flipbacks! I have a whole series about them, including an interview with one of the people from the Dutch publishing company. They are convenient and quite readable, although Cloud Atlas was really long and therefore in smaller print than some of the others.

        Come to think of it, I have some more flipbacks to give away on my blog. I’ll try to remember to give you a heads up when I run the next giveaway! Or you can buy some Jane Austen ones for reasonable prices on Amazon. (Ordering from the UK was expensive, shipping-wise.)

  3. I did a ‘summer reads’ display in the library a few weeks ago and Cloud Atlas was one of the books (no one borrowed it…). It is an academic library so we have a relatively small fiction section, so it’s interesting to learn of the noteworthiness of one of our titles! To be honest I never thought of reading it, but after reading this I think I might give it a go, just to see how obscure it is 😉

  4. But did you actually like it? This is on my ‘to-read’ pile, but I’ve kinda been procrastinating because, though I want to read all of David Mitchell’s novels, I have a feeling that I won’t be able to get through Cloud Atlas. I think it is similar to Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,” and though that book started off great, and is quite short, I’m having trouble getting through it because some parts are just too tedious.

  5. I read it recently and loved it. It wasn’t an easy read, but I found the stories compelling and once I started to see how they linked together it was much more satisfying to read. I like the image of the russian dolls that’s exactly how it works. Strange, yes, and perhaps not for everyone (you have to stick with it the language I found could definitely be alienating at times). An amazing literary feat, though.

  6. You never cease to compel me with your clear and eloquent analysis. This sounds like a very interesting read…Would it be difficult/obstructive to my understanding if I just read a section or two from it?
    Also, the theme of disconnected stories and people connecting through different time periods reminds me of the Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. It’s much less confusing, the stories do eventually sync up, and the way he weaves the tales together is absolutely whimsical. I’d highly suggest checking it out.

    1. I came to your exchange of thoughts by searching for Cloud Atlas/The Gargoyle. A preview for the movie Cloud Atlas made me think immediately of the book The Gargoyle, which, though I loved and recommend, I would never describe as whimsical! Emily, did you go on to read The Gargoyle? beabovethefold, did you read Cloud Atlas? Either, planning on seeing the new movie?

  7. I read it some time back and was mesmerized by it. The six stories belonged to six different genres and the best thing was once you are done with the book, you can pick up any of you favorite section and start reading it all over again. Also i am planning on to read rest of Mitchell books in near future. So far he is one of the weirdest author I’ve come across. Here is my review :

    The movie is coming out in couple of days. It will be interesting to see Wachowski & Tykwer’s vision.

    PS: I have gone through some of your posts by now. Kudos for writing so lucidly on such varying range of topics and maintaining a great blog.

  8. The first time i picked it up it drove me insane. The language of the first part seemed so obtuse. I picked it up again however, maybe months later, and accepted it’s craziness. I’m glad i did :0)

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