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.