Cloud Atlas is a structurally unique, profoundly, ceaselessly engaging, cleverly written piece of literature, that is, to paraphrase all that is to follow, an exceptional piece of fiction utterly deserving of every bit of the praise that has been lavished upon it.
Cloud Atlas is a narrative comprised of six interconnecting stories. Six stories of six individuals spread across time and space, living wildly different lives, and yet connected to one another, linked across the seemingly endless spread of the ambitious, insightful narrative. From dystopian future to travel journal, and all the stops between the two, Cloud Atlas soars, sometimes entertaining, sometimes devastating, but always, unavoidably, wonderfully, clever.
Cloud Atlas is structurally unique because it is not the story of one person – or a group of people – and a particular chain of events in which they are firmly – often significantly – involved. Instead, Cloud Atlas is comprised of several stories and can, arguably, be regarded to be a thematic enterprise rather than a story-telling one, concerned primarily with the boundaries of time, location, and genre, and how best to undermine them.
But it does not lack plot. Rather, it has several plots. Some of them are entertaining – such as the first few letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith – and some less so, but they are all distinct plots, with characters, and a sequence of events, and each takes place in a well-defined universe, whether of the past or of the future. This is a piece of fiction, albeit an unusual one, not to mention extraordinarily well crafted, and in the structure of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell both adheres to and defies the expected conventions.
Another benefit of the structure of Cloud Atlas – and I am well aware that this review has been entirely about the benefits thus far – is that there is no singular character upon which the reader must pin the entirety of their varied hopes. Rather, there are several, and because they appear in differentiated segments – not entirely isolated, but they can, arguably, be read as such – it is entirely possible to identify with any or all of them. They are all deeply layered and well defined, and so strongly established that the reader is drawn quite thoroughly into their worlds.
However, Cloud Atlas’s unusual structure deprives it of a central plot, and although I have argued above that this is beneficial for a number of reasons, it does, on the other hand, mean that there can be no central issue for the reader to set their teeth into. There is no problem to be solved, no issue to be overcome, and no murder to pin onto a particular perp. While this ensures that the multiplicity of characters works in the absence of a singular main character – Cloud Atlas is, after all, a text that challenges boundaries – it also, arguably, means that it is significantly harder to empathise entirely with the characters, given how short a time the reader gets to spend with them.
To conclude, this is in every sense of the word a remarkable book. It’s insightful, entertaining, devastating, and undeniably clever. It’s a masterful achievement, written by a talented, dedicated author arguably interested not only in telling a story, but also in how that story is told. This may have ramifications in regards to the characters and the reader’s ability to connect with them, but that’s only a ‘maybe’ because this is, truly, an exceptional book.
The reviews speak for themselves.