11 July 2011

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I picked up this book on the basis of some very positive reviews I had heard; though, as usual with fiction, I only skim-read the reviews the hope of avoiding any plot spoilers. In this case, though, it seems I need not have taken such trouble since, in his attempt to be avant-guard, David Mitchell seems to have discarded the concept of having a plot.

What we have instead are a series of short stories. Each (except for one) are “mirrored” in two parts. That is to say, the short story which begins the book (and is frustratingly ended mid-sentence) is concluded at the very end. The 2nd story is also the penultimate one, and so on. If we were to represent each story by a single letter, the book is structured as follows: ABCDEFEDCBA.

I was not incredibly impressed to begin with. The first two stories had very little coherence to them and were almost entirely uninteresting to read. Mitchell takes a stab every few pages at pretending to be incredibly clever by throwing in foreign phrases, seemingly in the hope that the reader will consider him a master wordsmith for doing so. However, they are ill-placed and do not cover up the cracks in some markedly poor writing.

What is there is often derivative. The opening story is a rip-off from Horatio Hornblower, the story entitled An Orison of Somni-451 has distinctive overtones of Philip K Dick (in particular Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and the story at the centre, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, subjects the reader to the same kind of phonetic linguistic torture that Will Self inflicted upon readers of his truly terrible, The Book of Dave.

After the diabolical central story, the second half of the book doesn’t seem quite as a bad in comparison. I actually quite liked the second part of The Terrible Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, even though it is conceivable that a plagiarism case could be made against it by Ken Kasey for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Mitchell has attempted to write these stories as variations on a single theme: “the will to power” (taken from the back cover). In doing so, he is attempting to be incredibly ambitious and the task requires an extraordinary quality of writing. Unfortunately, such quality is not found in Mitchell’s writing and Icarus-like, he has fallen to earth with a great thud.

In spite of this, the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won many fans. A limited number were given away for free at the recent World Book Night as an example of great, modern British writing. So I am perplexed as to how such a bad book could come to be so highly praised. Of course, it is eminently possible that I have missed something incredibly subtle that I was too dim to see, or it could be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.


  1. This is the first time I've responded to somebody else's blog and am generally quite baffled/annoyed by angry posters...so I apologise for my tone - I fell straight in love with this book, and so may be irrationally defensive.

    But I'm not so much angry as confused- surely you see the difference between 'plagiarism', and acknowledged, celebrated, reverberating pastiche? And isn't it a bit of a contradiction to say that Mitchell flings out clever phrases in order to appear a 'master wordsmith', concealing his apparently 'poor writing' and then fling in an 'Icarus-like' into a review which lampoons ideas without engaging with them....

    amber p.s. only anonymous because I don't have an account.

  2. p.s. Actually - the difference in opinion may be due to reading mode - if you look it as ABCDEFEDCBA- I can see how it could be disappointing - in the same way if you listen to a scale its far less enjoyable (i think), then listening to a sustained chord.

    still amber