David Mitchell, 2004
In this audacious and dazzling novel, Mitchell weaves history, science, humor, and suspense through six separate but related narratives, each set in a different time and place, each written in a different prose style, and each broken mid-action only to be concluded in the second half of the book.
A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.
In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—January 12, 1969
• Where—Southport, Lancashire, UK
• Education—B.A., M.A., University of Kent
• Awards—John Llewellyn Rhys Prize
• Currently—lives in County Cork, Ireland
David Mitchell is an English novelist, the author of several novels, two of which, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has lived in Italy, Japan and Ireland. Mitchell currently lives with his wife Keiko Yoshida and their two children in Ardfield, Clonakilty in County Cork, Ireland.
Mitchell was born in Southport in Merseyside, England, and raised in Malvern, Worcestershire. He was educated at Hanley Castle High School and at the University of Kent, where he obtained a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived in Sicily for a year, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England, where he could live on his earnings as a writer and support his pregnant wife.
Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), moves around the globe, from Okinawa to Mongolia to pre-Millennial New York City, as nine narrators tell stories that interlock and intersect. The novel won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35) and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. In 2007, Mitchell was listed among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World.
In 2012 his novel Cloud Atlas was made into a film. In recent years he has also written opera libretti. Wake, based on the 2000 Enschede fireworks disaster and with music by Klaas de Vries, was performed by the Dutch Nationale Reisopera in 2010. For his other opera, Sunken Garden, he collaborated with the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. It premiered in 2013 with the English National Opera.
Mitchell's sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, was released on September 2nd, 2014. In an interview in The Spectator, Mitchell said that the novel has "dollops of the fantastic in it", and is about "stuff between life and death." The book was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
In a Random House essay, Mitchell wrote:
I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I'd spent the last six years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself.
Mitchell has the speech disorder of stammering and considers the film The King's Speech (2010) to be one of the most accurate portrayals of what it's like to be a stammerer: "I'd probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old."
One of Mitchell's children is autistic, and in 2013 he and wife Keiko translated into English a book written by a 13-year-old Japanese boy with autism, The Reason I Jump: One Boy's Voice from the Silence of Autism.
List of works
Cloud Atlas (2004)
Black Swan Green (2006)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)
The Bone Clocks (2014)
"What You Do Not Know You Want", McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, 2004
"Judith Castle", New York Times, January 2008
"The Massive Rat", Guardian, August 2009
"Character Development", Guardian, September 2009
"Muggins Here", Guardian, August 2010
"Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut", Granta 127: Japan, Spring 2014.
"January Man" Granta 81
(Bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/4/2014.)
To write a novel that resembles no other is a task that few writers ever feel prepared to essay. David Mitchell has written such a novel—or almost has. In its need to render every kind of human experience, Cloud Atlas finds itself staring into the reflective waters of Joyce's Ulysses. Just as Joyce, in the scene that takes place in the cabman's shelter, found the hidden beauty of cliche-filled prose, so Mitchell does with his Luisa Rey story.
Tom Bissell - New York Times
Hopscotching over centuries, Cloud Atlas likewise jumps in and out of half a dozen different styles, all of which display the author's astonishing talent for ventriloquism, and end up fitting together to make this a highly satisfying, and unusually thoughtful, addition to the expanding "puzzle book" genre.
Jeff Turrentine - Washington Post
Mitchell’s virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy. There is a naïve clerk on a nineteenth-century Polynesian voyage; an aspiring composer who insinuates himself into the home of a syphilitic genius; a journalist investigating a nuclear plant; a publisher with a dangerous best-seller on his hands; and a cloned human being created for slave labor. These five stories are bisected and arranged around a sixth, the oral history of a post-apocalyptic island, which forms the heart of the novel. Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novel’s themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present. Against such forces, Mitchell’s characters reveal a quiet tenacity. When the clerk is told that his life amounts to “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” he asks, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
The New Yorker
At once audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating, Mitchell's third novel weaves history, science, suspense, humor and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives. Like Mitchell's previous works, Ghostwritten and number9dream (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), this latest foray relies on a kaleidoscopic plot structure that showcases the author's stylistic virtuosity. Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. Among the volume's most engaging story lines is a witty 1930s-era chronicle, via letters, of a young musician's effort to become an amanuensis for a renowned, blind composer and a hilarious account of a modern-day vanity publisher who is institutionalized by a stroke and plans a madcap escape in order to return to his literary empire (such as it is). Mitchell's ability to throw his voice may remind some readers of David Foster Wallace, though the intermittent hollowness of his ventriloquism frustrates. Still, readers who enjoy the "novel as puzzle" will find much to savor in this original and occasionally very entertaining work. Lots of buzz and a friendly paperback price will ensure strong sales, but like other fashionable tomes (think Pynchon's Mason & Dixon) Mitchell's novel may be more admired than read.
In what must rank among the year's more ambitious novels, Mitchell (Ghostwritten) presents six quasicliffhanger stories in six different time periods. Beginning with a mid-19th-century Pacific voyage, the book then vaults to an early 20th-century composer who cuckolds his mentor, a 1970s reporter pursued by hitmen when she joins forces with a company whistleblower, a put-upon editor trapped inside a home for the aged, a servant clone interrogated about her travels to the outside world, and, finally, a return to the Pacific, only centuries later in a post-civilization world. Got it? Now tie up the cliffhangers in reverse order, going backward in time. The stories have a loose connecting theme of pursuing freedom and justice, and Mitchell has a gift for creating fully realized worlds with a varied cast of characters. However, there are patches of rough sledding; while the clever construction serves to highlight the novel's big ideas, the continual interruptions may distance the average reader. After slogging through five half-stories, the author has the bravery (or foolishness?) to relate the sixth in an invented dialect for a long stretch. The book has received good press in the United Kingdom, but perhaps sensing a smaller audience, the U.S. publisher offers a trade paperback original at a "try me" price. Libraries may wish to do so for their more adventurous readers of literary fiction. —Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic rave over Cloud Atlas.... Many of the accolades focus on his flair for setting and character.... [T]he technical expertise that allows Mitchell to adopt a different genre for each of his six storylines—gets him into a little trouble. The New York Times Book Review complains that Mitchell’s writing...[can] render his work coldly impressive rather than “fallibly human.” However, most reviewers found Mitchell’s unorthodox structure captivating.
Great Britain's answer to Thomas Pynchon outdoes himself with this maddeningly intricate, improbably entertaining successor to Ghostwritten (2000) and Number9Dream (2002). Mitchell's latest consists of six narratives set in the historical and recent pasts and imagined futures, all interconnected whenever a later narrator encounters and absorbs the story that preceded his own. In the first, it's 1850 and American lawyer-adventurer Adam Ewing is exploring endangered primitive Pacific cultures (specifically, the Chatham Islands' native Moriori besieged by numerically superior Maori). In the second, "The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing" falls (in 1931) into the hands of bisexual musician Robert Frobisher, who describes in letters to his collegiate lover Rufus Sixsmith his work as amanuensis to retired and blind Belgian composer Vivian Ayrs. Next, in 1975, sixtysomething Rufus is a nuclear scientist who opposes a powerful corporation's cover-up of the existence of an unsafe nuclear reactor: a story investigated by crusading reporter Luisa Rey. The fourth story (set in the 1980s) is Luisa's, told in a pulp potboiler submitted to vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, who soon finds himself effectively imprisoned in a sinister old age home. Mitchell then moves to an indefinite future Korea, in which cloned "fabricants" serve as slaves to privileged "purebloods"-and fabricant Sonmi-451 enlists in a rebellion against her masters. The sixth story, told in its entirety before the novel doubles back and completes the preceding five (in reverse order), occurs in a farther future time, when Sonmi is a deity worshipped by peaceful "Valleymen"-one of whom, goatherd Zachry Bailey, relates the epic tale of his people's war with their oppressors, the murderous Kona tribe. Each of the six stories invents a world, and virtually invents a language to describe it, none more stunningly than does Zachry's narrative ("Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After"). Thus, in one of the most imaginative and rewarding novels in recent memory, the author unforgettably explores issues of exploitation, tyranny, slavery, and genocide. Sheer storytelling brilliance. Mitchell really is his generation's Pynchon.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Cloud Atlas:
1. What is Cloud Atlas about? What are the questions the book explores—its primary thematic concerns?
2. Is this a cautionary tale...a prognosis...a diagnosis? In Mitchell's tales, what do humans seem bent on doing to one another...and why? With little left at the end, what, if anything, remains?
3. Why does Mitchell use the structure he does? What might he be hoping to achieve through the six (or twelve) interrelated stories, each based on a specific genre: epistolary, mystery, farce, sci-fi, post-apocolyptic? What is the effect, then, of reversing the tales and going backward?
4. How do each of the tales fit together...forward and backward. Put the pieces of the puzzle together—showing how one story links to another. How, for instance, is Luisa Rey in t connected to Frobisher?
5. What is the significance of the title, "Cloud Atlas"?
6. What are some of the neologisms used in the sci-fic chapters on Sonmi~451—and how do they reflect our use of language today?
7. Which was your favorite tale...and least favorite?
8. What was your experience reading the work: did you find the structure disruptive and confusing...and did you enjoy picking up the linkage between the stories and seeing how it played out by the end?
8. Have you read other dystopian...or post-apocolytpic works? If so, how do they compare with Cloud Atlas?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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