#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

September 24, 2009 | 13

coverI read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.

Read an excerpt from Cloud Atlas.
More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)
Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers


  1. Sorry, it’s a fine novel…but number 2 best novel published since 2000? This ranking of the top books of the new millenium is just turning out to be bizarre.

  2. I prefer Ghostwritten as well. I stopped dead at the sci-fic section of Cloud Atlas, which I thought too artificial — but maybe I’ll give it another shot someday.

  3. Yeah, I thought this was going to be number one. Or maybe I just knew that it was my personal number one and therefore hoped? Glad to see it in in the top five, though.

  4. Dunno, I think there’s something too self-conscious about Cloud Atlas’s virtuosity – too ingratiating. Some of the sections work well – didn’t like the science fiction bits because I think they’re overly derivative, especially the central section which (as the author freely admits) owes a great deal to Riddley Walker without repaying the debt by doing anything that Russell Hoban didn’t.

    He is very good, no doubt, and I hoover all his books up as soon as they’re published… but I (unfashionably) prefer Number 9 Dream…

  5. Even allowing for the inherent (and I assume intended) humour of announcing the “best books of the millennium” in the middle of 2009, Cloud Atlas is a strange choice. I guarantee that half the people who voted for it will be embarrassed about it in a few years’ time. If indeed they remember the book at all. It is often quite entertaining, but it is ambitious in only the narrowest and most modish sense, in that Mitchell writes in a number of different styles. This is the literary equivalent of a fashion designer of the 80’s being praised for producing the largest shoulder pads.

    In any other terms you might choose it is, frankly, not that great. And certainly not original. There isn’t a single one of the six stories in the book that can’t be found elsewhere (and better). The detective thriller is just plain bad. And the moral message that wraps the whole thing up manages to be both condescending and childish. To the expression of wonder that this book was written by someone of our generation, I can only reply, “what other generation would bother?”

    Really, Cloud Atlas’s place on this list epitomises the problem with the whole enterprise: how many of these books will last even into the next decade, never mind the next 991 years? How about you just retitle this feature “The Last 15 Books We Remember Reading Of The Millennium (So Far)”?

  6. @ Tom B — I actually liked the sci fi parts of CLOUD the best — which surprised me. Don’t remember which off the top of my head, maybe e.g. the music one, but some of the others I found nearly unreadable.

    GHOSTWRITTEN totally contrived, but I totally bought the contrivance. And loved the idea of the little communicable narrative spark/genie that was passed on from character to character.

  7. I must say, I loved Cloud Atlas, and am thrilled to see it on here. While it’s true that any one of the stories that make it up has been outdone within its genre, it has to be read in the context of the greater whole. Each story shows up in some form in the next, which in some way calls into question the veracity of the one outside it. But then the stories also depend on what came before for their depth of meaning and emotional core, and outlast that which comes after them. It’s not only a structural trick, upending the directionality of narrative, it’s an epistemological one as well. And for the author to pull it off without it seeming irrelevant or external to the greater narrative set this book apart from other works with a similar ambition.

  8. I agree, best book I’ve ever read in my life, next to 100 years of solitude . I listened to the audio book too, and it was so good, perfect narration!

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