19 November 2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (Audio Review)

I make this commitment today: I will never again listen to a book while I am running if it requires complete and total focus and concentration on each and every single word. If I learn in advance that a book requires this much attention, plus so much, much more, I will consider it another form of exercise and will instead pick up the printed version.

One of two things happened for me with this book. Either I should only have read the printed format, or I am just too feeble-minded to understand the complexities, nuances, and brilliance of this novel.

Broken into six stories from different characters in multiple time periods, David Mitchell tackles the connection one life has to another, ultimately coming full circle to the initial start. Without question, this is an extremely intelligent story, and the attempt to interweave each tale is unique.

The Six Stories

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

Starting in the 19th century on a Pacific island, Adam Ewing is waiting for his ship to be repaired. While there, he meets a variety of people including Dr. Henry Goose and a slave from the peaceful Moriori tribe named Autua. Adam continues his personal documentation of his travels and while waiting for his ship, he begins to feel ill and Henry begins to take care of him.

This was a challenging introduction to the story. Written in convoluted nineteenth-century prose, I found it quite distracting with my concentration veering off a bit. It ends abruptly at the partial conclusion of Adam's journal entries, which had it not been for a note on Audible.com's site, I completely would have thought that I had a faulty copy. Apparently, David Mitchell designed it to be jarring, and he was successful with it.

Letters from Zedelghem
The story jumps to the 1930s and Robert Frobisher is in Belgium working with a famous composer. He writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, while simultaneously having an affair with the composer's wife. He finds the journal of Adam Ewing, but what he finds is incomplete.

I also found this story challenging in both the accent and the method of narration delivery, and considered taking a break from listening. I found the story interesting, but difficult to focus on.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Jumping to 1975 in California, Luisa Rey is a journalist with a tabloid newspaper, but wants to break out of this type of reporting. She begins an investigation into the local nuclear power plant and meets Rufus Sixsmith, who was the recipient of the letters in the previous story with Robert Frobisher. He reveals to Luisa that the plant is unsafe and she begins to pursue the investigation.

This jumped out as my favorite story thus far. Narrated by favorite Cassandra Campbell, I found this to be the easiest to understand and was the most engaged in the investigation Luisa was working on. I was heartbroken when the story shifted to the next tale as I wanted to hear more about Luisa.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Ah, Timothy Cavendish. A publisher with considerable financial problems in the present day, Cavendish's brother helps him escape from thuggish collectors to a hotel far from home. It's only until the next day that Cavendish realizes that he is not in a hotel, but rather in a nursing home. Cavendish struggles to explain to the hospital staff, his "captors," that it's a mistake and he must return home.

This was hilarious. While it was a little all over the place, I enjoyed this part and ended up not regretting the shift from Luisa's story to Timothy's. I felt so bad for him, yet found his humor to be delightful.

An Orison of Somni-451
Jumping to the future in a dystopian world set somewhere in Korea, an interview between two people is shared. The interviewer is the archivist documenting the events of Somni-451, a cloned human being, or a fabricant. A fabricant is not truly aware of who they are and is solely created to perform menial tasks that need to be done in this futuristic society, and Somni-451 works in a fast food restaurant. She slowly ends up becoming aware of herself, but this self-awareness and the actions coming from this are not approved of.

While I completely understood this story and that the narrator was supposed to deliver the tale in a way that would convey that the speaker was not fully aware of who they were to a certain extent, it was too robotic, or monotonous, for me to be truly engaged. Granted, I felt the "hollowness" that Somni-451 was experiencing, and I was horrified by certain sections, but I wasn't pulled into this one as much as I know I should have been.

Sloosha' Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
Zachry is now an old man and is relaying the adventures of his youth. Living in Hawaii, the world is now in a dystopian state, after a major catastrophic event that caused those who survived to live in an extremely primitive state. Meronym, a woman who is a "Prescient," visits the island to study Zachry and his people. He regrets her visit and observation, considering it an intrusion and an insult, yet is confused with whether he can trust her or not.

While one of the more crucial tales reflecting the connections to others, this was by far my absolute least favorite.  In fact, this was PAINFUL. I so wanted it to end. The dialect and verbiage used was extremely challenging to understand, and unlike the other stories in which just when I was starting to understand what was happening, things switched to a new tale, I never quite completely felt like I "got" Zachry's story. Words were shortened for this made-up dialect, and it was annoying. Usually, when I listen to the audio format, it's much easier to understand dialect, but not in this case. "Spesh" meant special, "un'stan" (or something like that) meant "understand," etc. Given that this was the only tale to be told without interruption, I was floundering through it and praying it would just. end. already.

What's the bottom line?
While I will emphatically state that each story had a certain triggering event that would make my ears perk and I waited for more of that intrigue to continue, invariably, one story would jarringly shift to the next and I was left wistful, wishing a little more was given so that I could sink my teeth into it and really grasp the meaning.

I just couldn't get into the story, though. I found the complicated method of storytelling to be confusing and mostly abstract, and for the most part, I was perplexed by the events. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not bright enough for the intricacies of the tale, especially the audiobook while running! (Maybe I just don't have my wits about me? Possible.) I do plan on watching the film; perhaps the greater reveals of the story's brilliance will finally be unfolded for me then.

That all being said, it would be a book that could be read more than once, simply because so much is involved with each character; one reading is really not enough. With an abundance of themes, ranging from corporate corruption, racism, sexism, and more, for the right reader, this will keep you thinking for days. For me, it was all just a blur.

Passages of Note (both from The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish)
Books don't offer real escape but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.
Looking back, I see that Ernie tolerated my posturing because he knew Veronica was only humoring me. Ernie had never read a work of fiction in his life. "Always a radio man, me." But watching him coax the Victorian boiler system to life one more time, I always felt shallow. It's true. Reading too many novels makes you go blind.
Audio Notes
Multiple narrators always ease the listener with cues on the shift in perspective, which is helpful. This was the case with Cloud Atlas as well, and I felt most drawn to the narration of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish as they were the most engaging and delivered extremely well. You can listen to a sample from Audible.com by clicking here.

Others said:
Buttery Books
Care's Online Book Club
Leeswammes' Blog
Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity
The New Dork Review of Books

Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: 11/23/04
Audio Time: 19 hours, 33 minutes
Narrators: Scott Brick, Cassandra Campbell, Kim Mai Guest, Kirby Heybourne, John Lee, Richard Matthews

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this from Audible.com

About the Author (from his website)
David Mitchell is the acclaimed author of the novels Black Swan Green, which was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by Time; Cloud Atlas, which was a Man Booker Prize finalist; Number9Dream, which was short-listed for the Man Booker as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and Ghostwritten, awarded the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best book by a writer under thirty-five and short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in Ireland.

Visit the author:


  1. I'm reading the paper book, which sounds like it's easier than listening to it on audio. I highly recommend the movie, though. I saw the movie before I would read the book, and it was fabulous. Not at all hard to understand, and splendid on the big screen.

  2. Some books just don't translate well to audio. I actually don't think this would be for me in print either.

  3. I got through only a bit of the first section in print before giving up on this one. I think this book requires intimate attention and a level of comprehension that I just do not have. Difficult does not even begin to cover it. I may try again one day, when things aren't so hectic, but for now, it remains unread.

  4. Yeah, this book definitely wouldn't translate to audio - there is just too much to take in. I read the book ages ago when a friend recommended it and loved it. It made me want to read more Mitchell. And I think that you are right, this is a book that you need to focus on when reading it - you have to really pay attention, but its worth it in the end ;)

  5. This makes my head spin just thinking about listening to it in audio. I listen to a lot of books and I've found that too many characters, stories within the story, or jumps in time don't work well for me. There's something about seeing the print that allows me to orient myself and follow the plot. I would like to try this one although I may end up watching the movie first.

  6. I read this earlier this year (co-hosting a read-along with Care) and I can't imagine trying to do an audio version! It's a tough read without that! I found the Adam Ewing section to be very hard to get through and Sloosha' really was just painful. I do think the print version would be much easier in this case because the style is already so complicated.

    p.s. Jeanne's right, the movie is wonderful!

  7. I'm willing to bet that you're plenty bright enough to understand the book's plotting, but that the audiobook format doesn't do a lot to promote understanding. I did the readathon Melissa and Care ran earlier this year and loved the book...but I also regretted that I was reading it on my kindle. I think this is the sort of book you need to be able to flip back and forth in, so you can follow the plot and make those connections from character to character. It was hard enough doing that when I could at least look at the notes I'd made on past sections, I can't imagine trying to understand this book if I could only listen to it. (I've been listening to The Casual Vacancy while I exercise for the past few weeks and I can barely follow that!)

  8. I've seen the previews of the movie and it just did not appeal to me - too many story strands to follow! And after reading your review, the book really doesn't reach out to me either.