Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For the first time I ever known in my entire reading life, a movie I’ve never even seen spoiled a book for me.

I didn’t know there was a book about Cloud Atlas until trailers for the movie came out, and even then, I hadn’t paid attention until people in my facebook stream started complaining about the yellowface, and then other people started defending the yellowface, and then more people said they hated the yellowface but understood why it was there, and that the whole issue of reincarnation muddied up the works, and meanwhile, I was like, “Wait..What the heck are you talking about about? What’s Cloud Atlas?” And everyone was like “Get it together, LaShawn. Go read the book.”

And so I did, because, hey, controversial movie, yadda yadda yadda.

Cloud Atlas is six short stories that span from the 1800s to the far off future. Each story has a reoccurring element–a person with a tattoo, a cowardly, stupid jerk, a chase or some sort of pursuit, and mentions of the previous story appearing in some type of form: journal, letter, book, etc. Each story also had a unique voice, which, in several stories, made it very hard to read. In fact, the Sloosha story was so unreadable with its futuristic native slang and apostrophes, I pretty much skimmed through the entire thing without reading it through. Which was a shame, because I would have loved to read it more indepth once I realized it was a far futuristic time setting, but I just couldn’t get a handle on it. It also didn’t help that I was reading a “borrowed” ebook from Overdrive and I only had a 14 day window to read it–which sucked because instead of savoring it like I should have, I was under a time constraint.)

If I had discovered this book back in 2004 when it was published, I suspect Cloud Atlas would’ve blown my mind. And indeed, I loved the exploration of the privilege/unprivileged motifs, though the juxtaposition of the stories made the exploration a little odd sometimes. A bigoted coward unwillingly helping a slave, okay, I get it, but how does a young composer sponging off an older man compare to that? I think the author was exploring oppressed/freedom motif in all aspects, and in a couple of the stories, it felt like he was really stretching to hold on to that motif. The best stories that reflected it well was the Adam Ewing story (though it was hard to read because the Ewing was such a bigot, he made my skin crawl), the Luisa Rey story, and the Sonmi-451 story. In fact, I would have said that the Somni story was the best one in the entire book, but I can’t.

You see, the reason why I picked Cloud Atlas was because of the controversy of the actors appearing in yellowface in the movie. I wanted to know what justified them to do so. There are many good websites out there dissecting why it didn’t work in the movie. Suffice it to say, I’ve seen the pictures. So when I started reading Somni’s section, all I could see in my mind’s eye was the white men in Korean makeup. I tried to change it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t come up with my own picture of the characters. And it absolutely did not help that the ebook I was reading had the cover of all the actors right there.

It spoiled the story for me.

I wish I never knew about the movie. I know that the movie was supposed to be about reincarnation and characters transcending race, but that’s not what the book was about. The book was about how powerful people use their privilege to keep back people without power. The book is about how such privilege is abused, and how it goes deep: culturally, ethnically, racially. The movie took that and said, “yeah, screw that. It’s going to be what we want it to be. And we want all our main white characters to appear in all the stories. And to make sure we won’t get yelled at, we’ll do the same for our only two POC women. But the black guy? Nah, let’s just keep him in only a couple of stories. It’ll be too hard to put makeup on him in a different race.”

(And wait a second…isn’t the first story set it in the Pacific Islands? Why did they change it to black slaves then? Arrrrghhh…)

Understandably, I’m bitter.

But, really, what did I think of the book? It was okay. Not spectacular. There were times when I found the meta a little too grating for my tastes (but then again, some meta works for me and some meta don’t). I was reminded of my favorite short story Lull, by Kelly Link, who does a similar thing of a story within a story within a story, but she does it far better, in my opinion. I found the splitting of the stories in Cloud Atlas jarring–at times, I wondered if my ebook had loaded wrong. It wasn’t until I realized the characters were reading the previous story that the breaks were intentional (and this was one of the ways the meta failed). Also, I didn’t really empathize with the characters all that much. Adam Ewing was a bigot, Robert Frobisher was a leech, Luisa Rey was an idiot, and Timothy Cavendish was a jerk–though, to my complete surprise, I enjoyed his story the most. His was the only character who truly stood out, and though he was a jerk, his comeuppance, and his subsequent turnabout, was quite satisfying. The Somni and Sloosha stories…well…I think what I’ll do is wait a few years and try to read Cloud Atlas again without the movie cover on it, so I can form my own opinion.

So this gets 2-1/2 comet birthmarks out of 5. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see the movie, but it feels like I’ve already have.

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