Movie hopes lowered: David Mitchell’s soulless Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.

In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.

This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.

It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.

I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.

I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.