My David Mitchell Cloud Atlas Problem

Picture of a Russian nesting doll

The Structure of Cloud Atlas

I see that the Wachowski brothers are making a movie from David Mitchell’s metafictiony novel Cloud Atlas. From PurpleRevolver:

Based on David Mitchell’s best-selling novel, Cloud Atlas is an epic story of humankind in which the actions and consequences of our lives impact one another throughout the past, present and future.

One soul is shaped from a murderer into a saviour and a single act of kindness ripples out for centuries to inspire a revolution.

The independently financed film will be co-directed and written by the directors/writers of the hugely successful Matrix trilogy, Andy and Lana Wachowski and Perfume director Tom Tykwer.

The guys who made the Matrix movies, which are all about Philip K. Dick-type reality-within-reality-within-reality self-referential story-systems, taking on Cloud Atlas seems to me perhaps a pretty good match (so long as there are no techno-orgy scenes). But the prospect still makes me a bit antsy. (Even setting aside the elephant-in-the room Keanu question.) Will they find the emotional heart to the heart of the story, or go for the whiz-bang-slo-mo-bullet-dodging effects?

Mitchell’s book, which I enjoyed, is structured like a matryoska doll. It’s got six or seven narratives, each written in a different style, that enclose each other like parens in a Lisp program. The first (and last) story is in an archaic faux Daniel Defoe style; it gets interrupted midway through, where the next story, an epistolary novelette told in letters written by a jaded modernist English composer and leech living in Belgium between WW1 and WW2 begins; that tale gets cut in the middle & succeeded by the first half of hard-boiled Raymond Chandler-style noir detective story. There’s also a far-future science fiction tale, a surreal Kafkaesque fable and one told in a kind of pidgin.

There are hundreds of reviews of Cloud Atlas out there on the net that will tell you all you want or don’t want to know about the near-virtuosic literary technique Mitchell employs (or shows off) in the service of his tale.

Below the fold, my David Mitchell Cloud Atlas problem.

Here’s my quick take on the book: Mitchell’s technique is indeed virtuosic or nearly so. Each of the tales in Cloud Atlas is, to a greater or lesser extent, successful as a thing in itself, and the interlocking references, themes, echos, stories make the book as a whole, as they say, greater than the sum of its parts. The novel Cloud Atlas is an emergent property of the stories that comprise it, and that makes it fun to read. But the book also seems to me a bit sterile; it’s like some musical compositions by Paganini or Lizst (or Zappa at his most self-indulgent): you can’t help but be blown away by the technical mastery on display, but you find yourself emotionally only 3/4 of the way to a truly moving experience (of the kind Beethoven or Bach or Zappa at his best deliver).

As stand-alone things, the mini-books of Cloud Atlas are not much more than clever curios. I found the core story that ties the books together intriguing and mysterious (good), but not really profound. So I wouldn’t call Cloud Atlas a mere exercise; it aspires to literature. But here’s the thing: any one of the constituent stories, taken by itself, basically is an exercise.  Consequently the book as a whole doesn’t quite meet its ambition. So A+ on the boldness of the conceit, A on the execution of the interlocking elements, C on each of the individual stories as emotionally moving works of art, leading to a final grade of B on the overall reading experience.

NOW THEN, here’s where my David Mitchell problem comes in. (It’s not my problem with David Mitchell; for I have no problem with him or his work. It’s my David Mitchell problem, which can take any of these values: how do I achieve David Mitchell-like success? Or, since that’s unreasonable, how I get people to read my books like they read his, that is, in the manner of reading that people read Cloud Atlas (viz, with an awareness of the emergent novel)? Or, if that’s unreasonable, how do I get myself to stop obsessing over this subject?)

I’ve published three works of fiction: Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains. One’s a Michael Crichton-style thriller, one’s a metafictiony fable in the spirit of Nabokov or Borges, and the third one’s an illustrated dystopian phantasmagoria. And each of them is designed to be a stand-alone artistic work. I think they’re pretty great, frankly — but then I would, wouldn’t I? I’m not qualified to review my own books, of course, but for the record, where I give each of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas stories a “C”, I give each of mine at least a B+. I think the reviews linked to on Amazon (above) give a pretty good idea of the range of opinions from other readers of my various books.

But more importantly, to me, anyway, than any of my books’ individual (literary) success as a stand-alone thing is the fact all three of books are parts of the larger work (that I call Mind over Matter) that comprises them. This composite work has ambitions along the lines of those of Cloud Atlas. And obviously, I’m really not qualified to judge how well it succeeds.

One aspect of my Cloud Atlas problem is that for whatever reason — because I published Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains as three things years apart, or because my conceit is flawed, or my execution of said conceit is poor, or whatever — very few people (including my most ardent fans, I love you, mwah!) have taken a crack at reviewing Mind over Matter as a thing in itself, the novel that I had hoped was emergent and apparent from or in the experience of reading Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains. Indeed, I had hoped that the experience of perceiving Mind over Matter emerge from its constituent parts would be deep and emotional for the reader; that Mind over Matter would do for readers, as a work of art, more than what Cloud Atlas did for me. Generally, that doesn’t happen.

So, yes, I’m crybabying that people “get” Cloud Atlas but they don’t “get” Mind over Matter. As a consequence whereof I’m an obscure self-publishing novelist while David Mitchell is a literary superstar and they’re making a movie from his book staring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry (and I have to assume Keanu, for reasons given above and re-linked here, although his name has not yet been publicly announced).

But setting aside crybabying and self-pity — important as these functions may be — there’s a more subtle aspect to my David Mitchell Cloud Atlas problem, and that’s that I don’t know how to market myself, or rather, I do a sucky job at marketing myself. I thrash. I waste valuable time. (Time that I should be spending on writing my next books, among other things.)

I sometimes think of myself in something of the position that David Mitchell might have been in if he were to have found that his publisher had made an awful mistake and published each of the constituent tales in Cloud Atlas as a separate chap book, and the words “Cloud Atlas” appeared nowhere on any of them. Assume that the publisher had done that, and also had done a spectacular sales job & got Barnes & Noble to pick up all of them as physical books & sell them in their stores. But imagine that each of the books was shelved in a different section of Barnes & Noble — one in Sci-Fi, one in Mystery, one in Historical Fiction, etc (and similarly, online at Amazon, etc). Now, in this scenario some readers might like the first David Mitchell mini-books they encountered well enough to acquire and read another one and eventually all of them. But most readers wouldn’t do that. People who like science fiction or speculative fiction might read one or two stories; people who like Raymond Chandler might read one or two of the others, people who like historical recreations would read others. But nobody, or very few, would read Cloud Atlas — even if they read all its parts. That is to say, they might read all of the parts, but, absent the Matroska presentation of Cloud Atlas, not grok the overall emergent thing that enthralls those readers of Cloud Atlas who are enthralled by it.

A propos:

A few years ago a dear friend of mine was laid low by an aggressive leukemia (she’s since made a full recovery, thank G-d). While she was in the hospital for treatments, too weak to turn the pages of a book, her father sat beside her and read to her. The book he chose was Cloud Atlas. He, at first, didn’t “get” it. When he got to the part where the first tale breaks off mid-sentence, he said, “hmmm. . . it seems I have a defective book!” and he then jumped ahead to he back part of the book where the first story resumes. Only after reading that and then moving onto the second tale did he catch on to the game that Mitchell was playing. He’s not a stupid man or lazy reader, he had just never encountered that kind of book before. He’s a very pragmatic guy, so he took the pragmatic route — read the beginning part of the first story, skip the junk erroneously placed in the middle, read the end. Seems reasonable to me. My friend and her father laugh about this now, but it just shows that even when you, the author, give all kinds of clues to what your meta-book is all about, some people are going to ignore those clues if they lead them too far from their intuition.

Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” [1] and so I market myself as a writer of cyberpunk/biopunk thrillers, because people understand what those things mean, and they spend money on those kinds of books. I’m not really happy with this self-identification, but it has the advantage of being understandable, which book-marketing and author-marketing experts tell me is very important. Everybody who writes about how to establish yourself as a writer (my favorite authority is my friend Jane Friedman) says similar things about what you need to do: write a lot of great books, have a great website, establish an email list and use all of these tools to, as they say, establish your brand. Viz: Tom Clancy:: military technothrillers. William Gibson:: cyberpunk. Janet Evanovich:: chick-lit detective farce. Flannery O’Connor:: Southern Gothic.

This strategy makes sense. Through dozens of blog posts, Jane has consistently explained how dummies like me should use the internet to help them find congenial readers. Here Jane explains the biggest mistakes authors make on their websites. I make them all.

Why do I do that? I like her advice. Really, I think Jane’s brilliant (in addition to being a lovely person). But this advice leaves me chasing my tail when it comes to, for example, improving this very blog and this very website. I need to help people understand what kind of books I write! I know, I need a catchy catch-phrase! What should I say? “I write books about the hacking of systems –biological, electrical, social –, books that are themselves self-hacking. I write about emergent properties of self-referential systems. . .”

Not very catchy, is it. Need to think some more about this. . . I tell myself, when in fact that’s not true. What I need to do is get over my so-called David Mitchell problem, get my ass in gear, stop all this wretched navel-gazing and do what Jane very clearly explains how to do.

Faithful readers, I know this isn’t the first time I’ve crybabied about this (class of) problem. I apologize for crybabying at you again. But now that I’ve crybabied about this problem one more time, I’ll leave off about it for another month or two, and try to put my energies where they belong, such as fixing up the damn website like Jane sez I should, and writing some more books.

And when Cloud Atlas the movie comes out, I’ll be there chomping my popcorn, keeping a sharp eye out for Keanu’s totally unexpected appearance on screen.


1. Actually according to Sutton, (quoted in the article I link to), he never said that. But let’s not quibble.

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  1. Stearns says:

    As you know, John, when I first started working for you, I thought the study of marketing involved mastery of manipulative tricks. When we saw how badly the Curl product and company was defined, we both saw that there really were principles that could be followed to communicate more successfully about products. Limited funds and energy means this all has to be cheap and independent, but it can still fit into a coherent whole.

    Define your market. Of the many genres that would honestly fit, your task is to find the one that you can completely own. You don’t want 1% of some huge market, you want to be the master of your market, regardless of size. (c.f. Crossing The Chasm.) Don’t worry about it being small — no one has any idea what the size of that market is going to be if you’re successful.

    Having defined it, communicate that concept consistently and repeatedly. Use the right words. Get a logo that works at a small scale and which distinctively conveys your concept. Use it as your avatar on Wetmachine, Twitter, Kuro5hin, etc.

    If you want people to treat Mind of Matter as a single book, publish it that way. Instead of a big expensive pre-production run, do print-on-demand. Just get an ISBN number and announce it.

    Do a great job with Creation Science and the new version of Acts of the Apostles. Get ’em out there, with your logo and your words and back-cover references to Mind of Matter.

    At that point, you’ll have six products. Pick one to be your entry product, which you make available in some free or nearly free way, and pick one to be your premium product that you charge quite a bit for. It’s only for the people who are really into your specialized concept. I don’t know how you pick which is which, but I bet there are rules for this sort of thing, and that you know folks who will tell you.

    You might also make premium products beyond these six. For example, any one of your books (except perhaps The Pains) could easily have a set of five or six arbitrary details that can be customized to the buyer. When someone orders a signed print-on-demand copy, find out one or two things about that person such as home town, school, etc. Substitute this in to the book for this printing. Don’t even tell anyone that you’re doing this. I promise you’ll have a high Net Promotor Score. Of course, that’s a promise from someone who’s demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s doing…

  2. John says:



    I think my #1 and #2 priorities have to be to finish the rewrite of Acts, and make real progress on Creation Science so that I can be ready sometime in the spring. In addition to being the two actions most likely to get me attention & help me sell some books, it’s simply a matter of keeping my word to my publisher and to those who sponsored me on Kickstarter.

    After that, I think I need to make sure that Wetmachine has a decent landing page about me and my books, and a decent page for each of the individual books. It shouldn’t be hard to do that in the downtime on my other writing projects.

    After those are done, I can start to think more strategically along the lines you suggest (which are not at all dissimilar to what Jane Friedman suggests). In particular, since Creation Science is, among other things, about creativity, I want to offer the book in creative ways. I like your suggestions for doing that.

    But mostly, in the short term I need to stick to my knitting, as it were, and finish work that I promised to finish long ago. Once I’ve met those obligations and taken care of the most obvious housekeeping around the site, I’ll run a few ideas by you.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up; there’s good stuff here.

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