David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

Nov 25, 2015

Cloud Atlas is a hard book to describe; it has six parts, multiple voices, many layers, several themes a range of styles but whenever you try to follow one of them, it leads you in circles back - back not exactly, just slightly off. It is a strange attractor oscillating around a focus point, going in circles but never quite repeating itself.

As to how I came to read it: once again blame The Incomparable. Per usual, I listened to the episode and the whole discussion, forgot the details, read the book months later and then came back to the podcast to compare notes. In this case, I tend to agree with the summary, but have slightly more positive impression of both the novel and the movie and heavily disagree about the reading difficulty of each story. To put myself at some disadvantage, I watched the movie first meaning that all characters were Tom Hanks and Hally Berry in my mind. However, I think that some parts benefited from the movie adaptation and together with the book they make an interesting amalgamation.

While Cloud Atlas has novel in the subtitle, it consists of six nested stories. A sort of like matrjoška, you read a half of the first story, than a half of the second story, third, fourth and fifth, then you get the middle story in one piece and once again climb out in reverse order. All six stories are roughly of the same length around 80-90 pages (in the small-format, very thick and hard to keep open paperback edition I read), but they differ wildly in all other aspects.

Spoilers ahead

The outermost is a diary of a Californian attorney Adam Ewing on his return trip from Australia sometime in the mid 19th century. From his host, he learns about the state of pacific colonies and fates of Maoris and Morioris and exploitation of local populations. Later he becomes a champion of a slave who escapes as a stowaway hidden in his room against the captain of the ship who’s just a step away from being a pirate. The diary is cut off in the middle a sentence to move to Letters from Zedelghem.

Those are a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a young British composer down on his luck who becomes an emanuensis to a famous composer past his prime living in Belgium in 1931. The letters are addressed to his friend/lover Rufus Sixsmith but the replies are not present. While working with the irritable and ungrateful old man, Frobisher also composes his own music, has an affair with his employer’s wife and becomes smitten with their daughter. Frobisher finds the first half of Ewing’s diary in a library at the mansion. He considers it entertaining but doubts its origin and believes it to be a work of fiction.

The third story is an action thriller set in the 80s, where a young journalist Luisa Ray working at a low grade newspaper meets an old scientist named Rufus Sixsmith in an elevator which gets stuck because of a brownout. During their conversation, Sixsmith learns that she’s a daughter of a famous reporter from Vietnam and he gives her a tip about a corporate negligence in a nuclear power plant that’s about to be opened. Luisa deals with her sexist workplace and doggedly follows the leads which endangers her life.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a memoir by an old grumpy Brit, a small time publisher from London, who makes a fortune when the gangster whose memoir he published throws a famous critic off of a balcony at a public event. When the gangster’s associates come for their share, he’s forced to seek quick money and eventually turns to his hated brother, who, instead of lending him money, sends him to hiding in a hotel in the country. However, the hotel turns out to be a seniors home where the rich put their aging relatives to be taken care of and preferably not being heard of. Cavendish initially takes it as a practical joke his brother played on him, but soon learns the strict rules being imposed on the residents. Cavendish’s story connects to the previous one by a manuscript of a novel about Luisa Rey he got sent. While he deems it dull and stupid, he turns to it when faced with an absence of any other reading materials.

During his narrative Cavendish gives points to the filmmakers, he believes will eventually turn his memoir into a thrilling movie. Sonmi, a fabricant server in a fast food restaurant somewhere in today’s South Korea, watches that movie. Her future world is a vision of the future filled with technology and dense human megalopolis, all aspects of life are ruled and closely monitored by corporations. This includes the production of artificial human fabricants who are designed for different purposes but take the role of slaves and servitude while normal citizens called consumers take only the desirable jobs. Sonmi is designed to be a mindless drone working 20 hours a day but gets awakened and starts to reflect on her situation and doubt all she has been told. She escapes her life with a help from a dissident group, educates herself and becomes a tool in their goal to ascend all the fabricants. This part has the form of a dialogue between Sonmi before her execution after a manipulated trial and an archivist who’s tasked with recording her story.

The inner story takes places in the far future after the collapse of human civilization. Small villages of people on Hawaii islands live in medieval conditions with the stories of the glamorous past and their religion of Sonmi. Story is build upon an oral narrative of Zachry, a member of one of those villages. He recounts his life burdened by his cowardice when his family was slaughtered by raiders. The island is regularly visited by the Prescients, a group which keeps a spark of the old civilization and has knowledge of the technology. At one such visit one of them, Meronym, asks to live in the village for half a year as an observer. Zachry doesn’t trust her and the way she charms everyone else, at one point tries to kill her, but eventually turns to her side when she saves his young sister. After a coordinated raid during a trading meeting, Zachry falls into captivity to become a slave, Meronym saves him and they eventually get off the island.

At this point, the stories start to unravel. First Sonmi describes her confrontation with the true nature of the corpocracy, the exploitation of nature, people and most importantly of the fabricants. She sees that her whole free life is ultimately just a sharade orchestrated by the system to create tension and an enemy for the public, she goes with the events and manages to write and spread her Declarations which eventually lead to the fall of the system.

Cavendish’s story turns into a comedy with some darker tones in which a group of seniors plot and later execute their plan to escape from the Aurora house; they ultimately succeed and get to freedom.

Luisa Rey’s story continues as a fast paced thriller with betrayal, exploding planes, killers switching sides, a lot of fights and other tropes. Despite all the dangers, she manages to uncover the whole plot and to publish the expose and thus gaining a credit as a serious journalist who follows in her father’s footsteps. At the very end, she gets her hands on the second part of the Letters from Zedelghem.

In those, Frobisher dances between his original work, the work for his patron, an ever more tedious afair with his wife and eventually a fatal misinterpretation of the signals from their daughter. All this mess leads to his legacy: Cloud Atlas Sextet and a very considerate suicide. However, before that, he finds the second part of Ewing’s diary under a bed, where it props up a short leg.

Coming out, Ewing is being being poisoned by his new friend, an opportunistic British doctor. He gets manipulated by the captain to give some credence to his business endeavours in the Pacific and gets even more acquainted with the ways Europeans abuse and destroy native societies. In the end, he is saved from by the ex-slave he previously helped. In his very last entry, he expresses his intent to become an abolitionist with the hope to tip the scales against those who believe in the supremacy of the white race and champion ruthless individualism.

Spoilers above

That’s the skeleton of the story. The book is filled with hints and jabs at genre cliches, other books and most importantly on itself. For example Frobisher points out that the Ewing’s language is too fancy to be a real diary. Similarly, Cavendish initially tears up Luisa Rey’s mystery as a third grade thriller. The stories are, however, linked in many smaller details as well. Some are directly stated, like the comet shaped birthmark shared by many characters or number six; many are apparent, like slavery and other forms of exploitation, some border on coincidental.

An important theme of the stories is music. Frobisher composes Cloud Atlas Sextet and gives surprisingly evocative and moving descriptions of the music (this of course works much more in the movie). The initial seed of the sextet is however planted into his mentor’s head in a dream “with women servers who all looked the same” meaning Sonmi and her sisters. Sixsmith is familiar with the music himself but is not much of an art lover. The sextet however appears, when Luisa reads about it in the letters and tries to get her hands on a recording; when she does, she discovers a deep and meaningful personal resonance. Cavendish somewhat skips the music element, but the restaurant Sonmi works in, plays the Sextet as an ambiance music. The stories which don’t feature music heavily, make do with a heavy cloud imagery suggesting different parallels.

Each part of the book has different form: a diary, letters, a thriller in er-form, a memoir with screenplay hints, an interrogation and an oral narration. Every one of them also uses a completely different language and style. Mitchell has an incredible chameleon-fu and switches between six distinct styles. While The Incomparable panelists judged Ewing’s diary the most unpenetrable of them, I found it at par with original Sherlock Holmes with the conjunction and being replaced by & in every instance. For me, the most unreadable was the middle part. On one hand, Zachry’s post-apocallyptic English is more logical (reminiding me of Zaft’s remarks about Esperanto with it regular verb forms like finded), but it makes an excessive use of apostrophes for both omission of letters and conjunction of several words into one (prime example is the title: Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After). Interesting is the language in the Orison of Sonmi. Many current brand names have taken over the general terms, the most common being a sony for phones/tablets, the prefix of ex- has been shortened to only x-, citizens are called consumers and to top off the distortion of the language by the system, forbidden past authors like Orwell and Huxley are known as the optimists.

I feel like I have written a lot of text and still haven’t captured much. Cloud Atlas is just too intricate but definitely in an interesting way. It is not only post-modern triple-meta jibberish, it has clear stories, but you can’t untangle them in any logical way, they weave through each other and create a larger picture. One consequence is the lack of any clear message. Zachry’s story ends in personal redemption, Sonmi’s as a distopian warning, Cavendish’s in belief in personal courage, Luisa’s with warning against blind greed, Frobisher’s on a tragic artist note and Ewing’s in hope in the human race in general. The only clear overarching topic is don’t exploit other people and generally don’t be horrible as Mike Pesca would say (and apparently Will Wheaton puts it as don’t be a dick). Even if this is the only message, it is worth reading and even plowing through Zachry’s story.

A few notes about the movie: instead of nesting, the movie slices the stories. This makes it hard to keep track of all the characters but helps to balance the weaker and stronger stories. Luisa’s and Cavendish’s stories were adapted only minimally and copy the book very closely. Frobisher’s and Ewing’s stories has been simplified. Zachry’s narrative has been reworked quite significantly but mostly for the better. Sonmi’s part has been thrown out of window and the only parts which remained were the restaurant introduction and what happens to the fabricants after their twelve years of service. The story is complex and cannot be easily downsized to something in the middle, but I think it lost a lot of its impact. Obviously, the movie adaptation enhanced the musical aspect of the stories and enabled the Sextet to bind everything together more tightly.