Cloud Atlas — David Mitchell

by Edwin Turner

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that “There are no facts, only interpretations.” David Mitchell takes this idea to heart in his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, using six nested narratives to mull over Nietzschean matters of truth and perspective, the will to power, what it means to be a slave or a master, and the different methods by which one might narrativize one’s life. At its core, Cloud Atlas works to illustrate Nietzsche’s hypothesis of eternal recurrence, the idea that we live our lives again and again. To wit, each of the central characters in Cloud Atlas‘s six sections seems to be a reincarnation of a previous one. Mitchell arranges his narrative like a matryoshka doll, interrupting the first five stories with Scheherazade-style cliffhangers. Each narrative propels the book’s chronology forward a century or more until reaching a crescendo in a post-apocalyptic world, the only section that remains uninterrupted. Mitchell then resumes each narrative, working backward through time to his starting point in 1850, with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing features a naïve American’s tour of the South Pacific, focusing roughly on his trek from New Zealand to Hawaii. The journal’s style readily and purposefully recalls Herman Melville; indeed, Ewing himself professes to be a fan of Melville. Early in Ewing’s journal–which is to say, early in the novel Cloud Atlas–we are treated to (or subjected to) a somewhat lengthy description of the enslavement and slaughter of the pacifist Moriori tribes of the Chatham Islands at the hands of the Māori. Here, Mitchell introduces his novel’s dominant theme of slavery and civilization. Again and again in Cloud Atlas, we find groups of people preying upon other people, enslaving them and decimating their cultures. The Pacific Journal reiterates this theme when Ewing helps to rescue an enslaved Moriori who has escaped his slavers by stowing away; the episode also echoes the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, of course.

The next episode, Letters from Zedelghem, features a young bisexual composer named Frobisher; his narrative comprises letters he sends to his best-friend (and sometime lover) Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher’s robust voice is one of the great achievements of Cloud Atlas; he finds music everywhere and in everything, and even though he repeatedly gets himself into terrible situations (which are always entirely his own fault) it’s hard not to feel for him. In debt and on the lam, he finds work as an amanuensis in Belgium, laboring under an aged, sometimes-despotic composer named Ayrs. Ayrs enlists Frobisher’s talents in creating a work named “Eternal Recurrence,” but ends up stealing most of his ideas. The Frobisher narrative is the only section to explicitly name Nietzsche and his ideas. Given the setting–Belgium, 1931, Europe precariously dangling before the precipice of another war–there’s a certain ambivalence toward Nietzsche perhaps, or at least a tacit acknowledgment that ideas like the Will to Power might be radically misapplied. Letters also most openly alludes to the structure of Cloud Atlas. In its second part–which is to say its conclusion, which is to say near the end of Cloud Atlas–Frobisher writes the following–

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?

Frobisher’s question perhaps reflects Mitchell’s own reticence over his complicated structure; in any case, it amounts to a post-modern wink. Frobisher’s narrative also initiates the book’s process of connecting the narratives, as each protagonist finds a copy of the earlier principal’s story. Frobisher finds Ewing’s Journal and devours it; in one of the book’s funnier moments, he scolds Ewing’s naïvety, comparing him to Captain Delano in Melville’s Benito Cereno. Frobisher’s criticism is apt. With its themes of slavery and mastery, truth and representation, and exterior and interior, there is probably no book that Cloud Atlas echoes as strongly as Benito Cereno.

Mitchell moves from a wonderful and witty approximation of the epistolary novel into a dull exercise in boilerplate fiction with the next narrative. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery follows the adventures of a plucky newspaper reporter in the 1970s as she tries to reveal a multinational corporation’s evil doings to the public. Aided by the report of a scientist named Rufus Sixsmith (yes, that Rufus Sixsmith), Luisa plunges into a world of intrigue and mystery and blah blah blah. Half-Lives intends to comment on airport novels, but Mitchell outdoes himself with the bad writing–it’s easily the weakest section of Cloud Atlas, and although it plays with the novel’s overarching themes it does little to enlarge or invigorate them. It does, however, introduce the comet-shaped birthmark that connects the heroes of these tales as they are born and reborn.

Mitchell seems more at home in the amplified voice that propels The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Set in and outside of London in the near future–that is to say, our near future–The Ghastly Ordeal is probably the funniest section of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish, the aging publisher of a small vanity press, finds success (and trouble) when one of his authors openly murders a critic. A dispute over royalties finds him hitting the road and fleeing for safety outside the urbane confines of London. Soon, he’s held prison in a home for the elderly somewhere in the barbaric north. Cavendish is scowling, imperious, overeducated, and arch; his racism and classism seem to belong to a different age and he’s prone to hyperbole (scratch that–he’s all hyperbole). Cavendish’s narrative is deeply reactionary: early in, he relates being mugged by a group of school girls, and the episode seems to come from A Clockwork Orange. How honest he is here, of course, is under suspicion, but that’s kinda sorta the whole point of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish’s narrative is the hardest to place stylistically–it doesn’t immediately resonate with any of the genre tropes that characterize the other section–but I suppose that there’s something of the post-Modernist (as opposed to postmodernist, of course) white-male-reactionary flavor to his Ordeal–hints of Saul Bellow, Updike, Roth perhaps? I’m not sure. The Ghastly Ordeal is the most contemporaneous episode of Cloud Atlas, so its tropes may be harder to spot.

The dystopian tropes of An Orison of Sonmi-451 are more readily apparent. Orison jumps centuries ahead, pointing to a future where an imperial Korean dominates what’s left of the non-burned Earth. Corporations have replaced government and consumerism has replaced religion. The rigid class structure that has developed relies on a slave class of fabricants–genetically modified clones–who perform dangerous jobs and manual labor. The narrative unfolds as an interview with Sonmi-451, a fabricant who “ascends,” positioning her in a level of unprecedented self-awareness that positions her to become the signal in a revolution to end slavery. There’s more to Orison than I can possibly unpack here, an observation that cuts both ways for Cloud Atlas. On one hand, Mitchell’s dystopia is repellent and enchanting, grimy and brightly lit, a world of fascinating extrapolations that mirror and satire contemporary society. On the other hand, Orison is overstuffed; its seams show the strains of containment. One gets the sense that Mitchell’s had to restrain an entire novel here, and the frequent need to dump exposition on his readers undercuts his otherwise nimble prose. (Alternately, the clunky exposition dumping might be a reference to Philip K. Dick). Mitchell is clearly comfortable working in the idiom of Orwell and Huxley (Sonmi explicitly references both writers, by the by), but the second half of Orison–the descending half, if you will–cannot reclaim the energy of its first part. Beyond Orison, a sense of contraction rules the second half of Cloud Atlas.

Perhaps the deflation in the novel’s second half results from its triumphant middle passage, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. Dystopia moves to post-apocalypse, and maybe a thousand years after the time of Ewing, we are back in the Pacific, in the Hawaiian islands, where a man named Zachry spins one of the better adventure yarns I’ve heard in some time. Mitchell writes Sloosha’s Crossin’ in an invented argot that readily (and purposefully) recalls Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Like that book, Sloosha’s Crossin’ showcases an environment removed from the apocalypse–the narrative is more about how civilizations might reform after a fall. When a woman named Meronym from a “tribe” called the Prescients comes to stay with Zachry’s family, the stress between civilization and savagery comes to a head. The Prescients seem to be the last group of people on earth with any vestige of command over prelapsarian technology. Meronym (who bears a comet-shaped birthmark) does her best not to intervene in the day-to-day life of the family, but when the Kona, an aggressive tribe of slavers attack, she finds her self unable not to act. As the central, unbroken narrative of Cloud Atlas, Sloosha’s Crossin’ must both climax the novel as well as tie its disparate ends to its organizing themes. It doesn’t disappoint, both encapsulating, repeating, and commenting on the various slave-slaver narratives that run through the rest of the text. When the Kona attack Zachry’s Valleysmen, we see eternal recurrence–Māori slaughtering Moriori, Christian colonials ousting aboriginals, corporations using their fabricants for slave labor. A dialogue between Zachry and Meronym (delivered in Zachry’s argot, of course) spells out the novel’s concerns. Zachry asks Meronym if it’s “better to be savage’n to be Civ’lized?” She replies–

What’s the naked meanin’ b’hind them two words?

Savages ain’t got no laws, I said, but Civ’lizeds got laws.

Deeper’n that it’s this. The savage sat’fies his needs now. He’s hungry, he’ll eat. He’s angry, he’ll knuckly. He’s swellin’, he’ll shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an if his will say soes “Kill” he’ll kill. Like fangy animals.

Yay, that was the Kona.

Now the Civ’lized got the same needs too, but he sees further. He’ll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won’t go hungry ‘morrow. He’s angry, he’ll stop’n’ think why so he won’t get angry next time. He’s swellin’, well, he’s got sisses an’ daughters what need respectin’ so he’ll respect his bros’ sisses and daughters. his will is his slave, an’ if his will say soes, “Don’t!” he won’t, nay.

What we see here is, I believe, a subtle reading of Nietzsche’s famous, infamous, and not-so-well understood concept of the will to power. Meronym’s solution to save endangered humanity is not blind adherence to conventional morality but rather an individual’s ability to overcome his or her animal instincts to thrive. The Übermensch enslaves his own will, his id, and preserves his ego.

As Sloosha’s Crossin’ concludes and Cloud Atlas moves outward and back into the past, there’s a twin sense of deflation and redemption. Orision does not have the room it needs to breathe; although Sonmi’s inevitable martyrdom follows a narrative logic that Sloosha’s Crossin’ more than justifies, it feels undercooked. The second half of the Cavendish narrative is more fulfilling. No spoilers. Mitchell manages to shoehorn a strange missive by a physicist into the second half of Luisa Rey; it’s only a page and a half, it doesn’t really belong there, and it’s the most interesting thing about the whole narrative. Like Frobisher’s description of his sextet, it functions as one description of the book. Luisa gets to hear that sextet, by the way; she special orders one of only fifty pressings. Frobisher’s narrative I’ve remarked upon at some length, so I will leave it alone by saying that it’s one of the finer points of Cloud Atlas and noting that it ends with a specific invocation of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. The Journal of Adam Ewing is also very satisfying; in many ways it has to be, for it is the beginning and the end and the second end (and thus new beginning) of the novel. Ewing’s experiences–which, to leap right through the chain of protagonists, must also be Meronym’s experiences–lead him to reject the common morality of his time. As the novel concludes, he elects to return to the United States as a committed abolitionist, his stated mission in life to fight slavery in all its forms.

Cloud Atlas is a postmodern novel through and through. It riffs on genre and style with a keen awareness of textuality, an overt reliance on intertextuality, and a formally experimental schema that, as one of its principals puts it, might be “Revolutionary or gimmicky.” It lovingly pairs the high with the low, the philosophical with the vulgar, the musical with the mud, and its best moments do so seamlessly and gracefully. It’s a very good read–a fun read–and readers daunted by its structure need not be: Mitchell has created a book that they in many ways probably already know–they just don’t know that they know it like this. Highly recommended.

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20 Responses to “Cloud Atlas — David Mitchell”

  1. Great review! “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is also highly recommended.

  2. Amazing review! Makes me want to go back and read it. Cloud Atlas is one of my favourite books.

  3. it’s so weird that you just read this. I bought it last week and tried to read it after Tree of Smoke but couldn’t get through the first section. After the raw poetry of Johnson’s writing I just couldn’t stomach the prim Englishness (of at least the first section) of Cloud Atlas. If you really say “highly recommended” though I’ll do it.

  4. I just rec’d The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for my birthday earlier this month and I have an unread copy of Cloud Atlas (I think. I just gave a ton of books away – I hope it wasn’t one of them!!)

  5. Loved your analysis. I remember I liked this book a lot when I read it, particularly the Frobisher story. I wonder if you’ve read Number 9 dream and if you would be up for reviewing it as well…

    • Thanks for your kind words, Zoe—-I have #9 Dream, but I only read the first 20 pages or so. I loved Black Swan Green however, although I didn’t review it on the site. Still—-great book.

  6. I love Black Swan Green as well, and am planning on reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as well as this novel. I love his method of intertextuality, primarily the way he weaves his own characters subtly into other novels, and his thematic references to Kundera and Murakami.

  7. So, I just finished re-reading Cloud Atlas and was very excited to get to the end and find out who the last comet-birth-marked soul was, it seemed as though it’d obviously be Adam or the slave. However, I think Mitchell wrote an out of sorts for Ewing in the Half Lives chapter:

    “In the fourth to last moment of his life, [Joe] Napier fires another bullet into the marionette silhouetted stars. The word ‘Silvaplana’ comes to him, unasked for.”

    As Adam Ewing contemplates his death he recalls “Tilda, waving off the ‘Belle-Hoxie’ from Silvaplana Wharf”. Napier has the final, dying memories of Adam, and Napier is not the one with the birth mark, so Adam must not be the first (and final) soul.

    What do you think and are there perhaps 2 or 3 souls through each narrative the reader is encouraged to recognize? No one else I know has read this book and I’m dying to suss it all out!

    • Out of town now, but I’ll take a look over the book again and see if I can come up with an intelligent answer for you next week.

    • Napier’s life was saved by Luisa’s dad at Silvaplana Wharf. Perhaps the word came to him unbidden because he was finally able to repay that debt by saving Luisa’s life.

  8. Great analysis – this seems like a book I will have to read a second time to really grasp what all is occurring…I, too, wonder if there are perhaps multiple lives being portrayed again and again. I originally assumed that the main character/narrator of each section was the same individual, until I came to the final story, Sloosha’s Crossin’, and realized Meronym is the one with the comet birthmark, not Zachry. There also seems to be some indication that the “bad guy” in each story may be the same. A lot to think about with this one!

  9. Fast forward to August 28, 2012 – ‘A Rambling Riff…” I have been looking around in your blog site for clues to your expression of angst. Not to psychoanalyze you or anything like that. Or to get into your mind. But to try to understand the problem. Your blog takes some interesting turns.

    I am an Amateur Reader and have been following your blog for over 6 months or so hoping to find some where in literature to take a swim. Unfortunately, nearly all the books you write about are not available in my library, and being a good citizen I try to keep the library’s costs down by not ordering anything that I won’t get 25 pages in before not being able to go on with it. I made the mistake of reading an Ann Patchett novel because she was on the shelf and on NPR and her novel was blurbed (blurbbled?)positively in the usual suspect places. I should have known better. I read it any way and wish I hadn’t. Her cut and dried approach to the cut and paste style of fiction still leaves ashes in my mind.

    I managed to find a copy of a Denis Johnson book in the library and was thoroughly entertained. Imagine my delight to find ‘The Tree of Life’ by Malick DVD listed in the library. The librarians and I searched and searched and couldn’t find it. Since this is a back to the bible area I assume it was stolen and destroyed because it contains an ‘unauthorized’ fiction about the creation. Alas, there is no book store here except a ‘Christian’ ‘bookstore’. Such is life in otherwise bucolic nature. I am wont to buy a book I haven’t tried a few chapters of before because I have my clothes closet shelves lined in the back with books I haven’t read yet.

    There is a nicely bound volume of ‘The Prairie’ by James Fenimore Cooper I bought a long time ago because I wanted some literature that would give me a feel for the American prairie before the machine age. Right before I planned to read it I read a review of that same work by Mark Twain. If you are looking for a way to criticize a work without feeling bad about slamming it, you should read his review. With much charm and élan, Mr. Twain managed to totally bitch slap Cooper and his works in a very humorous way. Should be read by any one who has to write a book report after having to read a book they totally didn’t like. As my neighbor Elmer Fudd said after I gave him it to read and he squirmed when I asked him how it was going, ‘it takes him 3 pages to say something that could be in one sentence’. I told him he didn’t have to read it to be polite and he looked quite relieved when he gave it back to me. I gave him ‘Huck Finn’ instead and he liked it so much he read it overnight.

    Most of my reading away from the computer screen is non-fiction. I do not read anything that is not well written no matter how interested in the subject I am. Pete Theroux seems to totally dislike whatever exotic place he is traveling through and writing about, so I have stopped reading him. John McPhee is such an accomplished writer that I I learn about all kinds of subjects that I would not ordinarily be interested in, such as growing oranges, contemporary homesteading in Alaska, geology, designing airplane wings, making the mirrors for the Hubble telescope. He has a style that takes me into some one’s mind and into whatever work it is that they are performing. I am looking at a row of books lining my desk cabinet of works I haven’t read – Tantric and Tibetan Yoga, physics, Siberian travelogue, Cowboy Poetry, early Victorian explorers works, with a collection of the volumes published about Shackleton. All of them apparently very good reads as such outside their subjects. At the moment my bedtime reading is a modern rendition of the Vedic creation poetry. But, I really want to find contemporary literature that sucks me in, both in style, the wording constructs, and most importantly, in story. I can remember how much I enjoyed reading Patrick White’s ‘The Tree of Man’ so many years ago because he evoked the feel of rural Australia and the lack of verbal emotion of its residents. That last phrase is not quite right, but I guess I am lacking verbally, too.

    The purpose of this ramble is an attempt to communicate to biblioklept that the difference between his review above and his ramble today seems to tell me that he needs to find some fresh meat. It really is hard to write creatively about something that you are only telling yourself that you find worthwhile writing about. I don’t think he is burned out, but he has plowed the same field too many times, and he needs to let it lie fallow while turning the pasture under across the fence. Now that’s the arrogance of giving anyone advice. Probably none of this is true but there seemed to be a conundrum expressed in the blog.

    The difference to me between a book review and literary criticism of that same book is that from a book review I hope to get enough sense of the story that I might find it involving and to decide if I like the way the writing is laid out. Literary criticism, to me, is more about how clever the critique author is and how much the author didn’t tell you what his work really means. And how, if you cut the work into phrases and reassemble them at random how they could mean some thing else entirely. My feeling about symbolic and hidden meanings is why didn’t the author just write that instead.

    Most book reviews that I have read only give me information about whether I am interested in the time, place, and characters. I never read past ‘coming of age’. And all those superlatives wear me out. I find this is true also for movie reviews, even though they seem easier. I just can’t hack art or music reviews. The whole thing about art and music is that it is pre- or post- verbal, so why spoil it with words. I think quoting lyrical spots and rough edges would be very helpful.

    I do not understand what is wrong with finding fault with a work that you might like. You wouldn’t be so shallow as to dislike a woman you just met because of her clothing or a guy because he is wearing aftershave.

  10. Great review. I definitely want to re-read the book now. It will be very interesting to see how the film adaptation works out as well.

  11. If the early-colonist period writing appeals, I recommend English Passengers.
    kevin@dokdoc.com

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