Random House, 2004, 509 pages
A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified "dinery server" on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization — the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.
In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity's dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.
I really liked Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I waited until Cloud Atlas was available on Netflix before reading his most famous opus.
Cloud Atlas is trying to say grand and expansive things (which are spelled out more explicitly in the movie: see below), but fundamentally it's a collection of six interlocking novelettes, in which David Mitchell shows off his ability to write six very different voices and genres.
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each "shell" (the present) encased inside a nest of "shells" (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of "now" likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.
Taken individually, the six stories in this novel are all good reads, though the most and least interesting will be a matter of taste. The same theme and characters echo in each. Mitchell teeters between profound meditation and New Agey pretentiousness in reincarnating successive characters and events across the ages to tell a story about the singularity of human experience — how in every age, the eternal collective drive for acquisition and power is abetted or thwarted by the actions of individuals.
The conceit of the novel, the "trick" or "gimmick" as many have called it, is that each story is contained within another.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
"One must be as cynical as Diogenes to prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues."
Written as a 19th century travelogue that is reminiscent of Moby-Dick, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing starts the book. Adam Ewing is an American from San Francisco, sent to conduct some business in Australia by way of New Zealand. His first stirrings of conscience are pricked when he witnesses the brutal treatment of the Moriori by the warlike Maori, who have learned well the colonization game from the Europeans. On his voyage back to America, he finds a Moriori stowaway in his cabin, and must choose whether to help the man or let him face his certain fate.
Adam Ewing is the man jolted out of his comfortable life and default assumptions by seeing the world in all its Hobbesian brutality.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the 'natural' (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Letters from Zedelghem
"A half-read book is a half-finished love affair."
The next story is Letters from Zedelghem. The letters are from a young English musician named Robert Frobisher to his friend & lover, one "sixsmith." Frobisher is a disinherited scion on the run from his family, and a host of creditors, in search of glory and inspiration in between-the-wars Europe. He finds it as the amanuensis of a great but faded Belgian composer, who takes him on with the inevitable clash of artistic egos: young profligate rapscallion vs. aged maestro with all his glory days behind him, and the additional complication of the aged maestro's hot wife and even hotter teenage daughter.
Frobisher's life is Byronic, and destined to be short and tragic, but in the course of his misadventures, he discovers a journal written by a traveler named Adam Ewing — maddeningly, only the first half at first.
Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools, and states, you find indelible truths at one's core. Rome'll decline and fall again, Cortés'll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian'll be blown to pieces again, you and I'll sleep under the Corsican stars again, I'll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you'll read this letter again, the sun'll grow cold again. Nietzsche's gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.
Before he discovers the second half, he will write a great composition known (to very few) as the Cloud Atlas. Years later, it will be discovered by an investigative reporter named Luisa Rey, who tracks it down after finding the letters Frobisher sent to Rufus Sixsmith.
Half-Lives — the First Luisa Rey Mystery
"I ask three simple questions. How did he get that power? How is he using it? And how can it be taken off the sonofabitch?"
Luisa Rey is a plucky investigative reporter, the daughter of a war hero working for a no-account rag, pitted against the mighty Seaboard Corporation, which is building a nuclear power plant that Dr. Rufus Sixsmith says is unsafe. Set in 1970s California in the fictional town of Beunas Yerbas, The First Luisa Rey Mystery is written in the style of a noir thriller, with political conspiracies, hard-bitten reporters, car chases and gunfights, and above all, a search for The Truth and a quest to get it out there.
The power she's fighting is essentially the same power that Adam Ewing confronts, the same power all the other characters in all the other stories will confront, whether it's colonialists, corporations, invading barbarians, or futuristic police states.
Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.' ...how is it that some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity. First: God-given gifts of charisma. Second: the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity's topsoil is fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will ever flower -- for want of discipline. Third: the will to power.
The Dr. Sixsmith who reveals to her the secret of the HYDRA project on Swanneke Island is, of course, the same "sixsmith" to whom Robert Frobisher was writing many years earlier, and while on the run from assassins and corporate thugs, Luisa will read Frobisher's letters from Zedelghem among Sixmith's effects.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
"What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
Half-Lives — the First Luisa Rey Mystery, is sent as a manuscript to Timothy Cavendish, a huckster vanity publisher in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
Cavendish is an old rapscallion who's spent his life sponging up money from friends and relations and talentless clients. After one of his clients murders a critic in a spectacularly public fashion, his crappy book is propelled into a bestseller. Cavendish finds that solvency is actually a bit of a problem because now all your creditors know you've got money — as do the thuggish brothers of the man whose book you're getting rich off of.
Cavendish's flight takes him to a place called Aurora House, which he initially believes is a hotel, but turns out to be essentially a prison for the elderly unwanted cast-offs of well-heeled families who would prefer to keep them locked away out of sight.
Although not exactly a heroic figure, Cavendish's scheme to escape Aurora House and the dastardly Nurse Noakes has the reader cheering for the louche old conniver and his geriatric partners in crime, in a tale reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The power he fights is more personal, the oppression of the young against the old, the invisibilizing of people that society has deemed useless and past their expiration date.
We — by whom I mean anyone over sixty — commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman's memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.
Written as a self-aggrandizing memoir, Timothy Cavendish predicts that it will become an epic film. And in fact it does, watched some hundreds of years later by a fabricant named Somni-451.
The Orison of Somni-451
"Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."
The Orison of Somni-451 is a science fiction dystopia. Somni-451 is a cloned human being, genetically engineered to be a server spending her life in a fast food restaurant called Papa Song's. Papa Song's is her entire universe until she escapes into Neo So Copros, a futuristic unified Korea ruled by corporations.
Somni's story is your basic rage-against-the-machine, written as an interview following her capture. She learns the dark secret of Neo So Copros and its use and abuse of fabricants, joins a resistance movement in a story reminiscent of 1984 (including the inevitable betrayal and revelation that everything has been staged from the beginning).
I still can't understand why Unanimity would go to the xpense and trouble of staging this fake... adventure story?
To generate a show trial, Archivist! To make every last pureblood in Neo So Copros mistrustful of every last fabricant. To manufacture consent for the Fabricant Containment Act being presented to the Juche. To discredit Abolitionism. The whole conspiracy was a resounding success.
But if you knew about this...conspiracy, why did you cooperate with it?
Why does any martyr cooperate with his judases? He sees a further endgame.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
"I und'standed why Meronym'd not said the hole true 'bout Prescience Isle an' her tribe too. People b'lief the world is built so an' tellin'em it ain't so caves the roofs on their heads 'n'maybe yours."
Centuries later, Somni is worshipped as a goddess by the post-apocalyptic residents of the Hawaiian islands. The Valleymen are peaceful farmer/herders, doomed to be conquered by the militaristic Kona, horsemen with metal armor and weapons and a taste for cannibalism and sodomy, in a story that brings Adam Ewing's first encounter with the peaceful Moriori and the violent Maori full circle.
Zachry, the protagonist, must act as host and guide to a Prescient named Meronym. The Prescients are a tiny enclave holding onto the last bits of advanced technology following the Fall. (Interestingly, the Valleymen and the Kona are described as light-skinned; apparently descended from Hawaii's white population, while the Prescients are dark-skinned; one of the aspects that the film actually preserved accurately.)
Besides witnessing the cycle of oppression and conquest repeated again, Zachry struggles against superstition and resistance to understanding the Other.
The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.
Oh, her words was a rope o' smoke. But Old Uns'd got the Smart!
I mem'ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns' Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an made miracles ord'nary, but it din't master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old Uns'd got ev'rythin.
Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren't big nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an boil up the seas an poison soil with crazed atoms an donkey 'bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an babbits was freakbirthed. Fin'ly, bit'ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar'bric tribes an the Civ'lize Days ended, 'cept for a few folds'n'pockets here'n'there, where its last embers glimmer.
Cloud Atlas is a whole that is better than its parts. Read through Adam Ewing's journal, read by Robert Frobisher, whose letters are read by Luisa Rey, whose adventure is read by Timothy Cavendish, whose life story is watched on film by Sonmi, who has become an object of veneration by Zachry. You get to the middle tale of the novel, Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, and then work your way back out again, ending with the conclusion of Adam Ewing's journal.
Individually, some readers have criticized it as a gimmick, the different voices and genres Mitchell shifts between no more than a stunt, but I found that taken together, it was both clever and a convincing and powerful single story, well-written and worth the accolades.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Trying to duplicate the layered storytelling approach of the novel could only be a horrendous challenge on film. Cloud Atlas received mixed reviews, and while it doesn't really approach the genius of the book it was based on, I think it's a credible attempt. Rather than proceeding from one story to the next and back again, in the matryoshka doll structure of the novel, it flashes from scene to scene, story to story, hammering the audience with the supposed reflexivity of the each narrative.
I liked the movie, although I wasn't fond of some of the small alterations made, even knowing that it couldn't be perfectly faithful to the book. My biggest criticism of the film is that it went too overboard with spectacle at times. From the scene when Tom Hanks throws a poncy book critic over a balcony — why was it necessary to follow him all the way to the ground and show the splash of blood and gore? — to Somni's story, which turns into a ridiculous series of laser battles against easily mowed down stormtroopers, albeit with impressive Bladerunner-style visuals. Of course this is the inevitable dumbing down compromise needed to turn a literary novel into a Hollywood blockbuster, but those bits made me sigh more than the small changes and omissions.
The film also reproduces Mitchell's "gimmick" by making up the actors in different roles, including different races and genders, for each story.
The movie got some criticism because of Hugo Weaving being made to look Asian. While normally I am sympathetic to such complaints (if you have an Asian character, use an Asian actor), I really think context matters here. One of the core themes of the book (and the movie) was the implication that the same actors act out the same roles (with sometimes different choices) over and over again. Showing the same actor in different roles was an important point, and while I get that it's kind of problematic to use special effects to make a white guy look Asian, they also made Hugo Weaving a woman, they made Susan Sarandon a man, and they made Halle Berry and Doo Na Bae white.
In this case, I don't think the fundamental objections (either that the movie was engaging in "yellowface" or that it was casting white actors in roles that should have gone to Asians) apply. We now have the technology to make anyone of any race or gender look like any other, and that was done freely in Cloud Atlas. It may have been gimmicky, but I don't agree that it should be considered inherently offense.
Have you read Cloud Atlas?
Have you read any other books by David Mitchell?
Have you seen the movie Cloud Atlas?
Verdict: A great book by a great writer, and while some have dismissed it as a show-offy writing stunt, I thought it worked very well. Some literary authors go slumming in genre fiction, but David Mitchell is more like a genre author who has snuck into the ranks of litfic.
Also by David Mitchell: My review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
My complete list of book reviews.