Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell (New York: Random House, 2004. 528 pp)

David Mitchell is an English author most noted for his fiction. He attended University of Kent earning a degree in English and American Literature as well as an M.A. in Comparative Literature. Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His next two novels, Number9dream and Cloud Atlas found themselves on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Cloud Atlas has been adapted into a feature film.

A Kaleidoscope of Ambiguity

How does it feel moments after newly opened puzzle pieces cascade out of the box? The colorful mélange sits nestled on the table—a kaleidoscope of ambiguity, the box your only clue to the end goal. With patience, a keen eye for fit and a steady direction toward the end goal, an image unveils from the chaos. How rewarding it is to complete the puzzle.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas offers a similar sense of reward. A set of 6 distinct stories, the overarching theme of Cloud Atlas emerges like a nesting doll. Each short story unlocks the mysteries of their surrounding narratives.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

Cloud Atlas begins with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” a story following Adam Ewing, a notary from San Francisco sailing the Pacific from Sydney to California on the Prophetess. A man of deep Christian devotion, Ewing keeps a daily record of his journey.

“My Fates have inflicted upon me the greatest unpleasance of my voyage to date! A shade of Old Rēkohu has thrust me, whose only desiderata are quietude & discretion, into a pillory of suspicion & gossip! Yet I am guilty on no counts save Christian trustingness & relentless ill fortune! One month to the day has passed since we put out from New South Wales, when I wrote this sunny sentence, ‘I anticipate an uneventful & tedious voyage.’ How that entry mocks me! I shall never forget the last eighteen hours, but since I cannot sleep nor think (& Henry is now abed) my only escape from insomnia now is to curse my Luck on these sympathetic pages” (25).

Photo by Mike Baird

Ewing suffers from a parasite, keeping him mostly bedridden. Additionally, Ewing, in good conscience, advocates for a stowaway native to the Southern Pacific. He puts his life on the line to save this man. The journal truncates midsentence.

Letters from Zedelghem

Cloud Atlas next moves to “Letters from Zedelghem,” a correspondence between burgeoning physicist Rufus Sixsmith and emerging composer Robert Frobisher.  The reader receives a one-sided look at the conversation from the perspective of Frobisher. Pursuing admission into the tight-knit European composer community, Frobisher seeks employment with reclusive English composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, as an amanuensis.  At his estate south of Bruges, Belgium, Frobisher becomes ensnared in extracurricular activity, engaging in an affair with Ayrs’ wife, Jocasta, and lusting after his daughter, Eva.

“Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. Did my best to think beatific thoughts, but my mind kept running its fingers over Jocasta. Even the stained-glass saints and martyrs were mildly arousing. Don’t suppose such thoughts get me closer to Heaven. In the end, it was a Bach motet that shooed me away—choristers weren’t damnably bad, but the organist’s only hope for salvation was a bullet through the brain. Told him so, too—tact and restraint all well and good in small talk, but one mustn’t beat around any bush where music is concerned” (75).

Frobisher is a blunt man submitting to his passions.

Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The next story to grace the pages of Cloud Atlas is “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” Following reporter Luisa Rey, this story is a fast-paced thriller about corporate cover-ups and assassinations. Hearing of potential malfeasance of a nuclear power company by whistle-blower Dr. Rufus Sixsmith (the same character corresponding with Frobisher 4 decades earlier).

As Luisa Rey uncovers more information on the corporation’s illegal activity, life becomes infinitely more dangerous.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

Story four, entitled “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” depicts the unfortunate circumstances around publisher Timothy Cavendish’s wrongful imprisonment at a retirement home.

Having earned a greater level of affluence from a new book gracing the best seller lists, Cavendish runs into trouble. Certain nefarious characters desire a piece of the best seller’s profits. Deciding to flee rather than pay such a ransom, Cavendish works with his brother to gain passage to a hotel in Northern England.

Unbeknownst to Cavendish, his brother just enlisted him in a retirement home. Once there, Cavendish’s complaints fall on deaf ears as the staff believes his musings prove the need of the retirement home.

An Orison of Sonmi-451

In the penultimate story, “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” Mitchell pens a question-and-answer session between an Archivist and a clone named Sonmi-451. Set in a future state, society has moved to a corpocratic state beyond capitalism titled, “Nea So Copros.”

This dystopian future requires its citizens to buy, buy, and then buy some more. In her confession, Sonmi divulges some of these laws.

“Hae-Joo led me to a stylish café platform where he bought a styro of starbuck for himself and an aqua for me. He xplained that under the Enrichment Statutes, consumers have to spend a fixed quota of dollars each month, depending on their strata. Hoarding is an anti-corpocratic crime” (227).

Additionally, the corporate government breeds clones, like Sonmi, to work menial tasks and society considers these clones less than human.

“To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes” (187).

Sonmi, however, gains a sense of perspective, a troubling advance for Nea So Copros. She begins to learn; she soon understands the plight of her clone sisters and brothers. She seeks change.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After

The final story in Cloud Atlasis titled, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After.”

Photo by Anders Young

Set in the Hawaiian Islands long after the copocratic globe finds itself in ruin, this story follows Zachry, a Hawaiian Island native and Meronym, an off-island Prescient. With stunted writing, Mitchell conveys the friendship of this duo as they explore their environment.

This setting offers multiple examples of a violent future, where life returns to a savage and primal past. In the face of such horror, Zachry can only pray to his god, Sonmi.

“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ thou’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds” (308).

One Big Matryoshka Doll

If you’re confused so far, I wouldn’t blame you. On the surface, each story in Cloud Atlas carries little resemblance to the next. In fact, Mitchell alters his writing style for each story, making them all feel exceedingly separate as if multiple authors contributed these narratives.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

However, the brilliance of Cloud Atlas occurs in the subtle-yet-profound ways in which each story influences the others. As the stories unfold, we find the monumental influence of these stories on each other. Adem Ewing’s journal inspires Robert Frobisher’s compositions; Luisa Rey befriends Sixsmith and feels a kinship toward Frobisher; Cavendish believes Luisa Rey’s story could be a bestseller; Cavendish’s ordeal provides evidence for Sonmi about her humanity; and Sonmi is the god of Zachry.

In a moment of philosophical brilliance, Mitchell ponders,

“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” (393).

Through these stories, Mitchell plays with time and space and ponders the influence of past actions on future actions. Likening it to a nesting doll, Mitchell unfolds a deep, compelling narrative. While each story is interesting in and of itself, and don’t worry there’s much more to the stories than I have explained so far, the combined whole of Cloud Atlas is magical.

The Horror of Selfishness

With each story, the common denominator surrounds uniquely human struggles between altruism and selfishness. Our characters—most certainly imperfect in their own right—fight against the relentless onslaught of self-interest around them. People desire prestige, money, love, and power. In a world as fragile as a cloud, humanity is its own worst enemy. Mitchell ponders,

“Why? Because of this:—one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction” (508).

Much like the joy of a completed puzzle, Cloud Atlas is rewarding for those willing to wade through the stories and to make the pieces connect.

Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly written, gorgeously executed, and extraordinarily presented. Each page was a joy to read. Highly recommended.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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