Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In Memory of Double Bills
When I was a student, in the heyday of independent cinemas, I saw a lot of double bills.
They weren’t just two current release films that had been packaged to eke out some extra dollars for the exhibitor.
They were carefully curated films that shared a theme and formed part of a whole season of similarly matched films.
Usually, the season was promoted by a poster that illustrated each film with a fifty word capsule review.
For many years, I kept these posters in a folder, at least until I got married and had to start hiding what I hoarded.
The double bills themselves were where I learned about the greats of film culture. Hitchcock, Ford, Godard, Truffaut, Woody Allen, etc.
They whetted an appetite that continues to this day.
The thing about a double bill is that the films could be enjoyed individually, but they also fed meaning to each other.
One of my favourite matches was Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and Polanski’s “The Tenant”, both of which involved a character adopting the persona of another character and then embarking on a journey or travelling under the guise of the other character.
Both films benefited from the juxtaposition, and it made for great discussions between friends when you emerged from the cinema.
Almost 20 years later, at a film industry convention, I was sitting next to an older but still very appealing, strong, independent woman at lunch, and I told her this story.
She smiled and said, “That was me. I curated those seasons.”
She was then a co-owner of one of the most successful chains of independent cinemas. Unfortunately, her chain didn’t survive the multiplex, nor did double bills, as far as I know.
Film culture is the poorer for it. It can’t just be learned from books, it must be learned in front of a screen, preferably a big one.
Why Don’t You Show Me?
I’ve started with this diversion, because, even though this is my second reading of “Cloud Atlas” and the first was well before I learned there was to be a film, the novel always struck me as filmic.
If it wasn’t made to be filmed (however challenging the prospect), it seemed to be influenced by film, particularly genre film, and possibly the sort of double bills that I had consumed.
I love the fact that David Mitchell’s works ooze film and cultural literacy, not to mention cross-cultural diversity.
It’s one of the things I hope doesn’t disappear as audiences become less genre and art form diverse.
Just as James Joyce alluded to the Classics in “Ulysses”, many modern novelists allude to diverse art forms.
If we restrict our interest to only one or a few, we might not “get” the allusions. And not getting them, we might not pay sufficient attention.
To this extent, I wouldn’t argue that “Cloud Atlas” is a difficult novel, it just requires an attentive reader.
I’ve Tried and I’ve Tried and I’m Still Mystified
I think I can say this with some authority, because I originally rated the novel three stars on the basis of a reading several years ago, before I joined Good Reads.
Having re-read it with a view to a review, I’ve upgraded my review to five stars.
This might go down to four stars in time, but for the moment, my rating is sticking.
So what happened?
When I finished my re-read, I had decided to rate it four stars.
There were things I still didn’t get, even though they were there on the page in front of me.
As I collated my notes, things started to drop into place and I started to get things, at least I think I did.
My initial reservation was that there were six stories juxtaposed in one book, and I wasn’t convinced that they related to each other adequately.
If together they were supposed to constitute a patchwork quilt, some patches jarred, others weren’t stitched together adequately.
I couldn’t see the relationship. It wasn’t manifesting itself to me.
I didn’t think Mitchell had done enough to sew the parts together.
I couldn’t understand why the six films on the same bill had been collected together. I didn’t know what the glue was. There was no bond. They were all just there.
If they were supposed to be connected, I couldn’t see the connection.
Who was to blame: him or me? Was anyone to blame, or did I just need to exert myself a bit harder?
In a way, this review is the story of how I exerted myself a bit harder, got back on top and managed to give the author his due.
I have tried to discuss the novel with minimal plot spoilers. However, many of the themes revolve around aspects of the plot in the six stories.
In an effort to reduce spoilers, I’ve limited the mention of specific stories and characters.
I apologize if this detracts from your enjoyment of the review or your desire to read the novel.
”Where is the Fundamental Mystery?”
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a mystery or the fact that a mystery might retain its status after some investigation.
Not all mysteries are intended to be worked out or revealed to all.
Some things are intended to remain secret. Some things need a password or a code to unlock them.
Some things just require a bit of effort or charm or both.
The thing about “Cloud Atlas” is that it consists of six quite disparate stories (a “Cloud Atlas Sextet” in its own right), five of which have been broken into two.
The result is 11 sections, ten of which surround the unbroken sixth story in the middle.
Without disclosing the titles of the stories, they follow the following timeline:
• The present (?);
• A highly corporatized future; and
• A post apocalyptic future (the middle story).
Once you’ve got half-way, the book works back towards 1850 in reverse order.
Getting your head around this structure is the first task.
The second is to work out the relationship between the stories.
The third is to work out how to pull the whole thing together into one integrated whole.
Choosing a Structural Metaphor
The structure has given rise to metaphors like Russian or Matryoshka dolls or Chinese boxes.
Each successive story is nested or nestled within the next. [One character’s letters survive the burglary of a hotel room, because they are nestled in a copy of Gideon’s Bible.]
Another way to think of it is to pretend that you have opened up six separate books to the middle pages, then sat them on top of each other, starting with the oldest on the bottom, and then bound them together, so now hopefully you’ve got one idea of the structure.
A third way to look at the structure metaphorically is to see the past as embracing the present, and the present embracing the future.
Thus, the past has within it the potential of the present, and the present has within it the potential of the future.
This metaphor raises the second question of the relationship between the layers.
Does one determine the next? Does the past determine the future? What is the relationship or connection?
Where does Mitchell and his novel stand on the continuum between Determinism and Free Will?
Apart from the question of how all 11 sections contribute to an integrated whole, there is a narrative connectedness between the 11 sections.
Characters or objects from one section reappear in others as important narrative elements. In a way, they are like screws or pegs that lock one part of a piece of modular furniture into another, so that the whole doesn’t dissemble.
Various characters (in five out of the six stories) have a comet-shaped birthmark between their shoulder-blade and collarbone.
They also share other personal characteristics, despite not necessarily sharing genders, and there is a suggestion that the five characters with birthmarks might be reincarnations of the same soul.
From a narrative point of view:
• the Journals in Story 1 are found in Story 2.
• The Letters in Story 2 are written to a character in Story 3.
• The music in Story 2 is heard in Story 3. (When Luisa Rey hears the music, she feels that she might have been present when it was composed, hence the implication that she might be a reincarnation of the composer, Robert Frobisher.)
• Story 3 is submitted to a character in Story 4 for publication.
• The character in Story 4 writes a memoir that is filmed, and watched by the character in Story 5.
• An interview with the character in Story 5 is recorded and becomes the “holy book” or “scripture” for a post-apocalyptic religion in Story 6 (even though it is an audio-visual work, not a written work, embodied on an “orison”).
Eternal Recurrence in and of Time
Time is a silent partner in the narrative of the novel.
We start in the past and move forward into the future, before reversing or heading backwards (or forwards into the past?), so that eventually we come full circle:
"Time’s Arrow became Time’s Boomerang."
In this sense, the narrative is revolutionary, if not necessarily gimmicky.
We must assume that the cycle continues to roll or revolve in this fashion ad infinitum.
In Nietzsche’s words, it is an "Eternal Recurrence":
"Everything becomes and recurs eternally - escape is impossible! - Supposing we could judge value, what follows? The idea of recurrence as a selective principle, in the service of strength (and barbarism!!)": Nietzsche
Culture and Civilization, whether good or evil, positive or negative, sophisticated or barbaric, are conveyed through time by people.
Human beings are vessels through which human nature passes into the future, from the past via the present (and vice versa, it seems).
Each of us carries aspects of human nature, ideas, beliefs, biases, prejudices, goals, ambitions, aspirations, appetites, hunger, thirst, desire, the need for more, the inability to be satisfied, the inability to be appeased.
Human nature is concrete, permanent, eternal, continuous, recurring.
Individuals are separate, discrete, temporary, dispensable, ephemeral.
Like an oak tree, we are born, we grow, we die.
A body is just a vehicle for human nature (within a family, its DNA).
You can see that, if each of us is a vehicle, then when we pass the baton onto the next runner, we (or the human nature that we carried) is reincarnated in our successor.
If our characteristics continue, they succeed, instead of succumbing.
In this sense, a comet birthmark is just the mark or marque or ink or stain that we pass onto our successor as evidence of the eternal chain of which each of us is but a link.
You Can’t Stop Me, Because I am Determined
It’s arguable that there is a determinism or fatalism going on here.
However, I think Mitchell acknowledges Free Will as well, again, both in a positive and a negative sense.
Much of the novel is concerned with the Nietzschean will to power, the ascent to power, the acquisition and abuse of power, the use of power to victimize and oppress.
The character, Alberto Grimaldi, the CEO of the Corporation Seaboard Power (surely the name is well chosen) argues:
"Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’...
"Yet how is it 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 id fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will ever flower – for want of discipline…
"Third: the will to power.
"This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority of their compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival? Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause.
"The only answer can be ‘There is no ‘Why’. This is our nature. ‘Who’ and ‘What’ run deeper than ‘Why?’ "
While human nature shapes us, I don’t think Mitchell is positing a completely Determinist cosmos.
What people do impacts on their Fate.
Some rise to the top as Supermen or Ubermenschen, some fall to the bottom as Downstrata or Untermenschen.
Some Men are predators, others victims.
Some rise, some fall.
In between, some are “half-fallen”, Mitchell calls them the “Diagonal People”.
Like the character Isaac Sachs, their tragic flaw is that they are “too cowardly to be a warrior, but not enough of a coward to lie down and roll over like a good doggy.”
Virtue Incarnate (or Reincarnate?)
Mitchell’s six stories feature heroes (of sorts), five of whom are or might be reincarnations of the same soul.
Each of them has the courage to fight against evil or power or oppression or cruelty.
They are idealists, liberals, [affirmative] activists, boat rockers, shit-stirrers, young hacks, non-conformists, dissidents, rebels, revolutionaries, rogues, rascals, “picaros” (the Spanish word from which the word “picaresque” derives), messiahs and naughty boys.
They eschew duplicity, dishonesty and falseness, they seek authenticity, honesty and truth:
"Truth is the gold."
"Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths."
"The true true is presher’n’rarer’n diamonds."
They oppose power, corruption, and lies, tyranny and mutation. [They must be fans of New Order and Blue Oyster Cult.]
Talkin’ About a Revolution
Our heroes create messages and symbols to overcome tyranny: journals, epistles, memoirs, novels, music, films, video confessions, “orisons” (a word that actually means “prayers”), scripts, catechisms, declarations, even new post-apocalyptic languages.
Like hippies ("the love and peace generation"), they oppose mainstream culture with their own counter-cultural artifacts, as if the reincarnated souls, the Grateful Living, are perpetuating the Grateful Dead.
The eponymous artwork, the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", is composed by Robert Frobisher, a bisexual wunderkind:
"Cloud Atlas holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework."
Just like Guy Fawkes, it’s explosive and revolutionary.
Frobisher composes the work while engaged as an amenuensis for the older composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who believes that the role of the musician or artist is to “make civilization ever more resplendent”.
Perhaps ingenuously, for one of the reincarnates, Frobisher counters:
“How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are mere scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
His own composition resounds throughout the entire novel. It also describes the central metafictional device that Mitchell uses to construct his fiction:
"A sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J is in my bed. She should understand, the artist lives in two worlds."
Artists might live in a private world and a public world, but there is a sense in which they also live both in the present and in the future.
An Atlas of Clouds
At a more metaphorical level, the Atlas contains maps of the human nature that Mitchell describes.
The Clouds carry the vagaries of human nature across time, encircling the world on their journey, obscuring and frustrating our aspirations and desires:
"Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides... I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. 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."
Revolutionary or Gimmicky?
Mitchell directly asks us to consider whether his own work is gimmicky.
Superficially, it is, but what finally convinced me that the novel deserves five stars is a conviction that his subject matter and his metafictional devices are genuinely and effectively stitched together.
It wasn’t easy to come by this realization. I had to work on it, but it was worth it.
Men and Women and Eroticism
Women play a significant role as both characters and subject matter in the novel.
To a certain extent, they represent an alternative to the corrupt corporate culture symbolized by Seaboard Power (even though its Head of Publicity is a woman):
"Men invented money. Women invented mutual aid."
There is a sense in which men [males] are driven by the hunger, the acquisitiveness, at the heart of the novel’s concerns, far more so than women:
”Yay, Old Un’s 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…Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.”
Still, men and women still get into bed with each other, and the sexual encounters in the novel are usually either entertaining or slyly erotic, no matter how economically they are described:
”Accepted this proxy fig leaf cum olive branch and our lovemaking that night was almost affectionate.”
”Our sex was joyless, graceless, and necessarily improvised, but it was an act of the living. Stars of sweat on Hae-Joo’s back were his gift to me, and I harvested them on my tongue.”
[For all the talk of comet-shaped birthmarks, this view of sex as an act of the living will stay with me for the rest of my life, even when I can no longer lift myself up on my elbows.]
"Eva, Because her name is a synonym for temptation...all my life, sophisticated idiotic women have taken it upon themselves to understand me, to cure me, but Eva knows I'm terra incognita and explores me unhurriedly...Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning...here she is, in these soundproofed chambers of my heart."
And isn’t this exactly what life is all about?
To be understood, to be cured, to be explored (unhurriedly), to be laughed at, to be sprayed all over, to be in love, in the soundproofed chambers of your heart.
David Mitchell, this image alone deserves five stars.
Jordi Savall - "Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina"(Sephardic Jewish music from Sarajevo)"
This music is playing in the Lost Chord record store in the novel.
Tracey Chapman – "Talkin’ About a Revolution"
"Don’t you know
They're talkin' about a revolution.
It sounds like a whisper.
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share."
Bob Dylan - "Shelter From the Storm"
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
Joni Mitchell - "Both Sides Now"
I've looked at clouds from both sides now...
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