Reread #2, wrapup: Cloud Atlas

by david

(Unsure what this is about? Background on Reread here.)

I really wasn’t timing this to coincide with the movie release. If you haven’t read the book and plan to see the movie, consider this entire post a quasi-spoiler.

So, let’s start with what I remembered of the six stories.

1. Sick world traveler,  maybe 1400s? It’s his journal. I cannot remember the nature of his drama, but I believe it involves someone in a pit. That, however, could be a detail of #6.

OK, I was off by 400+ years, but I had the basics right. It occurs to me that I’m not being nearly specific enough in the first post on these things, as I was actually right about much more than what I wrote. However, I forgot major central elements (Autua, the purpose of Ewing’s trip, Henry Goose). I was right that he falls into a pit at one point, and as I reread that scene, I remember having to break from the book there in 2004, so I’m sure it’s imprinted in my mind because it was a personal cliffhanger. There is a connection between this story and #3 (Luisa Rey) that when I read it, I was almost convinced I missed it the first time, but I couldn’t possibly have, as I wasn’t stupid in 2004, but my total surprise at reading it (the future location of The Princess, which also raises questions about the relationship between fiction and reality within the text itself, as Luisa Rey is a fictional character even to another character within the novel, and has the same depth of connection with the characters in other stories as the “non-fictional” characters) confirmed that the basic premise of this whole rereading effort is correct: I know very little about my favorite books. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re not to Luisa yet. There’s a false connection I had in mind between this story and #6, as well, thought I’m not utterly convinced it’s completely false. David Mitchell could have planted the seeds. We’ll get there.

2. A composer has written a piece of music called “Cloud Atlas” – I have no clear memory of anything here.

OK, so I remembered that it dealt with a composer and that Cloud Atlas Sextet existed. I left out one detail that I only remembered because of a bit of something I picked up unavoidably in the coverage of the new movie: the word “amanuenses.” So I really remembered very little of “Letters from Zedelghem”, but almost immediately upon starting this section of the book, I remembered a ton. It was the moment when Frobisher sneaks out of the hotel without paying that I remembered where he was going, who he would meet, the affair, the daughter (though I was almost entirely wrong about the details there), and in general the character and his voice. It’s funny that I remembered so little of the two stories I enjoyed the most, this and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Now, if I’d given it a moment’s thought, I’d have known that one element of my next guess HAD to apply to “Zedelghem”. Of course it was Frobisher reading Ewing’s journal, as such connections are what give the novel its structure. Oh well.

3. Even foggier. Someone is reading the journal of #1′s traveler. Maybe the journal is incomplete?  A rare book or music collector?  Somebody is gay and hiding it? Total gray space.

Let’s just treat this at the same time as

4. In the style of a best-selling thriller, Mitchell tells of a muckraking journalist uncovering corporate malfeasance of some sort. I’m almost certain the company has an office, headquarters, or power plant off the coast, that there’s a long bridge,  and that the journalist drives off the bridge while being shot at. This is probably where the story breaks.

since I got them in the wrong order, and that “Zedelghem” and “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” both have an at least partially closeted gay man, and that one of them actually appears in both stories. When Sixsmith’s name appeared, I didn’t even initially make the connection, until he was reading the letters. I noted the name, but didn’t think about how recent the 1931 was, really. And now, I mean now as I write this, it seems silly that I wrote earlier about the appearance of The Princess, the ship Ewing sailed on, in “Luisa Rey” as being the thing that makes me wonder about the nature of the fictions within this fiction, when a character in a novel within a novel was a correspondent of a “real” person in “Zedelghem”. I don’t like the comet birthmark element. I remember disliking it the first time around, too, thinking it’s a bit heavy-handed, but then, it’s not anything worth getting worked up about, and I guess to establish the themes and connections early, it’s better than more convoluted and  plot-driven connections, so maybe what struck me as heavy handed is in reality just a light but not even slightly veiled touch.

My prediction post said NOTHING about “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” and that surprises me for two reasons: I love the character and would have guessed, if asked that I’d remember it, and then, weirdly, I remember the escape from the nursing home quite well, but didn’t remember it as a part of Cloud Atlas. I mean, I’ve even thought of it since. I’m not sure if I thought it was part of another novel, or a short story, or what. I know I thought of it while watching “The Wire” when Bodie escaped juvenile detention.

5. This involved a clone or robot. Near future?

OK, not terrible. Early on there’s something in “The Orison of Sonmi-451” that reminds me of George Saunders. I think that’s easy to see. The holographic corporate sponsor, the brandnames as everyday language, the dehumanization and commercialization. What vague memories I had were there. I completely forgot about everything outside of Papa Song’s. The jump from “Cavendish” to “Sonmi” is the largest, stylistically, thematically, and in terms of plot connection. It’s a bit thin, even where the narrative connection is revealed much later. That’s not a criticism, really. It’s hard to see why the Cavendish film would be the standout transgressive film in Sonmi-451’s world, but I’ll take it. “Cavendish” and “Sonmi” are the two that are closest to my own writing interests. A number of themes and theories emerge throughout the novel, perhaps like motifs in Frobisher’s sextet could, but the idea of civilization bringing with it the seeds of its own destruction is most forceful here, but I don’t know that it’s any more real than in Ewing’s story, or Luisa’s or even Cavendish’s. And that’s before we even get to Zachry.

6. Far in the future, after the fall of civilization. Don’t remember the details,  but I know I read it at a sprint.

I didn’t note this in the original post, but I was wondering if there was an implication in the center story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” that the world presented there would feed back to the beginning, to a pre-Ewing world, a closing scene in a cycle like of Nietzsche’s eternal return. As I started reading this, I remembered something from earlier in the novel, maybe in Frobisher (I’ve already forgotten — perhaps my brain is just ill-suited to keeping this stuff in) about a more micro-level eternal return, and I wondered if there were cycles within cycles, returns within returns, but there’s nothing overt in the text to support that other than the Pacific itself and the savagery and enslavement of the islands’ people. The connection between “Sloosha’s Crossin'” and “Sonmi” is the most satisfying in the book (although the connecton between Sixsmith and Frobisher is exciting for being so direct and for crossing not  just a genre and temporal line that seems wider than it is, but for crossing some metafictional line that fellow traveling nerds probably sweat about a bit). That we begin and end on ships sailing the Pacific with wounded, betrayed protagonists sure that the worst is behind them, well, the world doesn’t have to literally hit the reset button for those Nietzschean questions to arise again.

So, did it live up? Do I understand why I’ve been calling it one of my favorite books? Absolutely, yes. I admit to being a sometimes overly forgiving reader, but I don’ t think it’s out of line to praise this as one of the best novels of the past couple decades. Even people who don’t like Cloud Atlas have to acknowledge that the formal and stylistic challenges Mitchell set for himself are significant. What blows me away is that he wrote all six well, entertainingly, thoughtfully, and without sacrificing the small-scale for the large. The stories are all good. The characters are complete. In less patient and careful hands, this novel would have been overwhelmed by gimmickry, but because it’s so well executed, what would have been gimmick adds depth and raises the stakes throughout.

I’d forgotten so much, and because it seemed new, I had to wonder if I’d missed connections the first time. I’m starting to think that doesn’t matter, except to my pride. It’s more satisfying to read it as new. I hope I’ve forgotten the other books so thoroughly. It’ll be another micro-eternal return.