“The Cloud Atlas turns its pages over.” -- number9dream, written by David Mitchell, published in 2001 (three years before Cloud Atlas)
Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
Some books haunt me.
I’m an avid and voracious reader, consuming books the way some people enjoy beer or pizza. Because I’m consistently in the middle of one or two books, it actually takes a lot for one to stick with me for a while, pondering its ideas, characters, symbolism and morals. In recent years, such novels have included David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, House of Grass by Mark Z. Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (even though I thought I didn’t like it much at the time), Enduring Love by Ian McEwan and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
These are the books where, as I approach the final pages, I feel sadness that the experience is about to end. They are the books that I want to immediately open back to page one and begin reading again. I always feel obligated to move on to the next book on my ever-growing book pile, though, never taking time to revisit those stories that impacted me so thoroughly.
With the theatrical adaptation of Cloud Atlas imminent, I finally found the perfect excuse to revisit one of those deeply impacting novels. I first read Mitchell’s ambitious book pretty shortly after its release, and pondered its ingenious design, its compelling characters and its wide-ranging themes. Much to my delight, a second, more detailed read has revealed even greater depths than I had remembered. I recall when I saw the announcement that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer would adapt the novel to film that I was beyond skeptical. I had no idea how it could work. In fact, I’m not sure it did.
But whether or not the movie is a masterpiece, I’ll always have an abiding affinity for the novel. In this column, I’m going to attempt to unravel some of its puzzles and ideas. Needless to say, there will be spoilers here. If you have not read Cloud Atlas (or, I suppose, seen the film), I recommend that you grab the book, along with a pen and a notebook, and get to work. Otherwise, read on. We have much to discover together.
Cloud Atlas is comprised of six interconnected novellas, essentially stacked together in the style of a Chinese box or Russian Matryoshka dolls. As the reader moves forward, we realize that we are essentially following along with the reading (or movie-viewing) of the narrator of the section that follows (I’ll explain in more detail later). It’s a clever structural trick, to be sure, but the truth of the matter is that Cloud Atlas has a complexity beyond that surface technique. Thus, I’m going to explore each distinct novella. The individual pieces all have their own central ideas, not to mention a set of richly drawn characters and detailed worlds. For someone who has never read the book (and has perhaps only seen trailers of the film), it’s easy to imagine that the novel is concerned only with “reincarnation” and that the stories might be at best tenuously connected. What we discover as we “unlock” each new chapter is that Cloud Atlas offers a culturally relevant examination of society – how it evolves, rises and falls, and how people live within its constraints.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
This journal sets us right in the middle of Adam Ewing’s story, and is a little confusing on first blush. Characters are introduced who feel like they should be familiar, yet if we page back through the story so far, that person has never been mentioned. Eventually, as we realize that we are reading along with Robert Frobisher (in the second novella), we understand that the portion of the journal he discovered in his host’s home actually began on page 30.
Additionally, Ewing’s writing rather famously cuts off right in mid-sentence to end the first novella. I remember my first time reading the book. I was utterly frustrated! Fortunately, Mitchell had a similar experience of feeling cheated while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and was determined that the reader would ultimately come away satisfied. When asked whether the abrupt transition might be too startling, Mitchell answered, “Startling is OK – provided it’s not so startling that the reader dumps the book in the charity shop unfinished.” Fortunately, my initial dismay turned into intrigue.
The story itself feels pretty strongly like homage to Herman Melville, and indeed, when Frobisher is commenting on the journal later, he specifically mentions “Benito Cereno.” It also has shades of Moby Dick and Redburn, and Mitchell also credits Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series for inspiration as well. I was struck by how accurately Mitchell reflects the voice of that literary period – he even evokes the experience of the sublime, an important element of symbolism that runs through not only Melville’s work but also other novels and poetry of the 19th century.
“You can’t write about the 19th century and the sea without Melville’s long shadow falling across your laptop,” notes Mitchell. He would employ a similar style when he later crafted his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, incidentally, briefly features a cameo from one of the characters of Adam Ewing’s story.
Adam Ewing is unimpeachable, which initially makes me suspicious of him (a misgiving later echoed somewhat by Frobisher). He is a godly man, devoted to his wife and family, bound to do his best for his employer. Even though he is fearful and uncomfortable about it (he’s a rule-follower, after all), he is the reason Autua finds salvation aboard The Prophetess.
Honestly, Ewing may actually be the least interesting character in the book, but his diary does an outstanding job of making all of the various people who surround him far more fascinating by comparison. Perhaps it’s because Ewing is so dedicated to doing right that he is dull. If he weren’t so dull, he also wouldn’t be so gullible.
It’s also possible that Ewing isn’t quite so virtuous as he claims he is. It seems like he protests too much. I do like the idea that this narrator is unreliable, because it sets the stage for future narrators to stretch the truth themselves, leaving the reader to puzzle out what is “genuine.”
The first part of this story is tricky, because indeed there is any number of villainous-seeming characters sprinkled through Ewing’s tale. First off, we have the overriding Maori, natives of the Chatham Islands who enslave the peace-loving Moriori (though truly, can they be villains if they are acting according to their societal mores?). Ewing also views the captain of The Prophetess in a less-than-flattering light; however, this viewpoint might be more a product of his fear of the man than any real character flaw. The first mate, Boerhaave, is a bad man. Corruption is his aim and the harm that he causes is of little concern to him. But all of these pale before the story’s true villain – Dr. Henry Goose, whose very name may portend quackery.
Although Ewing is taken in by Goose’s charms, the doctor (?) gives us a clue to his true nature on the very first page of the book. He talks about how in days gone by, “the strong engorged themselves on the weak.” Goose is talking about archeological finds, but as he becomes more and more involved in Ewing’s day-to-day life, we learn more about his inclinations and beliefs. When the two men are reciting bible verses in church, Ewing chooses one that celebrates the fact that his ship survived a perilous storm. Goose chooses Psalm the Eighth, which reads, “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.” Goose is a big believer in supremacy, whether it is man versus animal, stronger tribe versus weaker tribe, or superior man (himself) versus victim (Ewing). Frobisher later sees through him while reading the journal, and his hunches prove to be correct (scoundrels recognize their own, after all).
While anyone who has seen the trailer for Cloud Atlas can ascertain that a major theme is lives being interconnected and repeated over and over again in different ways, Adam Ewing’s Pacific Journal also establishes the other significant idea that will carry from chapter to chapter throughout the novel. As elucidated through Dr. Goose, the idea that the powerful will dominate the weak is strongly evoked here. In the second portion of Ewing’s diary, Goose very specifically gives voice to his beliefs, not to mention a strong hint of his true personality, when he says, “The weak are the meat the strong do eat.”
Along with Goose’s beliefs, the journal also elucidates the conflict between the peaceful Moriori and the more combative Maori who live on the island. The Maori subjugate the Moriori, beating and killing any slaves who are disobedient or in any way rebellious. The Moriori, on the other hand, subscribe to the “turn the other cheek” philosophy.
The tribe is described thus: “Since time immemorial, the Moriori’s priestly caste dictated that whoesoever spilt a man’s blood killed his own mana – his honor, his worth, his standing, and his soul. No Moriori would shelter, feed, converse with or even see the persona non grata. If the ostracized murderer survived his first winter, the desperation of solitude usually drove him to a blowhole on Cape Young, where he took his life.”
Indeed, this prevailing theme of predation plays heavily into every single subsection of the novel, but Mitchell is also concerned with the long-lasting damage that occurs as a result of such supremacist behavior. In an interview with the Paris Review, the author noted, “What made us successful in Darwinian terms – our skill at manipulating our environment – now threatens to wipe us out as a species. This is a sentiment expressed very well by Agent Smith in The Matrix when he compares unthinking humans to viruses. He’s just trying to do this very worthwhile job of keeping these self-spawning life forms – us – under control, some semblance of control.”
Just as within the Matrix, those who are subjugated will eventually find a way to rise up, to protest their enslavement. In The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, Autua escapes his Maori masters to become free and eventually become one of the true heroes of the book – and he remains consistently true to his pacifist beliefs, never wavering. Adam, too, rises above those who would attempt to corrupt him, though not without difficulty and cost.
In the end, it all comes down to belief. “Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” In Adam’s case, it’s a belief in God, but he also has faith that through his own actions, he can effect real, valuable change in the world. Inspired by Autua, a self-freed slave, Ewing becomes an abolitionist. He feels strongly that one must fight against the “natural” order of things espoused by the likes of Goose, Reverend Horrox, and the leaders of the ship. He describes his revelation by saying, “…one fine day, a purely predatory world shallconsume itself… In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”
He goes on to clarify the importance of conviction:
“If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by the single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.”
Ultimately, Adam reinforces the prevailing themes, belief that supremacy can be defeated and humanity’s interconnectivity, by replying to his father-in-law’s skeptical comment, “Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
“Yet what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” Adam answers.
Letters from Zedelghem
“Letters from Zedelghem” is an epistolary reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh. Whereas Adam Ewing’s section of the book is written in diary form, the second section is composed of letters written by Robert Frobisher to his Cambridge classmate/friend/lover Rufus Sixsmith.
Not only is this particular novella full of humor, it’s also very musically inclined. Frobisher is a composer with a stunningly comprehensive knowledge of the talented men who came before him. Music is metaphor for almost everything Frobisher discusses in his letters; his chosen profession consumes him.
It was while reading this portion of Cloud Atlas that I began to wonder if Mitchell might be writing a book… about writing a book. There are certainly signals that this is a possibility. Early in Frobisher’s letters, he mentions imagining the “Sea Symphony,” created by someone he refers to as R.V.W. These initials refer to British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the text of the work comes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” in particular the sections “Song of the Exposition,” “On the Beach at Night Alone,” “After the Sea-Ship” and “A Passage to India.” Ideas in these poems include an ars poetica (a poem about the creative process), the notion that everything is connected, departing a boat (we leave Adam’s boat and move to Frobisher’s Belgium setting) and finally, the question “What is the present after all but a growth out of the past?” Some digging is required, but given the relative obscurity of R.V.W., I have to imagine Mitchell’s intentions are hiding in plain sight.
Of particular note with regard to this novella’s place within the overall book, Frobisher actually finds Adam Ewing’s journal, reading it, critiquing it, and realizing that the “doctor” is duping the hero. At this point, we have opened the Russian nesting dolls and pulled out the second one. If we at any point doubt that this was Mitchell’s idea, he reinforces it by naming one of Vyvyan Ayrs’ symphonies “Matryoshka Doll Variations.” Additionally, Frobisher’s own composition, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” has the same design as Cloud Atlas the novel. Robert describes it thus: “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued in order.” The book is similarly structured, with each story interrupting the previous one, all the way to the sixth story. Then we go backwards until we are back to the beginning.
Perhaps the most likable character in the book, Robert Frobisher is hilarious and eloquent. What makes him particularly intriguing is the fact that he is a flawed character, yet his charisma draws people to him (including the reader).
In stark contrast to Ewing’s piousness, Frobisher is quite a rogue. Within the first few pages of our meeting him, he has had a frisky encounter with a steward. He’s highly critical of all who he comes into contact with (he calls the aforementioned steward “spud-faced”), not to mention a thief (stealing books for profit from the man who offers him a position as an amanuensis in his home). Frobisher makes a cuckold of Ayrs, sleeping with the man’s wife and then falls in love with Eva, daughter of Ayrs and Jocasta Crommelynck.
I mentioned Frobisher’s musical knowledge and it is indeed prolific. He uses “gnossiennesque” (derived from a term to describe certain piano compositions by Erik Satie) as an adjective at one point and describes his impromptu job interview with Ayrs by saying, “Our overture proceeded more or less like this.” He has comprehensive knowledge of baroque guitar suites, Bach motets, dodecaphonists, Balakirev juvenilia, and Sir Edward Elgar (the composer of Pomp and Circumstance). When Elgar pays Ayrs a visit, Frobisher describes the sounds of their napping: “Made a musical notation of their snores. Elgar is to be played by a bass tuba, Ayrs a bassoon.”
Frobisher’s exceptional talent ultimately leads to the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that gives Mitchell’s novel its title. Although he is seemingly not remembered in the same way as Ayrs or even Elgar, his rare creation resonates.
Ultimately, Robert Frobisher kills himself, which I find troublesome and perhaps not consistent with the development of his character. Suicide recurs over and over again throughout the novel, generally as an act of release by someone who is being subjugated by a more powerful figure. I suppose that’s somewhat true for Frobisher, though it takes a deep read to understand the darkness of his relationship with Ayrs and the reasons why he might want to find some way of establishing himself as independent. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to believe that he’d commit suicide over Eva’s rejection of him, so I reject that particular notion altogether.
Of all of the novellas in Cloud Atlas, “Letters from Zedelghem” is the perhaps the one with the least well-defined villain(s). Depending upon your viewpoint, you might see Frobisher as the bad guy. He’s certainly a thief and a con artist, and he sleeps with his employer’s wife with absolutely no guilt at all. I do feel as though Ayrs and his wife are the true villains, though. Ayrs takes advantage of Frobisher’s talent, stealing the younger man’s creations and rationalizes incorporating them into his own musical compositions. Clearly, Frobisher could never have come up with such ideas on his own, so Ayrs can easily take credit. Robert is tormented by the idea that his employer is plundering his talent.
Meanwhile, it is implied that Jocasta “collects” musicians. In the past, it seems, she had an affair with Claude Debussy, and Ayrs eventually reveals to Frobisher that he knows all about her affairs, and that she conducts them with the utmost discretion. Robert’s relationship with Jocasta is fine until she realizes that he has become attracted to her daughter; then, she seems to work behind the scenes to undermine the young man both with her daughter and with her husband.
Between the two of them, Vyvyan and Jocasta drain Frobisher of his ideas, his self-confidence, his determination and eventually, his will to live.
Themes and Ideas
Eternal Recurrence and Interconnectivity - The structure and overarching theme of the book are echoed in Ayrs’ obsession with the idea of “Eternal Recurrence,” which comes from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This concept states that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar number of times across infinite time or space.
Although Frobisher reads Ewing’s story and sneers at his forbear for being taken in so easily by Dr. Goose, the same thing is happening to Frobisher, who is being robbed in an entirely different way by Ayrs. The elder musician has a vision of the future, too – one that we will see later in the book. “’I dreamt of…a nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out. I’d been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music in the café was’ – he wagged an exhausted finger at the MS – ‘this.’”
Because Frobisher and Ayrs are musical composers, this theme naturally emerges throughout the course of the novella. “Plainly, music is oxygen for us both,” Frobisher says, and it gets to the fact that without music, without the drive to create, life isn’t even worth living. Frobisher reinforces this notion when he notes, “Composers are merely 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.”
More than just exploring creation through music, Mitchell examines the act of writing itself. When Frobisher is reading the Adam Ewing journal, he’s quite critical of it. He says that there is “something shifty about the journal’s authenticity,” which may show some creeping doubt and insecurity on behalf of Mitchell himself. Frobisher also assesses Ewing’s journal as seeming “too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true – but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” Mitchell seems to be asking why we should tell stories at all, a notion that he will question further in a different chapter.
This theme returns over and over again, in every portion of Cloud Atlas. While it’s not immediately clear, we come to realize that Ayrs is preying on Frobisher, vampirishly sucking his assistant’s creative life-blood in an effort to craft Todtenvogel, a musical work that will endure through time. “My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, ‘Look, there is Vyvyan Ayrs!’”
The theme is further reinforced in a rather lovely six-page section wherein Frobisher tries to visit the grave of his brother, who is believed to have died in the area during the First World War. Our protagonist has an extended discussion about war with his driver for the day, a man named Dhondt, who philopsophically reflects, “What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature.”
To Frobisher and Dhondt, war is eternal, a means for the strong to intimidate weaker portions of humanity until eventually, our species is eliminated altogether. “Our will to power, our science, and those [very] faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Home sapiens before this century is out! …What a symphonic crescendo that’ll be, eh?
Frobisher’s way of rising above it all is to leave Ayrs behind, complete his own masterpiece (the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”), and because he has become a “spent firework,” remove himself from the world. For he knows, to put it in terms Battlestar Galactica fans will understand, “All this has happened before, and will happen again.”
Coming in Part Two: “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”