Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part II
By Kim Hollis
October 30, 2012
As its title would indicate, this novella is a thriller/mystery novel of the type that might have been released during the 1970s or 1980s. It reminds me of the movie The China Syndrome as much as anything, but that might just be because a similar catastrophe could occur if Luisa Rey fails to discover the truth.
Upon starting this section of the story, we are immediately connected to Frobisher’s letters, because the first character we meet is the recipient of that correspondence, Rufus Sixsmith. Eventually, those letters pass into the possession of Luisa, who reads them and feels a connection to Frobisher – one that we’ll discuss further as we move into themes and ideas.
Perhaps the most straightforward of the novellas in Cloud Atlas, the book is entirely reflective of the voice of the procedural. Its titular detective (well, reporter) bucks all the rules in an effort to seek out the truth. There is a shadowy villain. There are double- and triple-crosses, as well as a face turn or two. With the “Luisa Rey Mystery,” we come to see how easily Mitchell is able to shed his skin, moving with ease from one genre to the next.
Luisa Rey may be the most uncomplicated hero(ine) in the entire novel. She is the very epitome of justice, fighting for the little guy as she works for a somewhat disreputable news organization but seeks truth nonetheless. She’s virtually flawless, lacking the character flaws exhibited by Frobisher or even Ewing. Luisa is indeed the very prototype of a mystery novel hero, and there may be good reason for that, as I suspect Mitchell wants us to question which characters are “real” and which ones exist only in books, film or other elements of pop culture.
Once again, it’s a little complicated determining who the true antagonist is in this portion of the book. In fact, we have varying degrees of bad guys, some who are fairly mild (or change their position, deciding to help Luisa in her investigation) to one who is incredibly sinister. I believe that the complexity in Mitchell’s villainous characters throughout Cloud Atlas stems from his notion that “The ethical distance from good to evil can be crossed creepingly, by a long series of small steps. As a human being, I believe this series of steps must be understood. As a parasite novelist, I find this series of steps fascinating, rich, and usable in fiction. One of literature’s strengths is that it can go back far enough and find the reasons behind the depravity.”
Rather than truly progress the characters in the “Luisa Rey” mystery through a series of events that bring them to that “depravity,” the story has different characters who represent the varying degrees of evil. When we begin the story, Sixsmith has emerged from the dark side and decides to do what he can to stop the HYDRA project from moving forward because of the potential for true catastrophe and tragedy. The same happens with Isaac Sachs and Joe Napier (who feels responsible for Luisa because he knew her father once, a long time ago). Fay Li is a puppet of the corporation, working unflinchingly against Luisa’s interests. Fay’s intentions are self-centered, but she’s also expendable, as is Seaboard Corporation head Alberto Grimaldi. Lloyd Hooks, the US Energy guru, sits atop the ladder of wrong-doers, willing to harm his country in order to improve his own position.
Darkest of all, though, is Bill Smoke, whose name may too obviously portend his malevolence. Loyal to no one but himself, he is carrying out the dirty work for anyone who sits atop the Seaboard Corporation, but it’s not for any monetary or social improvement. He hurts people because he enjoys it. “Anonymous, faceless homicides lack the thrill of human contact,” he comments, preferring instead to see his victims suffer. In a different mystery, he’d be our serial killer, taking pleasure in his work and mocking his pursuers. In the world of Cloud Atlas, he is the scariest character of all.
Themes and Ideas
Eternal Recurrence and Interconnectivity
Luisa Rey is one of the ultimate characters to represent this idea in Cloud Atlas. Not only does she have the same birthmark as Robert Frobisher, but she also recognizes his “Cloud Atlas Sextet” before she is even told what it is. Rufus Sixsmith, Frobisher’s lover, tells her, “I feel I’ve known you for years, not 90 minutes.” Luisa tells herself that “coincidences happen all the time,” but readers know better. Her brief association with Sixsmith is meant to be.
Readers of David Mitchell’s fiction have met Luisa Rey before, too. In his first novel, Ghostwritten, Luisa is a caller to the memorable Bat Segundo radio show – some 25 years after the events of “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.”
The strong trample the weak consistently and with ferocity in this portion of the novel. Those who would oppose Seaboard Corporation in the completion of their hazardous HYDRA project are disposed of like refuse. Sixsmith is murdered (though his death is arranged to look like suicide, an certain parallel to his friend Frobisher’s end). Eventually, Isaac Sachs and Alberto Grimaldi are killed as well, all to eliminate threats to the Corporation (I’m using a capital “C” on purpose here). Fay Li and her underlings are disposed of, Joe Napier is “allowed” to retire, and Luisa is repeatedly targeted, first through a car accident, then by a mysterious corporation buying her magazine, and finally by Smoke using any means necessary to erase her from existence.
This theme directly echoes the other novellas, forwarding the notion that it is human nature for the powerful to subjugate those they perceive as frail. “What drives some to accrue power where the majority of their compatriots lose, mishandle or eschew power? …The only answer can be ‘There is no why.’ This is our nature. ‘Who’ and ‘what’ run deeper than ‘why.’”
On a second reading of the novel, this theme becomes more prevalent and dominant. Perhaps it’s because of the political climate in which we live today. It’s easy to imagine corporations running amok, buying political candidates and ultimately becoming the true world leaders. An all-too-relevant quote sums it up well: “The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers. They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media – and not just The Washington Post - is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”
At least Mitchell is hopeful, because so far, in all three novellas, the powerful have not prevailed (or at the very least, their control is eroding, with the protagonist finding some way to escape being manipulated).
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Although the title of this novella might put you in mind of an Edgar Allan Poe tale of horror, this section subverts expectations somewhat by instead being a humorous memoir from an aging book publisher. This portion of the novel brings us to present day, where consumers lap up sensationalism and elderly persons are treated as something to be hidden away.
What’s particularly amusing about Cavendish’s narrative is that he’s highly critical of other writers even as he’s both making his living from their work and trying to complete his own book. Eventually, Timothy ends up committed against his will to a nursing home, and the story becomes a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type study of railing against the institution.
With regard to the Russian nesting doll structure, the form continues to move forward in Cavendish’s section as he is sent the manuscript of “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” from a hopeful writer named Hilary V. Hush. Cavendish is critical of the story, calling it “lousy and lousier” and comments about being annoyed by the intimations on reincarnation. We keep opening the dolls and finding something new.
Naturally, our hero for this section of the book is Timothy, or Timbo as he occasionally calls himself. It’s rare to find elderly heroes in any form of storytelling – there’s a reason Pixar was quite daring when they decided to make a movie with an old man named Carl Fredrickson as its centerpiece – but Tim is richly drawn, and his story makes for compelling reading even though it’s told in a somewhat mundane style.
Timbo, somewhat like Frobisher, is a bit of a con artist. Taking advantage of a client who has been sent to prison, Tim essentially spends all of the money earned from sales of the gentleman’s book. When this client’s crime syndicate nephews come to extort some proceeds, Timothy recognizes that he is in danger and flees. But even though he’s irascible and has an overinflated sense of self, Cavendish is funny and has a way with words. He’s kind of irresistible, really.
Just as was the case with the Luisa Rey story, the antagonists in Timothy Cavendish’s story are all over the spectrum. Dermot “Duster” Higgins is a thug, though his nephews are the real threat to Timbo rather than Duster himself (though it’s important to qualify that Tim is responsible for his own situation here).
Tim’s brother Denholme is a slight degree higher on the villain chart, sending him to Aurora House to be involuntarily confined. Then, once Cavendish has arrived at Aurora House, he must contend with Nurse Noakes, who clearly is meant to be inspired by Nurse Ratched from the aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Timothy even mentions the film in passing).
The groundskeeper of the nursing home, Mr. Withers, is brutish and cruel. Several residents of the nursing home are unhappy and despondent over their imprisonment and treatment, though some have gone through a Stockholm Syndrome-like acceptance phase, doing whatever they must to appease the tyrannical staff and live out their final days peacefully. It’s a unique tale of oppression that highlights how society, too, is a villain when it comes to treatment of our senior citizens.
Themes and Ideas
Reading and Writing
Each of Mitchell’s primary characters offers some form of literary critique, but it’s never more evident than it is with Timothy Cavendish. As a book editor/publisher, he’s conditioned to look for both flaws and strengths.
Some of Cavendish’s commentary comes off as Mitchell potentially being critical of his own work-in-progress. “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory,” Cavendish says. While looking over the Luisa Rey manuscript, he also notes, “It would be a better book if Hilary V. Hush weren’t so artsily-fartsily Clever. She had written it in neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay.” That’s a neat bit of cynicism about the intentions of an author, to be sure.
Yet, Cavendish also extols the virtues of reading. “Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw,” he comments. To his mind, literary knowledge is even useful for impressing the opposite sex: “She was widely read enough to appreciate my literary wit but not so widely read that she knew my sources. I like that in a woman.”
Overall, this portion of the book offers a very self-conscious observation on the state of literature in general as well as a clear concern about whether Mitchell’s own fiction is too reliant on conceits and devices. I mentioned early on that I felt like the author is working through his own issues with writing within the pages of this book, and the Cavendish novella lends credence to that notion.
With the only older protagonist in the book, Timothy Cavendish gives Mitchell the opportunity to ponder the feelings and emotions that come with growing old. “Oh, aging is ruddy unbearable!” says Timbo. “The I’s we were yearn to breathe the world’s air again, but can they ever break out from these calcified cocoons? Oh, can they hell.”
Behind the comedy of Cavendish’s memoir is a note of wistfulness as he considers his place in society. “We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly,” he notes. Cavendish’s friend Ernie puts things a bit more succinctly: “Us elderly are the modern lepers.”
Even as Cavendish worries himself with growing old, he’s still having the grandest adventure of his life. I made an analogy to Up’s Carl Fredrickson earlier, and there is really a nice parallel between the two fictional characters. Both are experiencing sadness over their lost youth, but come to recognize that aging is really what you make of it.
Although he shrugs off its significance, Cavendish has a likely comet-shaped birthmark in the same spot as both Luisa and Frobisher. He scoffs at the possibility of reincarnation as he’s reading Luisa’s story, and also mentions a song he hears on the radio with similar distaste for the idea: “A howling singer on the radio strummed a song about how everything that dies someday comes back. (Heaven forfend – remember the Monkey’s Paw!)”
Timothy does come around to a different way of thinking by the end of his story, though. Believing himself to have been a fool, he says, “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.” When he and his friends are making their escape from Aurora House, he remarks, “I flung away the sensation of having lived through this very moment many times before.”
Additionally, like Luisa Rey, Cavendish is another character who makes an appearance in Mitchell’s debut novel Ghostwritten. So despite the fact that he initially scoffs at the possibility, he’s one of the ultimate characters to embody the notion.
The power struggle manifests itself in a couple of different ways in Cavendish’s story. We first see Dermot “Duster” Hoggins take charge of his own destiny rather than simply accept the negative reviews and personal taunts of a book critic by throwing the man off a building. Although he winds up in jail, Duster prevails over the man whose erudition had heretofore kept his book from selling.
Of course, the primary story centers on Cavendish’s escape first from Dermot’s family, but then more importantly from the prison-like atmosphere of Aurora House. Nurse Noakes is Timothy’s prison warden, with assistance from the groundskeeper and even some of the residents of the nursing home.
Cavendish is an amusing character in large part because of his social critique, and he lends the notion of predation a bit of a different slant. Timothy (as well as Dermot, also within this story) has disdain for those who attempt to curtail him, quoting Solzhenitsyn as he says, “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”
Timothy and his friends are eventually able to rise up and escape their prison thanks to a combination of cunning and luck. It’s by far the most humorous of all the uprisings we see in the novel, but it’s a David vs. Goliath-style victory nonetheless.
In Part 3, I’ll look at “The Orison of Sonmi~451,” “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and share some final thoughts