Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part II
By Kim Hollis
October 30, 2012
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.