Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part II

By Kim Hollis

October 30, 2012

The world's first combination strip club/Happy Meal provider.

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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.”

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