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