Mari's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jan 04, 09

bookshelves: literature-fiction
Recommended to Mari by: Don
Read in December, 2008, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** "The world itself is the will to power - and nothing else! And you yourself are the will to power - and nothing else!" --- Friedrich Nietzsche

"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." -- Timothy Cavendish

"'Does death always make you so verbose?"
Luisa's voice trembles, 'What do you mean always?'"


UPDATEAfter rereading parts of Ghostwritten and going through some of Cloud Atlas again, I finally figured out what's been bothering me. Though I like the tighter writing and recurring themes in CA, I think I like the characters in Ghostwritten better. I still can't figure out why that is precisely. Maybe because they aren't as well developed (for lack of pages, not lack of effort), and that leaves room for the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. I also find the untidy ending of Ghostwritten somewhat more appealing after reading CA. I find now that when I recommend one of the books to someone, I end up telling them to read both.

Before I set out on this incredibly long review and sum-up, I have to say that the first line someone quoted to me from this book, is still my favorite line of the whole thing. Possibly one of my favorite lines in all my reading:

"Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage."

Those who've called this book a collection matryoshka nesting dolls are spot on. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" begins and ends Cloud Atlas, with the story of "Letters From Zedelghem" coming next (and next to last), followed by "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey (remember her from Ghostwritten?) Mystery", then "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (also in Ghostwritten), and "An Orison of Sonmi-451" and finally "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" at the center.

From the ubiquitous Wikipedia page, "Mitchell has said of the book: "All of the [leading] characters except one are reincarnations of the same soul ... identified by a birthmark. ... The "cloud" refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the "atlas", which is the fixed human nature. ... The book's theme is predacity ... individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations."

The consequences of "the will to power" which is brought up repeatedly, usually by the less sympathetic characters. References to the "will to power" are almost always a foreshadowing of terrible repercussions expressed in the next (future) story. Greed is another common denominator. Twice a character in the story states, "Whoever opined 'Money can't buy you happiness' obviously had too much of the stuff."

The character, Adam Ewing, anticipates much about the stories with the following line:

"As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent."

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (circa 1850)
Adam Ewing's Herman Melville-style story expresses the will to power in "the dark arts of colonization." While watching the degradation of native people in the name of ascending civilization's ladder. (The boat in this story, aptly named "The Prophetess" also appears in Luisa Rey's story as an historical attraction in Cape Yerba's marina.)

Letters from Zedelghem (1931)
Ewing's "novel" appears (well, half of his novel, actually) in the next story, when it's found by gifted composer Robert Frobisher who is intent on aiding (and fleecing) one Vyvyan Ayrs as his amanuensis (his musical stenographer as Ayrs has impaired sight.) Frobisher is a one person "means to an end" force who gets taken in by his own over-confidence, while trying to compose his own life's master work, the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" - appropriately written "for overlapping soloists" His story is told in letters to Rufus Sixsmith.

One of my favorite lines from this section, "A half-read book is a half-finished love affair." Well, there's this one too, "Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman."

of course this line pulls in a lot of threads as well, "One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so."

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975)
Rufus Sixsmith is a physicist who's final report on the dangers of a new nuclear power plant are outlined in a paper called the "Sixsmith Report", or, more accurately, "The HYDRA-zero Reactor - An Operational Assessment Model" that reporter, Luisa Rey, is trying to get hold of to expose the potential danger and corporate cover-up. She also manages to get Rufus Sixsmith's letters from Frobisher, which not only points out the comet birthmark which she shares, but alludes to the now obscure "Cloud Atlas Sextet" which she searches out.


The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (early 21st century)
The story of Luisa Rey ends up in the hands of a publisher, Timothy Cavendish, and from there Cavendish relates his story, (With me so far? So is Luisa Rey's story fiction? If it is, then so is Rufus Sixsmith's. Or is it?) Mr. Cavendish falls in with the wrong crowd of debt collectors, relating to a recent story he just published, and is sent against his will to an 'assisted living facility' from which he has a very difficult time extricating himself. (Was anyone else thinking of the BBC show, "Waiting for God"?) As it turns out, Timothy Cavendish's Ordeal gets made into a movie, that the "fabricant" named Somnia-451 in the next story wants to watch as her last request.

The Orision of Somnia-451 (undisclosed future)
Somnia-451, of the next story "The Orison of Somnia-451" is a "fabricant", a cloned worker, in food service for the diner chain "Papa Song." Somnia-451 gains self-awareness and intelligence becomes involved in the revolution, with other abolitionists, of freeing the population of the "fabricant" race. This story, with it's imposed life expectancies and dystopia setting felt like a combination of Logan's Run and Blade Runner. In the words of Somnia-451, "Nothing is as eloquent as nothing."

One of my favorite parts of this piece was when Somnia-451's self-education is discovered. Board man Melphi explains that it would be unlikely that the computer's (called a "sony") true owner would not likely be studying Wittgenstein.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (post-apocalypse)
Somnia's life story, saved on the orison recorder, deifies her in the next story, a post-apocalyptic tale called, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After." The main character, Zachry, recalls his relationship with Meronym, one of a small group of people who still have access to and knowledge of technology. Her group is living on a kind of ark, and are searching for pockets of civilization to colonize (and outrun an impending plague.)

So what was the point of all of it? Back to Adam Ewing and his thoughts, "Why? Because of this: -- one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is distinction."


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