Friday, February 25, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Edition: Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Cloud Atlas was published in 2004 in Britain and the United States. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which is awarded annually to the best original full-length novel written in English by anyone in the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe.

Cloud Atlas contains six different stories, each connected intertextually via a surviving document or other verbal artifact that gets passed on. Five of the stories are broken in half; the book is structured like a Russian matryoshka doll, where the oldest story occupies the outer layer (the beginning and ending of the book), the next oldest story occupies the layer inside this outer layer, and so forth until the sixth story, which is the intact "core" of the doll. The doll metaphor is conceived by one of the characters, Robert Frobisher, in the second oldest story. The stories are summarized below:

"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" - For a book that stresses intertextuality, this first story is (self-consciously) a rip-off of Melville's Benito Cereno. A clueless American notary from San Francisco during the gold-rush era is shipwrecked and awaiting the repairs of the ship in the Chatham Islands. There, he befriends a doctor named Henry Goose (who later poisons Adam on the pretense that he is administering medicine to him in order to take his money--like Captain Delaney, Adam has no idea, but the readers are meant to at least suspect that something was up). While ashore, Adam learns about the enslavement of the Moriori tribe via the warlike Maori, and has the harrowing experience of falling into a crater, where he observes dendroglyphs. He thinks he might have also seen a human heart in the crater. In the second part of the diary, Henry and Adam are taken along with the irreverent, commercially-minded Captain to see if they might be of help in finding out if they might be able to make some money off of the Raiatea missionaries. When they arrive ashore, it turns out that the mission is extremely corrupt: for example, they have "smoking schools" which promote addiction in order to get natives to be less lazy (since they have to work to support their addictions). The preacher, Horrox, believes in what he terms the "ladder of civilization," a warped-Darwinianism which believes in the extermination of the least fit. Back on the Prophetess, Adam has a number of other adventures: he helps a Moriori stowaway to get a job aboard the ship, he witnesses the suicide of Rafael, a young New Zealander who has been repeatedly raped by Dutch sailors on board. Adam finally realizes that Henry has been poisoning him, and is saved by the Moriori stowaway. He recovers in Hawaii, and his diary ends with his pledge to the abolitionist cause back in America.

"Letters from Zedelghem": Robert Frobisher, a privileged Cambridge dropout and musician in the 1930s, writes to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, about a plan to apprentice himself to a Belgium musician named Ayrs. He succeeds, and indeed even begins an affair with the musician's wife, Jocasta. While at Zedelghem, Frobisher discovers Ewing's manuscript and reads it with relish. In the second section, Frobisher no longer relishes his work for Ayrs because Ayrs has been plagiarizing his work. It turns out that Ayrs also knows about Jocasta's affairs, and threatens him with blackmail so that Frobished can't leave. Frobisher leavaes anyways, but as he is leaving, he falls in love with Eva, Ayr's daughter. He thinks that she returns the affection, but he is mistaken. While leaving town, Frobisher gets into a fight with Eva's fiance. Eva's fiance is well-connected, and Frobisher is informed by a policeman he has befriended that he would be hunted down if he didn't leave immediately. In the meantime, Frobisher has written a great work called the Cloud Atlas Sestet. In a final letter, he tells Sixsmith that he will commit suicide. He leaves Sixsmith with his Cloud Atlas Sestet with directions to publish it, and also Ewing's journal.

"Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery": This is the first account in 3rd person narration, we find out later that it is a novel written by someone named Hilary V. Hush. Luisa Rey, a young reporter in Buenas Yerbas, CA gets stuck in an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith, who is now in his sixties. They get into a conversation, and the two of them connect. It is suggested that Luisa might be Frobisher reincarnated, since she shares the same comet-shaped birthmark with him (she finds out about his birthmark through receiving Frobisher's letters after Rufus's death). Rufus hints to Luisa that he has an important story for her but he doesn't get to tell her about it because the elevator has begun to work again. After some digging around, Luisa finds out that Rufus has written a report about the new power plant at Swannekke Island, which bore the high risk of leaking radiation all over California, and that the company which built the plant, Seaboard, was silencing scientists by coercive measures. Luisa's fellow journalists at her tabloid-esque newspaper scott at her investigative journalism. At Swannekke, Luisa meets a PR officer for Seaboard named Fay Li, whom she doesn't know if she can trust. Meanwhile, Sixsmith is killed by a hitman, Bill Smokes, as he is trying to get out of town. Another scientist, Isaac Sachs, has given Luisa Sixsmith's report, but as Luisa is driving off with it, Smokes runs her off a bridge.
In the second half we learn that Luisa has survived, but that the report was in the ocean. Isaac's plane crashes; oddly, the CEO of Seaboard was also on board. It turns out that Lloyd Hooks, the federal power commissioner, is behind the whole conspiracy, and he becomes CEO. Napier, a security official whose life has been saved by Luisa's journalist father while they were both serving as policemen, tries to protect Luisa, and saves her life in the following scenario: Luisa goes to a bank safe that Sixsmith has directed her to, but when she gets there, Fay Li is there first with some goons--apparently she had sold out Seaboard as well and her new clients will pay big money to have the report. Fay reaches for the report, but it is connected to a bomb (planted by Smokes); Luisa escapes with Napier. Napier takes Luisa to Megan Sixsmith, Rufus's niece, and together they go to a yacht (which is harbored behind the Prophetess) to retrieve another copy of the report. Smokes gets there too, and he shoot Napier, but Napier is able to shoot him back before dying. Everything ends up being revealed, and Lloyd Hooks disappears.  

"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish": Dermot Hoggins writes a book which becomes a best-seller after he throws a critic off of his balcony during an awards banquet. Cavendish, his editor, claims he has the rights the book's royalties after it becomes big; Hoggins retalieates by sending his brothers to get money out of him. Cavendish asks his own brother for money, but his brother refuses, instead sending him off to stay at a place called Aurora House for safety. It turns out that Aurora House is not a hotel as Cavendish expects, but a nursing home. At the nursing home, Cavendish tells of how he is subjected to a number of coercive measures. He suffers a stroke (potentially medicinally induced, Cavendish's friends at the nursing home suggest). At the nursing home, he reads the account of Luisa Rey and dreams of making it a bestseller. Eventually, Cavendish and his friends Ernie and Veronica plan to escape the home: they are successful, having stolen a younger man's car by tricking him into visiting his aging mother. Back in London, Cavendish plans to sell Dermot's book as a screenplay, and asks the author of the Luisa Rey book for the second half.

"The Orison of Sonmi-451": This story catapults us into the future, where clones (called fabricants) in what used to be Korea act as servers to pureblood "consumers" under a totalitarian regime. Sonmi-451 is a fabricant interviewed by a historian (called an Archivist). She gives her story to create an "orison" which is a kind of holographic memory/record (later possessed by Meronym in the final story). As part of an experiment, Sonmi becomes the first stable "ascendant" (fabricant who can think critically, essentially, and who therefore experiences the "hunger" of humans). When a lazy post-grad nearly kills her, she is rescued by a professor and one Hae Joo Im. These people are revealed later to be Union members, an organization who wants to foment a rebellion against the Unanimity (who has set up the totalitarian regime). Hae Joo has taken Sonmi to view a "disney" (or movie) called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Before they can finish, captors are outside. In the second half, Sonmi and Hae Joo run away. She gets a face transformation so she won't be recognized as a fabricant. Hae Joo takes her to visit the Golden Ark in Hawaii, where Papa Song (the God that the fabricants are forced to believe in) supposedly grants "Xultation" to the fabricants who have won twelve stars for their lifetime of work. What Sonmi finds out is that this is where fabricants are actually slaughtered, and then recycled as food for consumers and fabricants. Horrified, Sonmi, encouraged by Hae Joo, takes up a revolutionary cause and writes a "declaration." At the end of the interview, it turns out the entire revolution (and Union) had been scripted, in order that the Unanimity could manufacture an enemy, which in the end it would defeat. Nevertheless, Sonmi's testimony and declaration survives...

"Sloosha's Crossin' an Ev'rythin' after": This story is set in a post-apocalpytic Hawaii, and is told in the first person by someone named Zachary Bailey, a member of a tribe known as the "valleymen." The valleymen believe in Sonmi as their goddess, and "Old Georgie" as the devil. At nine years of age, at Sloosha's crossing, Zachary accidentally leads the evil Kona tribe to his father and brother: his brother is enslaved, and his father killed. Though guilty, Zachary doesn't own up to this for a while. One day, a Prescient (Prescients were supposedly the most civilized tribes left over from "the Old 'Uns") named Meronym arrives on a ship and asks to live with them, ostensibly to study their habits. The Bailey's take her in, and Zachary is suspicious of her at first. He eventually learns to trust her after she saves his sister's life and also accompanies her up to a dangerous mountain. There, he and Meronym witness some well-preserved ruins of the old civilization including an astronomical observatory and a generator. Meronym also tells Zachary (who had previously rifled through Meronym's stuff and discovered the orison of Sonmi) that Sonmi was a historical person and that the Prescients didn't believe she was a god. Also during the time with Meronym up on the mountain, Zachary is tempted by Old Georgie to kill Meronym because Old Georgie says that the rest of his family will die otherwise. Sonmi deflects his arrow. Upon their return from the mountain, the Valleymen are ambushed and slaughtered by the Kona at Honakaa, where they are participating in bartering. Zachary's family indeed disappears, but he is saved by Meronym. Meronym needs to be taken to a place called Ikat's Finger, where she will be taken away by Prescient kayaks. Zachary accompanies her, and learns more of the truth: that a plague had hit the Prescient civilization, and that they had sent out scouts to see if there were other lands on which they could build their civilization. Zachary has to choose whether to go with Meronym on the kayaks, or to stay on Big I (the name of his island). He goes with Meronym. The narrative closes with Zachary's son who says he believes that some of his father's story must be true, but some of it must be made up.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has repeatedly been called "postmodern" because of its experimental form, awareness of textual multiplicity, global narratives, and so forth. Mitchell himself acknowledges his work's entanglement within and awareness of textual systems, providing interviewers with sources for each of his six sections in a Washington Post interview. Yet, postmodernism, unlike modernism, stays at the level of representation. As Fredric Jameson says, modernism has "residual zones of 'nature' or 'being.'" In this sense, Jameson goes on to point out, postmodernism's remove from discovering "nature" or "being" actually makes it more human in that it stays at the level of the signs and systems of culture, realms which are discoverable and known because we made these realms. While Mitchell's novel has the symptoms of the postmodern insofar as its meta-awareness of form and representation, its content (and in particular, its sense of history) tends to resist the idea that all that can be talked about is form.

In the same interview that I just mentioned above, Mitchell responds that Cloud Atlas is different from his other books because "It has more of a conscience." Mitchell continues, "I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age." The comment might easily be dismissed in a "oh-it's-sweet-now-that-he's-a-parent" but I think that there's more to it when considering the book's sense of history. The birthmark thing (where different characters share the same comet-shaped birthmark) is a bit gimmicky (though, Mitchell knowingly comments on this via Luisa Rey, who dismisses her own credulity when she feels alarmed about it), but does it not suggest a sense of "being" beyond the signs and systems of representation? Reincarnation is deeply suggested by the book, and in that sense, it reaches for a "nature" which operates unknowingly and mysteriously outside of typically human ways of knowing. The continuity and resilience which reincarnation suggests resounds with Mitchell's comment about needing the world to last; Cloud Atlas suggests in "Sloosha's Crossing" that even if we dissolve the world with our desire for more and more, the world will regenerate itself--the story not only ends with Zachary going off with Meronym out of a will to continue living, it ends with Zachary's son, who is the living proof that there is in fact continuity. This sense that human life will continue even if we continue to mess up is kind of hopeful. Of course, that's not to say that we can do whatever we want: the "conscience" of Mitchell's book is really the same one offered by Orwell or Huxley (both books that Sonmi reads on her sony device): the human hunger and competition to acquire more and more (whether of power and/or material wealth) is wrong. And again, like in the works of Orwell and Huxley, an individual's power is sufficient to the task of speaking back to those who seek to take all, whether s/he is a(n) fervent abolitionist, impassioned artist, freelance journalist, ascended clone, or post-apocalyptic tribesman.

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