Cloud Atlas, Part I

August 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ever since the trailer for Cloud Atlas emerged on YouTube a whole year ago (seriously, Time, where do you go?), I have been somewhat obsessed. I discovered the advert back in October and watched it, re-watched it, watched it again, and again ad infinitum. It was one of several things that helped me through my dissertation, giving me some distance from it and providing time to think of other things beyond Brontë Land. I promised myself that I would not see the film until I had read the book. This is a recurring theme in my literary life of late. I keep watching adaptations of novels and then, never actually reading the original text. North and South, for example. Thankfully, that’s on one of my module reading lists for this coming year in Durham, so there is no excuse not to read it. Anyway, back to Cloud Atlas. Miraculously, I have now read it. Having already read Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, his debut novel (and what a debut!), I knew what to expect: an impeccable ability to be another character. Reading his novels is like reading in the voice of the narrator, and there are plenty of those. Cloud Atlas shares a similarity with Ghostwritten in that both weave together several characters’ seemingly separate lives, lacing them together until they are all connected; their lives cannot be un-knitted together. Cloud Atlas is, to quote Mitchell, structured like a Russian doll. Its stories are encased within one another. It begins in the ninteenth century with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, who is cut off mid-sentence as we slide to the next section, Letters from Zedelghem, set in 1931. Once more, we only get halfway through this story before the next one begins. At the centre of the novel is effectively its conclusion in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, from which the previous sections all start up from where they left off until we end where we began with Adam Ewing. I know I keep harping on about my Contemporary British Fiction module, but it is truly one of the few modules that has kept me thinking, even after the final tutorial and exam. Perhaps it is because it is so… contemporary; I felt that the literature we read had a pulse, a living present and could lead to other interesting, unique and revelatory works. Cloud Atlas, in my opinion, is one such work.

Whilst considering the novel’s structure, I have to agree that it is, of course, like a Russian doll. But, it also spans outwards from it’s centre, like a giant fan or an accordian. The central story (by central, I do not mean ‘most important’, but, literally, at the novel’s core), called Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, involves Sonmi, whom the Valleysmen worship as a protective goddess. When Meronym, a member of a more enlightened tribe called the Prescients, comes to stay with the Valleysmen to learn more about their ways of life, she brings with her an orison. This orison contains the image of Sonmi~451, the central character in An Orison of Sonmi~451. Within that story, is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, woven into Sonmi’s narrative as a film. And then, within Timothy’s ghastly ordeal appears Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery which, in turn, includes Letters from Zedelghem which involves The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the section that opens and closes the entire book. It is also bestowed with one of the best last lines (well, paragraphs) that I have ever read. So, there you have the structure, which either fans out or stacks inwardly like a Russian doll – take your pick.

Woven throughout these six interlaced strands is the motif of the comet-shaped birthmark shared by several characters. This birthmark reappears, as fixed on the skin as a star in the sky. Not only does this image imply rebirth and reincarnation (although, these characters are not the same person; they are all unique and individual – although, I’ll return to this later); the symbol of a comet must hold some meaning in itself. A certain fixity and, yet, fleetingness: this is, to me, what comets represent. If you are lucky enough to see one streaming across a clear night, then you will understand the thrill of witnessing such a phenomenon. And yet, it is over in seconds. The comet birthmark may represent those fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them similarities between people, those coincidences that link us, from generation to generation. Mitchell is wonderful at portraying a world in which everything is connected; and, therefore, one in which we must all share responsibility. There is also the element of pursuit; in each section, the main character is being pursued or imprisoned or manipulated by another, often stronger, group or individual. Mitchell himself has spoken of the novel’s preoccupation with predacity, the way individuals prey on others. As ‘Dr’ Henry Goose tells Adam Ewing: ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat’. So, the novel becomes a tale of survival; humanity’s indomitable ability to keep surviving, to keep going, despite the self-destruction of civilisation. Fleeing hotels, escaping precarious situations and avoiding death all recur, with Luisa Rey even feeling a sense of deja vu whilst escaping from Swanneke Island in the early hours of the morning: ‘A swarm of deja vu haunts Luisa as she stuffs her belongings into her overnight bag. Robert Frobisher doing a dine and dash from another hotel.’ This is, again, simply the nature of humankind, the preservation of the self. Even more so, it is about the power of Good over Evil, those elusive dichotomous words. The survival of Ewing, achieved, as he notes, because of his own mercy on the self-freed slave Autua who saves his life, becomes symbolic of the ‘virtuous acts’ which stem from doing what is right, in pursuit of truth, equality and justice (another sense of pursuit; only, not quite so predatory). It is bitter-sweet way to end the novel, with Ewing’s avowal to pledge himself an Abolitionist against the words of his father-in-law and against the so-called “natural’ order of things’. He concludes that ‘one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself’; ‘selfishness is extinction’. Adam’s monologue predicts the future of the human race and of Earth. The reader has already seen the outcome of our own selfishness, which did, indeed, lead to virtual extinction. Those strong who ate the weak began to consume themselves. Reading this novel ten years after its initial release does not lose its sense of immediacy. Of course, survival is possible. But, so is change. Perhaps some philosophers or social anthropologists would argue that this is the ‘natural order of things’, to have predators and victims, to have the stronger and the weaker. Yet, as Mitchell writes, is such entropy written within our nature? Is this truly the ‘natural’ way of life and of human beings?

The best way to end is to simply quote the novel’s ending, in which Adam predicts the words of his father-in-law, a firm believer in this ‘natural order’ – he gives the perfect response:

“Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than a drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’


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