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Cloudy Atlas: Reflections on Refractions

November 8, 2012

Cloud Atlas is a novel with few intellectual surprises but plenty of well-crafted pleasures, even if some bordered on the didactically self-aware. (the novel and not the movie, which contains so many divergent choices that I would almost consider it non-canon, like David Mitchell.) The overall thesis I hope to elaborate is top-notch, and even though the prose isn’t always the most clever, the lessons that a reader is left with are eminently worthwhile and artfully constructed. (Here comes the first spoiler of many, extensive spoilers.) The reader is given a whiff of the expert construction just by looking at the table of contents and see the palindromic (or pyramidical if you prefer) layout of the book’s narrators and chapters.

Mitchell employs a handful of needlessly titular references, thankfully they are rarely so pedestrian and clumsy as to seem winking, even if occasionally distracting and shoehorned. Similarly, each character finds the halves of the narrative preceding/subsequent to them as actual artifacts in their narrative portions, and hence the thread that ties the book’s “matryoshka dolls of painted moments” (393) structure together. Of course, each character’s obedient fascination and praise of the other narrative segments as utterly enchanting and enlightening (even the more boring parts), falls flat, but they are forgivable offenses for a bold author.

More subtly (though barely), the metaphor of a “cloud atlas” apparently refers to the desire of Mitchell and his sextet of protagonists to define an ever-changing landscape according to lofty ideals. Seems like you could almost infer that from the title in retrospect, but that doesn’t make the metaphor any less powerful. Each of the sextet refers to a particular value (that would all converge on a mushy concept of “goodness” if Mitchell hadn’t made his characters somewhat unlikable or unrelatable for the most part) set against various worlds defined by the will to power and realpolitik in its various (often explicit) forms.

First, the reader is introduced to the dullest of the sextet, Adam Ewing, a devout American notary on a journey to administer someone’s estate halfway across the globe from his home of San Francisco. It’s a thin allegory for the pilgrimmage typical of a devout character such as Ewing, who is always upturning his nose at his shipmates’ uncouthness, profaneness, and their acceptance that power defines and justifies the world, including any teleological questions. Ewing thus stands for religious fortitude, integrity, and inspiration taken from faith. And let’s not forget his biblical name is perfectly appropriate for the first character the audience meets or that Ewing’s “parasite” (ironically Goose and not the Worm) preys on Ewing’s faith because such faith is susceptible to such power-driven parasites. That parasite does not end with any kind of “justice,” as might be expected, but such an ending is perfectly consistent with a person of faith’s conviction that justice is not for man to mete out or determine (the audience should note that the same futility of human perspective can be said for Ewing’s interaction with Rafael). From Ewing’s perspective, all a human can do is act virtuously.

Ewing, at the book’s end, gives a somewhat rousing plea for individuals to spread their own gospel, and not merely succumb to a society that will eat its own tail if it allows itself to operate on the maxim that might makes right. Or, as Mitchell puts it in the mouth of one particularly cynical character (in Ewing’s assessment anyway), “The weak are meat the strong do eat.” (489) Those who have read/seen Cloud Atlas note the allusion to the Soylent Green-esque section “The Orison of Sonmi-451” (and perhaps agree that there is much ham-handed metaphor, but maybe that’s a good thing for actually reaching an audience). Mitchell, of course, provides an “apocalyptic” vision of what such a society does in the middle chapters, but it’s important to note that each protagonist is up against larger forces than mere individuals, even though the solution proferred by Mitchell is one of individual enlightenment (or to use another Mitchell term, “ascension”).

Mitchell’s next character, is Robert Frobisher, a Modern playboy composer and aesthete, meant to symbolize the values and ideals of the Romance period. You know the stuff: high art, dramatic gestures, secret affairs, etc., all wrapped up in the trappings of entitlement and luxury. Frobisher is a lout in terms of his morals: he skips out on his bills, lies constantly, devises ways to spite his family, and steals from his patrons (in more ways than one), all the while dealing with the question of greatness and artistic creation. Frobisher’s attempts to create on his own while acting as the amaneunesis for a more established, though physically disabled, composer is the battleground of the competing wills. Ayrs, Frobisher’s employer and patron, believes that Frobisher’s efforts belong to him as the commissioner of Frobisher’s works for hire. Petulant Frobisher believes in overblown ideals of merit and credit winning out, ruefully fighting tooth and nail whenever Ayrs attempts to claim any kind of ownership over the work Frobisher believes is his own, regardless of the fact that he is being paid by Ayrs for precisely this purpose (generously too, though it is difficult to discern from the deliberately self-serving account Mitchell writes for Frobisher).

Even though Ayrs is one of the more sympathetic antagonists in the whole novel, he is nonetheless the established power that seeks to maintain its dominion, including by conquest.  In this chapter, that conquest is performed by the intrigue orchestrated (no pun intended) by a much more capable-than-expected Ayrs. Frobisher, by contrast, is stuck in the Romance period, and his victory is pyrrhic, at best. Frobisher completes his Cloud Atlas Sextet (described by other characters as brilliant and genius–I know, groan), but never learns his lesson that he needed plenty of material assistance to do so. Patronage, it seems, has some value, but Mitchell clearly puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the artist to balk at commands that are inconsistent with artistic integrity and vision. Wonder why an author would do such a thing for his most artistic character. The will to power, in such a case, could extinguish greatness and art before it has the chance, in Frobisher’s words, to become a “firework.”

In a passage that lays much of Mitchell’s political theses bare, Frobisher is told that “The will to power [is] the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. . . . The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions.” (444) However, that thesis applies with greater force to the next matryoshka doll: Luisa Rey.

Luisa Rey is a protagonist that stands for truth, mostly in the journalistic sense, but also in terms of the scientific. As a reporter, she stumbles onto a story of epic proportions, with millions of lives potentially risked by her shedding light on corporate malfeasance (nuclear malfeasance at that). Mitchell paints the Seaboard Corporation as perpetually helmed by nihilistic, evil executives willing to do anything to ensure that Seaboard opens its flawed nuclear facilities. Each executive who assumes power by knocking off his predecessor is united in trying to cover-up a report painting the dangers the nuclear fallout. Potential liability in the form of lawsuits down the road doesn’t dissuade Seaboard, oh no, because operatives within are secretly trying to discredit nuclear power, not actually set up a nuclear power plant. They’ll stop at nothing, including employing sociopathic contract killers and buying out any publication that gets too close to the truth. Oh, and for no reason other than that because Luisa Rey has found Frobisher’s letters, she wants to find and listen to the Cloud Atlas Sextet (groan).

The large sums of money apparently hanging in the balance of this story are enough to induce loyalty- and ethics-betraying actions by almost a dozen characters, all except Napier, a secondary protagonist who stands for loyalty as he proves impervious to being easily bought off. The crosses and double-crosses, mostly in service of suppressing an expensive truth, are evidence of Mitchell’s thesis that the will to power and organized capital can corrupt the pursuit of truth (which truth would potentially save millions of lives), whether in terms of journalism or scientific research. Here, Mitchell is retreading a common and somewhat trite narrative, so it’s no wonder that he puts the story in the words of the novice novelist Hilary V. Hush, who clearly needs the editing services of Timothy Cavendish, the next nested character.

Like Frobisher and Hush before him, Cavendish is another example of a misunderstood artist/creative with bills to pay and organized society failing to protect him. As a result, Cavendish’s fight against established power is a fight against market forces, mobsters, his wealthy brother, and the institutions for the institutionalized. Cavendish is like a foppish version of one of Kafka’s character; the whole world always seems set against him for no reason (but one sometimes gets the impression that maybe Cavendish brought his misadventures upon himself). Unlike Kafka’s protagonists, however, Cavendish’s cantankerousness is quite charming and relatable. In a sense, Cavendish is the protagonist that most embodies a sense of entitlement to justice where civil society and the rule of law fail him, but perhaps that’s simply because his character is infused with indignant incredulity that the world is not automatically predisposed to have everything go his way. His disillusionment with civil society is that of someone who is lamenting their own recent nostalgia, perhaps of a time that never really existed except in a hyperbolic sense, especially given how obviously rude Cavendish acts towards others.

First, Cavendish’s low place in the market makes him desperate enough to publish the schlocky work of a gangster and ruffian, purportedly not realizing negative attention/”infamous” marketing strategy until the gangster thrusts publicity onto himself. Then, Cavendish is coerced into running away from London by the mobsters who want in on the income from the alpha hooligan’s novel because, on some level, the law has little power to stop those willing to commit violence (as the reader has just seen/will see with Luisa Rey). Thanks to machinations by his brother Denholme, Cavendish ends up absolutely stuck in a nursing home evocative of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when attempting to merely lay low, especially given that Nurse Noakes/Ratchet has it out for him as a result of his unruliness and unwillingness to accept his fate. Cavendish’s appeals to the law and to the outside world are fruitless, nor does playing within the system do him any good.

However, it’s clear that Cavendish would have been doomed to languish in Aurora House if he didn’t take charge of his own life with the notable assistance of his fellow compatriots. They devise a plan to escape that operates outside of the harsh law of the authorities at Aurora House (and the U.K. if you count the grand theft auto involved), and obtain their own justice. The theme is clear: Cavendish et al. escaped and created their own fate by asserting their own will instead of becoming “Zombies” like the other old folks that have embraced the lifestyle of Aurora House. Similarly, his peace with the Hogginses is created by reversing the blackmail, and his publishing career turns around by writing his own book cum movie.

Cavendish’s movie is the link to Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” in a dystopian futuristic Korean “corpocracy.” Even though numbering Sonmi with such a transparently referential number as 451 (duh), these chapters have many of the most delightful language choices, including using proper nouns as though they have become pronouns in that society (e.g., “disney” = film, “sony” = cell phone [or tablet or something], “consumers” = citizens, “Unanimity” = the government, “Union” = the resistance/rebellion, etc.). Far from being simply cutesy, this choice serves the overarching narrative of corporations supposedly having taken over much of Asia (and perhaps most of the civilized world–the information gap in this world makes it hard to tell), even though it’s pretty plainly just a totalitarian society with consent manufactured by the civilians’ commodity fetishes and benign complicity in a system rife with abuse of the underclasses. Sonmi goes on to become the ideological face of a rebellion, thrust through a gauntlet of the worst horrors and abuses her society has to offer so that she can reach the ideological breaking point that the resistance hopes she can inspire in her fellow fabricant-slaves.

It is quite clear that this portion of the novel is a critique of capitalism, a more or less full-blown Marxist extrapolation of the outer limits of the consolidation of power and the antipathy of comfortable consumerism. Mitchell seems to say that this kind of runaway capitalism is society’s version of the will to power par excellence, or at least a pliable vehicle for the exercise of that will to power. However, there are other abuses and ignominies contained in this futuristic society than are strictly necessary to discuss the pitfalls of capitalism (e.g., the Soylent Green thing), and so some of the societal ills faced by Sonmi’s society are strawmen. It seems an open question what meaning to attribute to the use of strawmen, however, it seems that this choice was simply a form of necessary subtlety, driven by the need to avoid conversation openly hostile to the status quo we live in. In a way, there is even more art in needing to tread lightly with society’s inertial preferences to retain power, no matter how attained (see also the United States’ taste for slavery), and its belief in the unassailability of capitalism (given the historical “evidence” society has interpreted). In this way, even Mitchell needs to write in a code that our ideologically totalitarian society can tolerate. Otherwise, even a genuine concern with the state of one’s society can be disregarded out of hand as samizdat dissent.

The final, innermost matryoshka doll Zachry lives in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, spinning his yarn for any and all who would listen. Zachry’s narrative is a clear expression of society’s eternal recurrence (a theme–literally–mentioned in Frobisher’s section as well), in that society returns to a medieval version of its former self. The Kona are a cannibalistic, violent, enslaving, war-hungry tribe representing a raw and unenlightened will to power, preying on Zachry’s agrarian, goat-herding tribe. Zachry’s tribe is visited by Prescients who still have the remnants of technology from the hyper-advanced pre-apocalyptic society, which make the population believe they are gods, amongst other medieval beliefs. The bottom line seems to be that a modicum of technology, brought to Zachry’s society by the Prescients, is necessary to secure the blessings of liberty and freedom from those who would forcibly take it. One needs power to protect one’s freedom, especially if the prevailing wisdom of all human time appears to be “The weak are meat, and the strong will eat.”

Of course, stories of individual freedom and spirit vs. coercion and establishmentarian power are hardly original. The same is especially true of Marxist critiques based on a dialectical approach using history to critique the rose-colored lenses of conventional wisdom through which society reads that history. But, in one of my favorite moments in the book, Mitchell preempts the question of originality in one of Cavendish’s parenthetical asides. The charge of “‘But it’s been done a hundred times before!'” is answered–quite expertly, to the thanks of aspiring writers everywhere–with “as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!” (357)

For the longest time, I didn’t quite understand how to explain why each character is so enchanted by the other characters’ stories. Then I realized that it is not the objective qualities of the works (which, in isolation, are pretty paltry), but rather the obvious parallels between each character’s life and the narrative they read. Each character sees themselves and their world reflected in an earlier time, and relates to the struggles faced by their predecessor. And though most characters admit that the relationship is ineffable, they see in the previous character the subjective and ephemeral cloud atlas that might provide an analog–or at least a point of reference–for their own lives, times and struggles. They’re not perfect parallels, but they don’t have to be. It would be rather easier and less artful if Mitchell had made these parallels more exact. The protagonists, like the audience that is also reading these works, refine and define their own values in attempting to discern shapes in those ambiguous clouds.

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