Sunday, 12 February 2006

Review: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

There’s no way at all to write this review without spoiling the plot of Mitchell's book. Which is a relief, but there will be fewer quotes than usual, as his style is at once regular and unsurprising. What is surprising is the plot.

The novel is broken into discrete sections that appear at first to bear no relation to each other. Hence the warning — the reader of the first section will have no idea that suddenly it will break off in mid-sentence, at the bottom of the page, and a new section will begin.


The first narrative — The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing — delineates the adventures of an American lawyer on Chatham Island around the middle of the nineteenth century. He leaves the island on a boat and finds that he has a castaway in his cabin, a Moriori native named Autua, who he had seen being flogged on Chatham by his Maori masters. This narrative is a diary recounted in demotic style, i.e. it uses speech patterns typical of its time.

The second narrative is set around 1931 in Belgium, where a young, English adventurer named Robert Frobisher with a bent for music is trying to ingratiate himself into the good offices of an aging composer named Vyvyan Ayres and his Belgian family, who live in a crumbling chateau in the countryside surrounded by farms. He succeeds in gaining employment as Ayres’ amanuensis and they collaborate. Meanwhile, Frobisher begins an affair with Ayres’ wife and a sultry feud with his daughter. To tie this narrative with the first, Frobisher, who is stealing books from Ayres’ library for personal gain, finds an old, damaged book containing The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing in the library and asks his correspondent to try to find a better copy. This narrative is told in the epistolatory style and the correspondent’s name is Rufus Sixsmith, of Cambridge.

The third narrative is in the form of a crime novel with Rufus Sixsmith as an unfortunate physicist involved through his work with the Seabord Corporation on its Swanneke atomic energy plant outside Buenas Yerbas, California. The heroine of this part of Mitchell’s novel is Louisa Rey, the daughter of a famous journalist, who works at Spyglass magazine in Buenas Yerbas. There is an elusive, written report that Sixsmith worked on dealing with the design safety of the plant, and a highly paranoid CEO named Grimaldi, as well as an employee named Smoke who is an assassin of some talent. There is also a comet-shaped birthmark (that appeared in the first narrative), back here to tease us, on the shoulder of Louisa Rey. There is also the fact that Sixsmith had been reading the letters of Frobisher just before he’d died.

The fourth narrative details the downfall of Timothy Cavendish whose publisher’s desk holds a manuscript of a novel by Hilary V. Hush called Half-lives — The First Louisa Rey Mystery, which was the title in Mitchell’s book of the third narrative. Cavendish has published the memoirs of a thug named Dermot ‘Duster’ Hoggins, who manages to kill a literary critic at a swank party by throwing him off the balcony. In the aftermath of the notorious crime, his memoirs are suddenly in great demand and Cavendish is flush with cash — until his creditors get wind of the windfall. Thinking along the same lines, Hoggins’ thuggish brothers pay Cavendish a visit with a view to sharing in the profits coming out of Cavendish Publishing. Timothy, desperate and lacking access to the £50,000 the boys are demanding, goes cap-in-hand to his once-wealthy brother’s house and ends up with a consolation prize — free accommodation outside London for the immediate future, until things settle down. He travels to Hull by public transport — an amusing set of vignettes aimed to please Mitchell’s readers. Arrived at Aurora House he finds himself, in the morning, having committed himself to an old-people’s home with no recourse to justice. The narrative ends.

The fifth narrative is set in the future — a future of genomics gone wild, where Hokkaido is in east Korea and the clone Sonmi~451 is recounting her adventures to an Archivist’s ‘orison’, an “egg-shaped device” that “records both an image of your face and your words” which will be archived at the Ministry of Testaments. Shades of Murakami here. Yoona~939 has been killed after her deviancy becomes apparent and she tries to escape from the restaurant where she works with Sonmi~451. But Sonmi~451 is also undergoing ascension, and is spirited away from the restaurant to a university campus where she eventually comes to lie under the protection of Boardman Mephi, who discovers traces of her ascension via library records — she has been downloading vast numbers of works to her sony and reading them in her eagerness for knowledge. She also watches an old 21st century movie entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which links this story to the previous narrative.

The sixth narrative is set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the god of the Valleymen is Sonmi. A boy of the village, Zachary, suspects foul play when a Prescient — guardians of civilisation in the new world — comes to study their culture. But Zachary’s concerns are stilled when Meronym, the Prescient, saves the life of his sister by administering a drug that cures her of the sting of a scorpionfish. When Zachary guides Meronym up the sides of Mauna Kea to the abandoned observatory at its peak, they have more adventures. Finally, Meronym saves Zachary from the outlaw Kona tribe, who had raided the bartering at Honokaa. Eventually, Zachary and Meronym escape from the Big Isle in kayaks, for a better life away from the Kona. Before they leave the island, Zachary discovers the comet-shaped birthmark on Meronym’s shoulder.

The seventh narrative returns us to the story of Sonmi~451 who, rescued from a Unanimity (government) plot, falls into the capable hands of Hae-Joo Im, a Union agent who had infiltrated the university. The reason for Sonmi’s value is not yet revealed, but she is given a new identity, for the first time becoming a pureblood, and undergoing facescaping. They flee the capital of New So Copros under the guise of a young couple making their way to a love hotel. Hiking in the hills during their flight to Pusan, Hae-Joo points out the form of Timothy Cavendish carved into a rock face. It becomes clear during the interview with the Archivist that the Union was fomenting a revolution against the state using ascended fabricants — those fabricants who have been dosed with the special, secret formula developed by Dr. Suleiman that had led to the ascensions of both Yoona~939 and Sonmi~451. But all is not as it seems. Sonmi~451 has been duped, as she tells the Archivist:

Union pre-exists me, but its raisons d’être are not to foment revolution. First, it attracts social malcontents like Xi-Li and keeps them where Unanimity can watch them; second, it provides New So Copros with the enemy required by any hierarchical state for social cohesion.

Her last request is to watch the Cavendish movie again.

The eighth narrative returns us to the saga of Timothy Cavendish in Aurora House, and the story of his escape from that place by impersonating a doctor and tricking an unwary relative to come to the deathbed of their dying mother. The escaping oldies crash through the gates in a red Range Rover and foil their pursuers by conscripting the support of the denizens of the local pub, who beat them down. After the escape, a movie deal for the Hoggins memoirs comes through and Cavendish also plans to have his own memoirs published. Things are looking up.

The ninth narrative is, not surprisingly, the story of how Louisa Rey foils the snares of the Seabord Corporation. The new CEO is crushed and the U.S. President denounces their evil doings. All is revealed.

The tenth recaps the story of Robert Frobisher in Belgium, with a reformed, charming Eva to accompany him. He falls in love with Eva, leaves the Ayres house after the composer tries to steal his ideas, composes Cloud Atlas Sextet — which Louisa Rey will come across in her adventures — and commits suicide.

The eleventh narrative ends the story of the sick Adam Ewing onboard the Prophetess. They arrive at the Society Islands, where a collection of whites lives alongside the native population in an unequal symbiosis: the natives work and the whites administer. The unhappy Wagstaff appears, whose arranged marriage to a local widow has turned out badly. But his unhappiness is not entirely governed by domestic worries:

Mr Wagstaff was less inclined to conversation than yesterday & let my pleasantries lapse into silence broken only by sounds of the jungle & labourers. ‘You’re thinking, aren’t you, that we’ve made slaves out of these peoples?’
  I avoided the question by saying Mr Horrox had explained their labours paid for the benefits of Progress brought by the Mission. Mr Wagstaff did not hear me. ‘There exists a tribe of ants, called the slave-maker. These insects raid the colonies of common ants, steal eggs back to their own nests, & after they hatch, why, the stolen slaves become workers of the greater empire, & never even dream they were once stolen. Now if you ask me, Lord Jehovah crafted these ants as a model, Mr Ewing.’ Mr Wagstaff’s gaze was gravid with the ancient future. ‘For them with the eyes to see it.’


1 comment:

vegetableman said...

I really enjoyed your review of Cloud Atlas, it's an amazing book. As you say, it's impossible to describe without spoiling the story to some extent.
Can I make a couple of comments?
The 5th and 7th narratives are surely set in Nea So Copros (not New So Copros). And I think Adam Ewing ends up in Honolulu, not the Society Islands.
For me, the ending is upbeat, in spite of the terrible things that have happened to the various protagonists, with Ewing's vision of a juster world in marked contrast to the apocalyptic 'Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After'.
Keep Smiling