Cloud Atlas Readalong: Midway Point

Friday, March 16, 2012

I’m going to discuss plot points from the first half, so don’t read unless you’re up to page 237!

Welcome to the first post on our Cloud Atlas readalong! Care is hosting the midway check in here so go check that out. I’m just going to chat about some of my thoughts from the first half of the book.

The book is split into different sections, each one in a different time period and with a very different cast of characters. Let’s begin with the first section…

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

We begin in 1850 with Adam Ewing. He’s on a ship at sea and there is the possibility of a brain parasite. Then, just as I was starting to get interested, the chapter stops abruptly, midsentence in fact. (I was reminded of how the book within The Fault in our Stars ended). I’ll admit, I flipped forward in the book and checked the names of the headings to see if Adam’s story was ever picked back up. Thankfully it does.

Honestly, the first 40 pages of the book bored me to tears and I was dreading the rest of it. BUT, then I reached the second section and it just took off. So if you’re picking this one up for the first time, please keep reading past this section, otherwise you’ll never get a real feel for the book.

Letters From Zedelghem

Next, we venture into 1931 with a composer, Robert Frobisher. His section is done in an epistolary style and the letters are all written to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher gets himself into all kinds of situations when he moves into a chateau in Belgium to help a famed composer continue his work. Frobisher provides us with rich doses of sarcasm and scandal and it was exactly what I needed after the Adam Ewing snooze fest.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

In the third section we get to meet Rufus Sixsmith about 50 years after the letters have been written. He’s managed to get caught up in the midst of a conspiracy. He’s written a report that his company will do anything to keep hidden. A journalist, Luisa Rey, lives in his apartment building is drawn into the fray after an unexpected elevator meeting leads him to offer her an interview.

In this section I was reminded of A Visit from the Goon Squad. We are starting to get a small taste of the scope and interconnectivity of the novel and it has a similar feel to that book. The stories are all somehow connected, though it might not be evident exactly how at first. They also skip around in time, picking up the thread of the story decades later on a different continent.

I really liked Luisa section. We get to meet a sweet boy next door with a rough home life, we catch up with Sixsmith who we only know as the recipient of the letters in the last section, we meet the scientist Isaac Sachs who knows about the controversial report, we see the assassin Bill Smoke and get caught up in the mystery with Luisa. We also get a reference to a sextet written by Frobisher.

There are also a few odd things that pop up in this section and indicate the deeper mystery of the book. Luisa discovers one of Frobisher’s letters that describes his comet-shaped birthmark and realizes she has an identical one in the same spot. She also has some déjà vu moments that led me to believe Mitchell was suggesting she was Frobisher reincarnated. As I read each chapter and started catching references to the previous chapters it felt a bit like the characters were talking about some other book I’d read at a different time. I loved that.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

Moving on, Timothy Cavendish is an editor who has a surprise best seller on his hands when its author cavalierly murderers a literary critic at a party. I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would be for an author to plan the demise of a snooty critic in their book. This part felt a bit like a movie. It had a run in with a mob-like gang and a farcical trip to a retirement home. Cavendish is a cranky man with some hilarious quips about the world around him. For example, this is how he describes some teens he sees on the street…

“A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie.”

An Orison of Sonmi~451

This section was perhaps the most interesting so far. It’s sometime in the future and a “fabricant” (a creature created to serve humans, possibly a clone?) is being interviewed by a historian of sorts. The fabricants’ name is Sonmi~451 and in this futuristic world, she worked as a content slave before gaining an enlightenment that made her aware of the world around her. She began to pursue knowledge and as she did so, her contentment drained away.

“Fabricants are mirrors held up to purebloods’ consciences; what purebloods see reflected there sickens them. So they blame you for holding up the mirror.”

In this world, the governing force is called Corpocracy and the “purebloods” are in change. They often experiment on the fabricants and this cruel practice is treated as normal,

“No one cared if an xperimental fabricant or two “got dropped” along the path of scientific enlitenment.”

The language in this section is often written phonetically. So flight is spelled flite and explanation becomes xplanation.

It was interesting to see Sonmi~451’s progression through learning. She makes a comment about how strange it is that the social strata in the world used to be “based on dollars and curiously, the quantity of melanin in one’s skin.” Whereas she is judged for being a fabricant even though her looks would allow her to pass as a pureblood. Also, each pureblood must spend a fixed amount of money each month and hoarding is considered an “anti-corpocratic crime” so that stature can never be gained form wealth.

One line that was interesting to me is the following…

“One’s environment is a key to one’s identity.”

How very true this is! It made me think of how deeply our expectations are affected by the world we live in. If someone is raised in a third world country in a life of poverty, they aren’t going to assume they’ll go to college. If they’re raised in the Midwest instead of NYC, they’ll probably think they are supposed to marry and have kids by the age of 30. It’s not that we have to do those things; it’s just that being in that environment is going to impact the way you see the world and your role in it.

I thought this section provided such an interesting view about what “normal” is. It changes with each generation and culture and I wonder what things we are currently doing that will seem horrible to future generations.

Here are a few fantastic quotes from the book so far…

“His words slip like Bambi on ice.”

“Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.”

“Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.”

So all in all the book has absolutely hooked me. I think the birthmark thing is particularly interesting and I’m excited to see how that plays out. Even Sonmi~451 had the birthmark! I’ve heard this book described as the literary equivalent of a Russian nestling doll and I think that’s particularly true. Each section is intriguing on its own, but it’s part of a bigger picture and

What do you all think so far about the plot and the unique structure?

What do you love/hate about the book?

Up next we have the section titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” and then we return to each of the previous sections to revisit the characters. I can’t wait to see where this crazy book takes us next!


Care said...

Beautiful. And insightful! And ORGANIZED. (Yours is fine wine and mine is swilled sheog.) I love that we both noted the despondency quote.
Truly, the Somni section has the most DEEP MEANING suggestions, perhaps because it allows us to think about now and where our society could be heading. I found myself sad that we typically don't seek knowledge with the same enthusiasm - would I if it was denied and then I secretly found access to a treasure trove like Somni does? And would this 'wisdom' gain decrease contentment - do we need to be hungry to have the will to pursue? If we were all fed, then do we become complacent allowing avarice and ..., oh my head hurts.

I just started the next section, abt 4 pages in and eek the dialect takes getting used to. I am marveling how Mitchell can change voice without it seeming like just a collection of short stories. Something is propelling all the stories forward yet different characters and settings! I like nesting doll description. I'll be back to chat more.

GREAT post.

annieb said...

Great synopsis Melissa! I'm not sure what I am doing wrong, if anything, but this is the third time I have attempted to post, and had it go away, so here's hoping this one works. I am certainly enjoying the book and am glad I am reading it in my first readalong, because I doubt that I would have ever attempted it on my own. My favorite part is the Sonmi-451 section, but I also loved Luisa and Javi as characters. The concept and the execution of this book simply amaze me. I always say I am a reader, not a writer, so all writing amazes me to a certain extent, but this book is truly amazing. I wonder how long it took Mitchell to write it. Care, I think your review/synopsis was very good as well and not swilled sheog at all. This is a lot of fun!

Ellen said...

Looking at all the quotes you picked out makes me wish I'd spent a little more time doing the same thing. So far I love this book so much that I'd love to buy the paperback when I get home (I'm reading the ebook now) so I can reread and mark the whole thing up. Once I made it through Ewing I raced through each section without taking the time to really search out those perfect lines (a few of which you quote here) or those deja vu moments that help to tie the characters together, above the birthmarks.

So much fun to read your thoughts - I'm really looking forward to the next posts on this when we're all able to see more clearly these themes Mitchell plays with, and how the characters are connected.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Care - I loved your post, it was awesome! You asked great questions too. Isn't the pursuit of knowledge thing fascinating? It reminded me a bit of Fahrenheit 451. Imagine how much more we would appreciate books if it was almost impossible to find one to read. That quality of knowledge becoming scare or illegal makes it all the more valuable.

Also, I didn't like the Sloosha section you mentioned at all. The dialogue is tough! But, like you said, it makes me appreciate Mitchell's ability to write such incredibly different characters!

Annieb - Sorry you had trouble posting a comment. I'm not sure what the problem is. I agree the skill of the writing is unbelievable! Imagine juggling all those story lines and knowing how you were going to tie them all together. That takes some talent. I also think this was a great book to do a readalong because there's so much that you could miss! I've already beneifitted from everyone else's observations.

Ellen - I'm so glad you're enjoying it! I am too. Once you get past the first section it's such a rich experience. I wonder if a lot of people give up before they get through it.

Ruthiella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruthiella said...

Melissa, I was reminded of A Visit from the Goon Squad as well while reading, because of the interconnectedness and the varied styles of each section I think. I am really enjoying this book and so glad you and Care have organized this!

Care said...

I can see the parallels to Goon Squad but I didn't see it until you mentioned it. BUT it does make me wonder what books the authors read and were influenced by. I can see threads and images cross-books and I'm really seeing it lately.

For example; In subbing yesterday, I got to read about 20 pages of Fahrenheit 451!

Kristi said...

I read this before a Visit from the Goon Squad and it kind of ruined Goon Squad for me. I liked it enough, but I found Cloud Atlas superior and it was difficult to not compare them.

Adam Ewing was a snoozefest. I wonder how many people quit without making it past the first section worried that the whole book is that tedious.

I think what impressed me so much about this book was not just the interconnected nature but how well Mitchell crosses genre with his writing. Each section has a different feel and writing style that stays true to the story he's telling.

It's definitely one that improves on reread. I loved it the first time, but now that I know the overall theme, it's wonderful to see how it's carried throughout the story from the very beginning.

Glad you're enjoying it!

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying it so much - much more than I had expected to. This is one of those books that had sat on my to-read list for a long time - everyone talks about it - but I had no desire to actually pick it up. Thank you so much to both you and Care for prompting me to finally give it a shot!

It did take me a bit to get into the first section, but after twenty pages or so, I was actually really enjoying it. My favorite section by far is Somni's story, though.

I posted my thoughts in more depth here:

Anonymous said...

I must confess that I've finished the book already (I have problems pacing myself :-)). I got to the end of the first half and just had to keep reading! I especially wanted to get back to Sonmi's story. Actually, her world. I was really curious as to how the world got to that point.

Willa said...

I have to read this book - read "Black Swan Green" by the same author and loved it!

Care said...

I'm into the second Sonmi section and starting to wonder if Margaret atwood has read and dnejoyed this,,, or I just haven't read much dystopia?!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Ruthiella - It's really like nothing I've read before! I'm so glad you joined in.

Kristi - I am so glad I read Goon Squad first. I don't think it would have stood up to a mental comparison very well. It was really good, but it just never reaches the same level as this one. I love what you said about the author crossing genre with his writing. I think that's one of the things that is the most impressive to me. If you had told me a diff author wrote each section I would have believed you. They are os incredibly different and he writes each one so well!

Carrie - That's the whole reason I wanted to host a readalong of this one. It had been on my list forever, but I never managed to pick it up.

softdrink - Good for you! I had a hard time slowing down for the first break, but I was worried I'd give something away in my post if I didn't stop. I think Somni's section was the one I was the most curious about as well.

Willa - It is SOOO different from that book, but it is really good.

Care - I just finished that section too and it reminded me so much of The Handmaid's Tale. I love that you read a bit of Fahrenheit 451 yesterday too! I think it is so interesting to think about what books influenced the author, whether they realized it or not.