Cloud Atlas Readalong: Final Post

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Final Post
by David Mitchell

What a ride! This was not an easy book to read, but for me it was well worth the effort. Mitchell’s amazing skills as a writer allowed him to take on half a dozen different characters, locations, time periods and still link them all together in a cohesive way. It was enough to leave me reeling.

As we learned in the first half, the book is split into six very different sections. The first five sections stop abruptly in the middle, each one stair-stepping into the next. Then the sixth section, Sloosha, offers a complete story and we work our way back through the five sections in the opposite order, ending where we started with Adam Ewing.

The complicated web of interlocking tales leads us on a wild journey through time and across continents. Here’s a brief breakdown of the sections.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
(an old story being told)

Told from the point-of-view of Zachry, who is part of a primitive culture on Hawaii, Sloosha’s section had a difficult to read dialect. Zachry tells of their culture, which worships the god Sonmi. He also mentions Adam multiple times and he meets Meronym, the last of her race.

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Somni the east an’ the west a’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

An Orison of Sonmi~451
(seen as a hologram interview by Zachry)

I found Sonmi’s section to be especially interesting. When we left her, she was on the run and she was learning the truth behind what really happens to fabricants after they “retire.” She witnesses the killing of a fabricant living doll, which underlines the cavalier attitude the purebloods have towards fabricants. We learn more about fabricants in this section, including the fact that they are created to die within 48 hrs if they haven’t had any soap (their food).

Everyone is told that fabricants get to go off into a happy retirement village after they serve 12 years of slave labor. But, as Sonmi finds out, they are actually murdered and recycled as the “soap” food that is fed to fabricants and also as pureblood food. It’s all very “Soylent Green.” This realization elicits the first real response from the archivist who has been interviewing Sonmi. At this point, she does more than ask questions of Sonmi, she shows some shock and outrage at the accusation. She bursts out, “No crime of such magnitude could take root in Nea So Copros,” which shows us just how shocking the accusation is.

*Also, in this section someone is described as “quasi-Falstaffian” which cracked me up.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
(watched as a movie by Sonmi)

At the end of his first section, Cavendish has been checked into a retirement home with no way of escaping. A nurse straight out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is in charge and she has no intention of letting him out of her grasp. Then Timothy and a few other patients at the nursing home devise a plan and in one wild sitcom-style car ride they crash through the gates and flee. They all start new lives outside of the home.

This section was hilarious! It had, by far, the best one-liners in the book. There’s a bit where Timothy is reading the story of Luisa Rey (which he, a publisher, has received as a manuscript) and mocks it, saying it’s “hippie-druggy-new age.” I loved this cheeky joking because Mitchell is teasing us within his own book about his plots. He points out flaws and holes in the story while we are still reading it!

“A Scot can turn a perfectly decent name into a head-butt.”

“A Titus Andronicus catalogue of threats beat at the door.”

“Ruddy hell, when your parents die they move in with you.”

“Middle age is flown, but it is attitude, not years, that condemns one to the ranks of the Undead, or else proffers salvation.”

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
(read as a manuscript by Timothy)

Luisa survived the car crash that ended the first section, but she’s nowhere near being out of danger. She gets fired from her job, which just lets her know she’s closer than ever to uncovering something big. Then, she once again narrowly escapes death when assassin Bill Smoke rigs a bank safety deposit box with explosives.

While on the run, Joe Napier saves Luisa’s life to repay a debt to her father who saved his life years earlier. She is also saved by a woman working in a sweatshop who says something to her in Spanish (anyone know what she said?) So Luisa makes it out of the whole thing alive.

Side note: Sixsmith’s boat is moored in a dock that also has the preserved and restored Phophetess schooner, which Adam Ewing travels on! Each time I made one of these connections, and there are dozens, I got a little thrill. Also, Sixsmith’s daughter, Megan, lives in Hawaii, but I’m not sure any reference is made to that in any other sections.

“Courage grows anywhere, like weeds.”

Letters From Zedelghem
(letters to Sixsmith read by Luisa Rey)

Robert Frobisher’s time in Belgium is complicated when he falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having an affair with (while helping her syphilitic husband work on his compositions). It has a distinct “Graduate set in the 1930s” feel to it. He gets his heartbroken and decides to kill himself after finishing his masterpiece.

Frobisher big contribution to the overall plot is the Cloud Atlas Sextet he composes, which mirrors the structure of the novel. The musical piece has six separate solos that are arranged just like the stories within Cloud Atlas.

“Cloud Atlas Sextet holds my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.”

“Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime.”

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
(a journal read by Frobisher)

After a lot of pontificating about the local life on the island the ship has stopped at Adam finally realizes Dr. Henry Goose has been slowly poisoning him to death. Goose is attempting to steal the money and belongings (estate papers) Ewing keeps locked in his trunk. He convinces Adam that he’s got a worm in his brain, so he’ll continue to take the “medicine” he gives him. Autua, the stowaway that Adam saved in the first section, stands by him even after Goose casts him aside, and rescues him from the poisons and takes him ashore.


(Images from Cloud Atlas the movie, being released later this year.
I believe this is their version of Sonmi and Luisa Rey)

Since posting on the first half, I’ve heard that Mitchell confirmed the fact that each of the main characters who share the comet birthmark, are reincarnated souls. He didn’t explore that element as much as I thought he would in the second half, but it was still interesting.

One continuous theme throughout the book seems to be the way society treats those they have power over. In Sonmi’s section it’s the fabricants, in Timothy’s it’s the elderly, in Luisa Rey’s it’s less obvious, but we still see how those who have the power of information treat those without it. As Dr. Goose said “The weak are meat the strong do eat.”

The fascinating thing about this book it that it takes that concept and tosses it on its head. Each time a person, organization, government, etc. take advantage or another person or group, one seemingly insignificant individual manages to stand up against them. Sonmi-451 fought back, Luisa Rey stood up for what was right, even though she knew she might die doing so, Autua protected Adam Ewing and saved his life, etc.

The very end of the book redeemed some of the tough sections for me. Adam sums it all up when he has an epiphany and talks about how selfish may be ugly in a person, but in an entire society, it will destroy everything. We are left with the understanding that each new section in the book was another glimpse of the way our selfish society and creating its own destruction. By the time we got to Sonmi’s section it was the most obvious, because the society had failed to even appreciate other living beings anymore. The next inevitable step was “the fall” in which the world was destroyed.

I will say that I wish the book didn’t begin and end with Adam Ewing’s section. I think it’s an awful deterrent to anyone trying to start the book and it makes for an underwhelming finish. That being said, I think the effort is worth it. It’s not that each of the stories is so amazingly good, it’s that the structure and the writing are unlike anything else I’ve experienced and having to work so hard definitely made me appreciate it more.

I’ll leave you with a few bits from the beautiful passage that wrapped up the end of the book…

“Belief is both a prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail…. One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself… In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”

So what did you all think was it worth it?

What was your favorite section?

Do you think Mitchell intended us to think of each story as fictional, just part of another story (i.e. Luisa Rey was just a manuscript Timothy reads and Timothy was just a movie Sonmi sees, etc.) or was each one real?

What major points/connections did I miss?

Thank you all for joining in on this readalong and a big thanks to Care for hosting it with me. I had so much fun!

Leave the links to your posts in the comments and I’ll add them all in!

Fizzy Thoughts

Images of Cloud Atlas movie from here and here.


annieb said...

Well, I was not only impressed with the book, but your recap is pretty amazing as well. Glad it was you and not me. I wondered how you were going to write this. I do believe it was worth it, although it may have been the most difficult book I have ever read. My favorite section was the Sonmi section, but I really liked it all, even the second Adam Ewing section. I don't think you missed a thing. I have a friend who is wanting some book recommendations and asked for something she could "bite into." I think Cloud Atlas is just the book. I never would have read this book without the readalong, so thanks to you and Care.

Care said...

Wonderful! I think you are insightful and elegant in your summary of the construction of this book. APPLAUSE! I forgot that I wanted to ask about Adam from the Sloosha section. Was he Zachry's brother? very unclear, I thought. I did enjoy that section more than I thought I would when it began. (and your photo insert has me confused - I could have sworn Halle was to play Meronym; she's Luisa? Hmmm.)
I did enjoy the Cavendish section and the Frobisher section even if he had to 'flame out'.
I think they stories are all 'real'. :D

Care said...

I wish we could see the movie together. Maybe in months to come we can twitter-watch it?

Ellen said...

I'm heading out for a conference in...oh god, nine finally admitting that I won't get a post up. Loved your summary. Like Care, I think the sections are all "real"; but I also loved the way Mitchell linked them together, turning them into stories for the other characters to consume. I bet someone could write a great thesis on this if they were so inclined.

So, totally totally loved Cloud Atlas. I'm so glad I gave the novel a second try. I'm not sure what my favorite section was...maybe Luisa's. One of the things I most liked about the novel, though, was how Mitchell made me fall in love with these sections of the novels I didn't expect to like. Adam's section, and the Sloosha's Crossing, both grew on me SO much. Once I got used to the style, I absolutely loved them both; I was actually really happy to see Adam reappear at novel's end. I don't think I'd want to read an entire novel Zachry-style, but for that one section it was perfect.

I wish I could figure out how many times I've said I "loved" Cloud Atlas or something about the book since I started reading. I'm already looking forward to picking up a paperback copy when I get home and rereading it.

Thanks for running this readalong! Even though I'm laming out on the final post (still hoping inspiration will strike for some sort of wrap-up or review when I'm back in Tirana), I absolutely loved getting to read the novel and hear everyone else's thoughts on it.

Carrie K. said...

Definitely worth it! I'm so glad I finally read this - I enjoyed it so much, and really, my only disappointment was that the Adam Ewing section was the first and last. I have a feeling it probably does keep people from finishing the book, and it made the ending just a tad anti-climactic. That's the only thing that kept me from rating it a 5-star read, but I still adored it.

My favorite section was Sonmi, with Frobisher a close second. I am a fangirl when it comes to dystopian fiction, and so Sonmi read quickly for me and I loved the use of the interview technique. The world-building in that section was amazing - all the word-play with the brand names that had become proper nouns: driving a ford, drinking a starbuck, using a sony, watching a disney, etc.

Frobisher was my second favorite section, simply because I really loved the way he wrote his letters. He reminded me of an Oscar Wilde-type character - and his end was tragic but not unexpected. And I loved the way his Cloud Atlas Sextet mirrored the structure of the book - I really wish it was a real piece of music I could listen to!

I wonder about the "real-ness" of each story. The only one that seems like it could be completely fictional is the Luisa Rey section - it's described as a manuscript, but then in that section, Sixsmith appears and has the Frobisher letters - so maybe it's a novel based on a true story?

I know I missed tons of connections and I think sometime down the road, I would like to pick it up again and reread it, specifically looking for those intertwined connections that went past me the first time through.

Thanks again for hosting!

Ruthiella said...

Great write up! I don’t think you missed a thing. I had no idea there was going to be a movie. I don’t really want to see it. The connections, those “aha” moments, won’t really be the same when it is visual, I think. I thing the book was definitely worth reading. I very much enjoyed it, being abruptly thrown from one time period to another, searching for clues and making connections. I think every section is intended to be perceived as real. Even the Luis Rey section, which was the least believable for me, since I was alive in the 70’s and am from Southern California, was well done. It could have been real, when you look at the stuff that actually did go down then: Abscam, Three Mile Island, Watergate, etc. I like especially how the book’s message is both a warning and a spark of hope.

I must be the only person who was not bothered by the Adam Ewing section. I liked it. But like the other commenters, my favorite sections were “Orison of Sonmi” and “Letters From Zedelghem”. They were the most entertaining from start to finish.

The Spanish section, the lady says to Luisa something like “Ok, Get out of my place now. And watch out for that guy you are with, he is old enough to be your father.”

Thanks to both Melissa and Care for hosting this. I have wanted to read this book for awhile and now I have! I didn’t realize that Mitchell also wrote the 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is also on my TBR.

BookQuoter said...

I will come back and read your review after I am done reading the book. But your first paragraph is convincing enough:)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

annieb - This is definitely a book someone could "bite into!" I'm so glad we did it as a readalong because I think that makes you analyze the book in more depth. I wasn't sure how I was going to write this up either until I just dove in. I think Sonmi was my favorite as well.

Care - I want to watch the movie together too, I think a twitter watch would be perfect! I'm not sure about Adam in Sloosha either, I was confused by that. I think you're right about Halle playing Meronym, but I've heard some people are playing multiple characters, one in each different section. I don't know if that's true. It will be interesting to see how it translates to film. I loved Cavendish's one-liners and Frobisher's quick wit. I think each section brought something very different to the book and I loved that. I'm so glad you hosted this with me!

Ellen - I'm so glad you loved it!!! I was surprised by how some of the sections grew on me as well. I had to get past my initial impressions and just embrace the style of each one. You definitely don't have to write a final post if you don't want to! I'm just glad you joined in.

Carrie K. - I know! I really hope more people can get through the first section. I've had too many people tell me they gave up in Adam's section because they thought the whole book would be like that.

I love dystopian fiction too (as long as it's done well) and Sonmi's was wonderful. I never thought about it, but you're right, Frobisher is so much like Wilde (and I love Wilde). I was also wishing I could listen to the sextet.

I think each of the stories was real and I think the novel/movie based on a real story is the perfect way to look at it. I heard people guessing the stories were all fake lessons for the next story and that didn't ring true for me. I was curious if anyone in the readalong felt that way. I'm looking forward to rereading this one in a few years. I think it will be a completely different experience if you go into it knowing the structure and characters.

Ruthiella - I want to see the movie because I'm curious, but I think there's no way they can capture the intensity of the book and the power of each connection.

I'm so glad you knew what the lady said! I was really curious about that. A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is on my TBR shelf too, but Mitchell fans all said to read Cloud Atlas first.

BookQuoter - I'll be interested to see your thoughts! We tend to have such similar reactions to books, but this one is just so different.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Great finale post Melissa! And I'm sorry that I'm so late (I blame Sloosha). ;) One of your last questions about reading the sections as real or fictional is an interesting thought. I actually thought of each character as real--even when I realized that Rey was a manuscript and Timothy Cavendish a movie. I still felt like each one existed in its own right.

I was a bit disappointed that the reincarnation and birthmark theme wasn't a bit more apparent. I got my hopes up during the last Frobisher and his sextet but other than the last two pages of Ewing felt like there just wasn't enough glue holding it together. Masterful book--seriously masterful but I think I was waiting for a big AHA moment which didn't come.

Thank you so much for hosting the readalong! I'm glad to have read this with you guys--was especially fun discussing on twitter. :)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trish - No worries, I'm just glad you joined in! I definitely understand what you're saying about the Aha moment. I was disappointed Frobisher's section just petered out. The book gave me a lot to chew on though and I liked that aspect of it. I had a blast discussing it with everybody who participated!

Jeanne said...

Now that I've read a more recent Mitchell novel (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), I've gotten a copy of this one and will start reading it. What you say about the beginning section will no doubt help me get to the parts I think I'll like.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - I haven't read that one yet, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on both that one and this one. It gives you a lot to chew on!

Ed said...

I have a comment and question. This is a spoiler if you have not finished the book so proceed with care!

my impression, for the footnote by J.E. is that Adam Ewing never left Hawaii. I took it that despite the care of the nuns he died there and his orphaned son published his diary. After watching the movie I thought I might be wrong but after rereading the last few pages I don't think so... Thought?

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Ed - I read a recent interview with the author and he said the directors decided to take the ending in a slightly different direction. I'd assume that's the part they changed, so I think you're right about the ending in the book.

Exerci said...

I apologise for commenting slightly late on this, but my interpretation is that while every story is in a sense unreliable, they're still real. Ewing is being poisoned with opiates and arsenic in large parts of his story, Frobisher's is largely reliable outside of it being coloured by his perception of events, and Rey's story has (for example) the problem of an omniscient narrator, as there is no person for which it is true that he knows the thoughts of every person. Cavendish's story is a movie, and while it probably is based on a 'true' story, it is very possibly also embellished, as Cavendish thinks of having a ghostwriter write it based on his notes. Sonmi's story is problematic because, firstly, we know that the corpocracy can remove memories, and secondly, we do not know whether they have tampered with the orison. Zachry's story is told fairly far after the events, and Zachry's recollection of the events might not be exactly the same as the way the events actually went down. It's a rather meta-modernist thought, but there I believe that there is a point to Luisa Rey's story explicitly being fictional, because it creates a split between the 'fictional' Ewing/Frobisher/Rey and the 'real' Cavendish/Sonmi/Zachry. Ewing's final resolution is to attempt making things right in the world. 'Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere. I hear my father-in-law's response: " ... your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?' Are Ewing's efforts meaningless? After all, in the future, the corpocracy is instated and later the world as we know it has ended in Sloosha's crossing. The out we receive is the split between Cavendish/Sonmi/Zachry and Ewing/Frobisher/Rey. The future of the world is not set in stone, and the future as we see it at Sonmi and Zachry might not be the future of Ewing. Ewing's drop may be the drop that starts creating this ocean of compassion, averting the dystopian future.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Exerci - Wow! Great thoughts! I really hadn't thought too much about the reliability of the narrator in each section, but that certainly changes things. I can't wait to re-read this one with all of this info in my head.