To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


You can also find me on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell All autumn, with the release date of movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas fast approaching, interest in the novel among my Goodreads friends has been high. I have not seen many subdued reactions. Fans of Mitchell discuss his ability adeptly to assume so many different voices and styles, the intricacy of the novel’s structure, and the relevance of its themes for today. Detractors have dismissed Cloud Atlas as gimmicky, a work by a much-hyped writer who is showing off his style but neglecting to anchor it in themes of substance. And some readers simply found his shifts in voice tedious.


I recently re-read Cloud Atlass, bearing in mind both reactions to the novel. I also remembered my first time reading it. I was mesmerized by Mitchell’s ability to pay homage to six very different genres and voices in the six novellas that make up Cloud Atlas. I delighted in tracing connections and interconnections among the different sections of the novel. I was entranced by Mitchell’s high wire act.

Mitchell structures Cloud Atlas as follows: six novellas are organized in chronological order. The first five break off abruptly in the middle of their respective stories. The sixth novella, “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” appears in its entirety in the center of the novel. After its conclusion, Mitchell moves in reverse chronological order through the remaining five novellas, bringing each to a conclusion, but also providing numerous points of connection and resonance among all six novellas.

The novellas are as follows:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: tracing the travels of Adam Ewing, a notary, who is sailing to Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s, and who comes face to face with human greed on individual and communal levels;
Letters from Zedelghem: the composer Robert Frobisher writing to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, about his experiences in post-World War I Belgium as he seeks fame and fortune while negotiating a precarious relationship with a famous composer at the end of his career;
Halflives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: Luisa Rey, a young investigative reporter, seeks to carry out her father’s legacy while combating the corporate greed and corruption of Seaboard Power Inc. in Reagan-era California;
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: a vanity publisher gains and loses a fortune, and loses his freedom, in England;
An Orison of Sonmi-451: Sonmi-451, a genetically modified being or fabricant, shares her memories of her quest for knowledge and her fight against government-sanctioned murder in the name of corporate greed;
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After: Zachry, a Pacific Islander who is a member of the Valleymen, tells about his experiences with Meronym, a Prescient, as they seek past knowledge and combat the savagery of the Kona and devastation by plague in the future.

With my second reading of the novel, I delved deeper than focusing on its structure. I focused on themes. Did Mitchell have the content to support his style and technique, or was Cloud Atlas all style and no substance? After a careful re-reading, I concluded that Mitchell’s approach to writing Cloud Atlas is successful, not simply as an exercise in writing style, but because the style and structure support his exploration of central themes, of critical importance to 21st-century readers.


Knowledge in Cloud Atlas: History, Language, Belief, Memory, and Forgetting

In a 2004 interview in the Washington Post, David Mitchell provided some insight into his main interests in writing Cloud Atlas. After reading a reference to the Moriori in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Mitchell became fascinated with the tribe, who lived in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. He researched them and visited the Chatham Islands as well. The Moriori appear in Cloud Atlas, as Ewing meets them and attempts to come to terms with the many forces that overpower them: Western missionaries in search of souls, whalers in search of profit, and Maori exercising their power over the Moriori through force. However, as Mitchell describes, the Moriori’s influence appears throughout the novel, as a main influence for a central theme: “Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori ‘forgot’ the existence of any other land and people but their own.” This led to Mitchell’s first theme in Cloud Atlas: how does knowledge transform over time, from generation to generation? How are we shaped, not only by what we remember from the past, but also by what we forget or rework? Why is it so important for us to be able to tell stories about the past, and to know the conclusion of those stories? Mitchell’s interest was fueled in part by his being a father, and wondering what the future would hold for his child, but also by his interest in history.

Moriori people, 1877

Spirit Grove- Hapupu, Chatham Islands

As a novelist, Mitchell explores these questions while also paying homage to different genres of writing, and in some cases specific books that were particularly inspiring to him. (See the Washington Post interview linked above for a list of these influences.) However, these voices are not simply an opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to shapeshift as a writer. A quotation from this interview gave me insights into the significance of the different voices that he adopts in Cloud Atlas: “I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred.” He is not simply showing off his chops as a writer when he adopts six different voices in Cloud Atlas--instead, he is creating new worlds, painting pictures of cultures with words. In doing so, he considers the knowledge these cultures retained and the knowledge they lost from the past. If you read closely and carefully, you can see how language is shifting over time, particularly in the novel’s central section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’.” Some readers found this section to be painful to read, but I loved the challenge of diving into Zachry’s language, identifying unfamiliar words, and considering what social factors led to their creation. I felt like an ethnographer, listening carefully to stories told by an informant from a very different world, and finding clues to recreate that world. That quest to understand, and the impact of discovering points I had in common with Zachry, speak to a larger theme -- continuity in some aspects of human culture over time, and the necessity of preserving and understanding the past as much as possible, even as it recedes from us in time.

The title of the novel, Cloud Atlas, itself ties back to Mitchell’s conception of history. We think of an atlas as a book that guides us through unfamiliar terrain and captures the contours of mountains and valleys, the depths of seas and lakes. An atlas of clouds suggests something much more ephemeral -- clouds are constantly moving, shifting, transforming, and eventually dissipating into the ether. Mitchell’s conception of history is built on a sense of constant movement and change. Even as we try to capture the past in works of history, literature, and art, we change and transform its meaning to fit our present.

In the Luisa Rey story, the engineer Isaac Sachs outlines this view of history as he takes notes during a plane ride:.
• …. The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
• The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)
• Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too. We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams. This virtual future may influence the actual future, as in a self fulfilling prophecy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today. Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.
• Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows—the actual pas —from another such simulacrum—the actual future?
• One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

Throughout Cloud Atlas, Mitchell develops this depiction of the interplay of the actual and virtual past and the actual and virtual future in shaping the present. In doing so, he leaves the door open for societies to shape their actual futures through this process of creation and reinterpretation. However, one important limitation on their ability to do so for the better is the ubiquitous influence of power dynamics across human societies, past, present, and future.

The Will to Power in Cloud Atlas

This interest in history leads another of Mitchell’s themes in Cloud Atlas: the centrality of acquisitiveness, of the drive to acquire and possess, to the human experience throughout time. He takes a broad approach to exploring this force, as explained in his Washington Post interview: “Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas.”

Mitchell is not alone in focusing on wanting, getting, and giving as main factors forming human relationships, and shaping history. Anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss in The Gift have explored the role of gift exchange in fostering relationships, and in determining power dynamics, in human societies. Historians have looked at these elements from a broader perspective, particularly in studies of colonialism in the early modern and modern world. Investigative reporters uncover instances of the abuse of power, as measured by wealth and influence. Wherever we turn, our past and present are shaped by power relations and the desire to possess -- wealth, political influence, land, beautiful objects, and people. What does this mean for our future?

In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell explores power in many manifestations. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” provides a deep exploration of the intersections of colonial interests and local power struggles and how they affected the lives of the Moriori, whose commitment to peaceful interactions with their neighbors were no protection against the combined forces of missionaries, whalers, and the Maori: “What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.”

Portrait of New Zealand man

Reception of Captain Cook in Hapaee

Robert Frobisher confronts power on two scales: on an individual level, he experiences the combined forces of sexual power and greed in his interactions with Vyvyan Ayrs and his wife Jocasta. As Ayrs tells him in a final confrontation: “Any society’s upper crust is riddled with immorality-- how else d’you think they keep their power?” He also explores power in a world-scale through attempts to come to terms with World War One:

“What sparks wars? The will to power, 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. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be..... Our will to power, our science, and those very faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Homo sapiens before this century is out!”


Sonmi-451 provides another perspective on the evolution of conflict and wars, showing that the basic dynamics are not different in her future:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. My fifth Declaration posits how, in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful. In corpocracy, this means the Juche. What is willed by the Juche is the tidy xtermination of a fabricant underclass.

Meronym provides a cautionary perspective on the future that may await us in our zeal to acquire power in all its forms:

The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.
Oh, her words was a rope o’ smoke. But Old Uns’d got the Smart!
I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin.
Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an boil up the seas an poison soil with crazed atoms an donkey ’bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an the Civ’lize Days ended, ’cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.

Image from Riddley Walker, inspiration for Sloosha’s Crossin’

Is there any form of power than can combat corporate and governmental power and greed? Luisa Rey presents another form of power: that of public outrage, driven by the media, which can provide a counterweight to greed that acts against the public interest. However, what happens when the media is co-opted by the same corporate powers which it should be scrutinizing?:

Van Zandt’s bookshelf-lined office is as neat as Grelsch’s is chaotic. Luisa’s host is finishing up. “The conflict between corporations and activists is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance. The corporations have money, power, and influence. Our sole weapon is public outrage. Outrage blocked the Yuccan Dam, ousted Nixon, and in part, terminated the monstrosities in Vietnam. But outrage is unwieldy to manufacture and handle. First, you need scrutiny; second, widespread awareness; only when this reaches a critical mass does public outrage explode into being. Any stage may be sabotaged. The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers. They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media—and not just The Washington Post—is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”

The Individual and the Forces of History: Is There Hope For Our Future?

After considering the kaleidoscope of human power and greed in Cloud Atlas, are we left with any hope for the future, or is Mitchell leaving us with a pessimistic prognosis? Cloud Atlas provides a staggering exploration of different manifestations of power and greed over centuries of human history: colonialism, missionary activity, 19th-century whaling, the modern quest for fame and fortune, and corporate greed, to name a few.


In spite of these dark depictions of the negative influence of the human quest for power, Mitchell does provide some hope that individuals can and do make a difference. Luisa Rey and her allies uncover the publicize the deception and danger if Seaboard Power Inc.. Zachry and Meronym band together and manage to survive plague and attacks from the Kona. Sonmi-451 sacrifices herself for the good of the fabricants, and lives on in the religious practices of the Old Uns and the studies of the Prescients. Fittingly, Mitchell gives Adam Ewing the last word, as he reflects on his experiences after his rescue from poisoning and drowning:

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. 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.
[W]hat is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Just as Mitchell channels his concerns about his son's future through Ewing's words, so does he provide us with a clear sense of how critical our individual choices are in shaping our own children's future. Individuals are not swept aside by the forces of history--one by one, we make up these forces. The actual future of our species and our planet is in our hands. Will we act for a just world, or sit back and contribute to the demise of our planet through inaction, or greed, or cowardice? These pivotal questions, and this critical choice, give Cloud Atlas its power.


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