“A howling singer on the radio strummed a song about how everything that dies someday comes back.” – Cloud Atlas, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Cloud Atlas is unlike any other piece of literature, classic or modern. The novel is broken into six stories that take place in different eras and locations, and progress in chronological order until the sixth tale, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,” which comprises the middle of the novel. While the other five tales are broken in half, this story is complete. After it finishes, the other stories proceed where they left off.
1. “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”
The first story is a diary of an American’s travels in the South Pacific in the nineteenth century, and Mitchell convincingly writes from this perspective through his use of antiquated and racist diction. While Ewing is shipwrecked on the Chatham Islands he describes encounters with “uncivilised savages,” and once his boat sets sail again he is surprised by a stowaway in his cabin (one of these “savages”) who is attempting to escape his abusive slaver. The ship’s doctor warns him, “Friendships between races, Ewing, can never surpass the affection between a loyal gundog & its master.”
2. “Letters from Zedelghem”
The second story is composed of letters from Robert Frobishner, an aspiring composer in the 1930s who manipulates his way into becoming the assistant for a formerly brilliant and currently blind classical musician. Frobishner hears music everywhere and pairs each natural sound with an instrument, from the cacophonous snores of his sleeping neighbors to birdsongs and a rushing river. During his stay, he finds the incomplete journals of Adam Ewing in his new room at the Zedelghem estate.
3. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”
Written like a noir detective tale, the third story takes place in California’s 1970s and follows a journalist named Luisa Rey who investigates the alleged safety of a nuclear power plant. Rey meets the elderly Rufus Sixsmith, current atomic engineer and Frobishner’s correspondent in his letters from Zedelghem.
4. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”
The most comedic of the six tales, the fourth story follows publisher Timothy Cavendish in modern London. His newest book Knuckle Sandwich is a runaway success, but its author was recently incarcerated, so Cavendish’s publishing house has been exclusively receiving all of the novel’s profits. That is, until the author’s mobster brothers come and threaten Cavendish, sending him into hiding at a nursing home. During this ordeal, he receives the manuscript for “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.”
5. “An Orison of Sonmi-451”
The fifth story takes place in the unknown future, where a totalitarian regime in Korea has clones called “fabricants” (normal humans are called purebloods) to perform mindless services like housekeeping and waitressing. Somni-451 is a clone who works in a fast-food restaurant called Papa Song’s, which is likely the not-so-subtle future version of McDonald’s from the descriptions of golden arches and a clown-like mascot. However, Sonmi-451 becomes one of the rare clones who “ascends,” meaning her brain develops awareness of her enslavement and curiosity about things besides take-out orders. In one of her many adventures, she secretly watches a prohibited film from the early twenty-first century called “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Her story is told from an orison, a futuristic interviewing device that occurs just before her execution.
6. “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After”
The center story is told by Zachry, a primitive man who lives in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. The orison of Somni-451 has been transformed into the legend of a deity, and she is worshipped by Zachry’s people.
Each story is written with such distinctly different voices and styles that it is hard to transition from one to the next, as it seems the stories break off right when the reader has finally acclimated. For example, Ewing’s journals use ampersands instead of the word “and” to create the illusion that the typed pages are from a handwritten journal. In Somni-451’s orison, it seems unnecessary and silent letters have been removed from the future lexicon, making exit into “xit” and light into “lite.” Zachry speaks with such broken English it takes pages to be able to finally read without laboring over meaning.
The connections between the stories are enhanced by a birthmark that looks like a comet, which is shared by all the main characters. It is possible Mitchell is insinuating each character is reincarnated into the next, but it is also possible he is simply alluding to the universal qualities of humanity. While we are all so vastly different, and determined by language, gender, education, era, location, and as Somni-451 ponders, the curious distinction of “the amount of melanin in our skin,” all of our collective experiences blend to create the trajectory of human thought.
When Timothy Cavenish runs into a teenage lover, he says to himself, “You would think a place the size of England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.” This is true of human civilization as well: you would think that the infinite lifetimes and landscapes on earth would allow minimal coincidences and overlaps, but Cloud Atlas illustrates that one man in the nineteenth century South Pacific can be connected to a female Korean clone a thousand years later. This “butterfly effect” of personalities and experiences is the version of human history told in Cloud Atlas.
The film adaption of the novel is in theaters October 26th.