Wednesday, May 29, 2013

'Cloud Atlas' as a Record of Literary History

If you haven't read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, you're missing out and you may find spoilers in this essay:

            The stylistic differences between the sections of Cloud Atlas are immediately apparent.  The first section is a travel journal from 1850, the second is a series of letters from 1931, the third is a mystery-thriller set in 1975, the fourth is a humorous memoir from the present day, the fifth is an interview from some centuries in the future, and the sixth is a story told orally from the distant future.  Each section is received by a character in the succeeding section (with the exception of the final section).  I posit that the stylistic differences, in addition to fitting with the theme of cyclical history, are representative of the several major movements in fiction across the last few centuries.  

            The first section, The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing, is the journal of a notary from San Francisco, travelling from Sydney to California.  This section represents the pre-romantics, specifically in the 1700’s.  Here’s why: 
            First, the popularity of travel books in the 18th century. Not only were they incredibly popular, but some of the best known literature from that time period was written in the form of travel literature: Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example.  That’s of course ignoring factual works, many of which were written by important authors (e.g. Goethe, Laurence Sterne, Mary Wollstonecraft, etc.), and the popularity of journals of famous explorers like Captain James Cook. 

            Like Gulliver’s Travels, The Pacific Diary of Patrick Ewing focuses on philosophical and sociological matters: the nature of good and evil, the ethics of slavery, the path of history, etc., all of which the narrator is led to ponder due to his experiences on the voyage.  The writing style is also reminiscent of that time and genre:

            “It is pleasant merely to breathe the cooler air.  One loses one’s eye in lanes of sea
             phosphorescence & the Mississippi of stars streaming across the heavens” (Mitchell 38).

            Robert Frobisher, the narrator of the second section (Letters from Zedelghem), after finding the first half of Pacific Diary, has this to say: “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too structured to be a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true…” (64).  When Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, he didn’t publish it under his own name.  The credited author was none other than the eponymous Crusoe himself.  It was marketed as a true story.  And while no one would believe that the events in Gulliver’s Travels actually occurred, the novel is structured exactly as a maritime diary.  Frobisher would be familiar with those fictional accounts formatted as truth.

            The second section of the Cloud Atlas, Letters from Zedelghem, takes the form of a series of letters from Robert Frobisher to his ex-lover, Rufus Sixsmith.  Whereas the issues dealt with in Pacific Diary are largely a matter of ethics and philosophy on one hand, or the day to day troubles of voyage on the other, Letters focuses on Frobisher’s emotions.  This section is representative of the Romantics.  Story-wise, the connection to the Romantics is self-evident.  The young man, in a series of letters to a former lover, details his affair with a married woman and subsequent infatuation with her daughter.  Not only that, but the sentimentality and emotional interjections characteristic of Romantic literature are heavily represented in this section. 

            “Summer has taken a sensuous turn: Ayr’s wife and I are lovers.  Don’t alarm yourself!
             Only in the carnal sense… When one unlocks a woman’s body, her box of confidences
             also spills” (68-9).

The contrast, stylistically, between Letters and the following section is almost jarring.

            The third section, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, follows the investigative journalist, Luisa Rey, as she looks into a possibly corrupt nuclear power plant.  This section of Cloud Atlas stands out from the rest for two reasons: It is  the only one written with third person narration and it is the only piece received in the succeeding section as a work of fiction.  Half-Lives represents the Modernists.

            As opposed to Romantic literature, Modernist literature is seen as the literature of disillusionment, its heyday coming on the heels of World War One.  Stylistically, the modernists were less florid than the Romantics.  It is common in Romantic literature to find passages such as “Weep, heart full of love, youth, and life!  Alas, would that I could weep like you!” (Dumas 669).  While not void of Mitchell’s excellent descriptive powers, Half-Lives’s style is much more matter-of-fact than Letters and without the philosophical digressions of Pacific Diary.

            “Luisa Rey glances back.  The guard’s back is turned, so she continues on around a
             corner and into a grid of repeated corridors, chilled and muffled by humming air coolers”
            (Mitchell 104).

            The name, “Luisa Rey,” pays homage to the important modernist novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which, like Cloud Atlas, consists of several connected stories. And, like most modernist literature, holds true to this quote by Luisa Rey:

            “We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes” (95).

            As opposed to the post-modernists, whose work embraces a “predatory, amoral, and godless universe,” the modernists are, by and large, less willing to embrace chance and disorder as aspects of fiction (or, at least, with the same playfulness as the Postmodernists).  Of course, Modernism is best seen in juxtaposition to Postmodernism, as exemplified by The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

            The Postmodernists embrace chance more than the Modernists.  The major developments in Half-Lives result almost exclusively from the actions and ambitions of the characters; chance plays little part in what they do and how they fare. Not so in Cavendish, where the narrator has a chance to meet his old love due to staffing problems for his train to Hull (162), he signs the custody papers at Aurora house because he accidentally got high in a bathroom near a train station (170), and his escape is hampered by an unpredictable medical emergency (181).  Cavendish takes these events as they come, with the playfulness one would expect from a Postmodernist.

            One distinction frequently made between modernist and postmodernist literature is the latter’s use of references to and reliance on popular and consumer culture.  In the first half of Half-Lives, there’s a reference to Alfred Hitchcock.  In the first three pages of Cavendish, we see “Prostitute Barbie,” an “Ingersoll Solar” watch, “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Penguin Biscuits,” “Ground Control to Major Tom,”  “Time’s Arrow” (popularized in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), “John Sandoe’s of Chelsea,” and a quote from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (145-7).  While both Half-Lives and Cavendish include details like references to historical events (e.g. the bombing of Hiroshima, the Watergate scandal), Cavendish deals heavily in popular culture, a trait seen in many other Postmodern works (e.g. the paintings of Andy Warhol, the Cat in the Hat’s bid for the presidency in Coover’s A Political Fable, etc.).

            Metafiction is another tool popular amongst Postmodernists.  Within the first page of Cavendish, the narrator directly addresses the reader ( “should you inherit one, dear Reader, sell it, don’t live in it.”) and acknowledges his role in the story (“Tim Cavendish the Disgusted Citizen exclaimed to the offenders…”) (145). That is not to say that there is no self-awareness in Half-Lives.  The very name “Half-Lives” references the structure of Cloud Atlas, in which we get one half of the story now, and the other half later on.  The name “Luisa Rey,” as homage to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, also addresses Cloud Atlas as a whole.  But Cavendish, and the Postmodernists in general, utilize self-awareness, both of form and of the inherent falsity of fiction, to a greater degree than the Modernists.

            Like metafiction, irony and sarcasm are certainly prevalent in the Modernist literature, but these tools are employed with more gusto in Postmodernist works.  It’s important to note the frequency of florid language in Cavendish.  Even the title of the section, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, is rife with ironic embellishment.   The phrase “ghastly ordeal” is an example of the faux eloquence throughout this section.  For example, Cavendish states:

            “I fought with all my might, but my sphincter was no longer my own and a cannonade
             fired off. Amusement or condescension I could have borne, but my tormentors’ pity
             signified my abject defeat” (155).
            This type of prose, which appears frequently throughout this section, would seem at home in the 19th century (or in Letters), but in the context of the present (as Cavendish is), it is ironic.  To see how this relates to Postmodernism, we need look no further than The Literature of Exhaustion, John Barth’s famous essay on Postmodernism:

            “[I]f Beethoven’s Sixth were composed today, it would be an embarrassment; but clearly
              it wouldn’t be, necessarily, if done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where
             we’ve been and where we are.”

            The writing style in Cavendish is fraught with outdated language, “done with ironic intent.”  And with Cavendish, we are brought up to the present. 

            The fifth section, An Orison of Sonmi~451, takes place in the future, and is a recorded interview, or “orison,” with a Fabricant (an enslaved human clone).  The previous sections represent literary movements up to the present, so what does Orison say about the future?

            Cloud Atlas focuses on progress and regression and the cyclical nature of history.  This extends to its coverage of literary history as well.  An orison, we later discover, is a holographic audio/visual recording.  Orison, therefore, is the first section not originally recorded in writing.  Furthermore, Orison is the first case in which the protagonist (the term narrator is not accurate in this case, as although Sonmi~451 provides much of the text for this section, the archivist interviewing her is no less a narrator than she is.  It could be said that this section has no narrator, but is itself an objective recording of an interview, much like the orison) receives the story of the previous section in a non-written form.  Sonmi~451 receives the film adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  The name Sonmi~451 is likely a reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Whereas Bradbury’s novel focuses on the death of reading and literature, Orison is a step towards a regression to oral storytelling as the predominant form of literature, as evidenced by how Cavendish was received in Orison and  in the final section, Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After.

            In Sloosha, the narrator, Zachry, is an old man recounting a story from his childhood.   While other sections have utilized idiosyncratic or otherwise nonstandard spelling (Pacific Diary replaced all ‘and’s with ‘&’s; Letters abbreviated ‘very’ as ‘v.’; Orison spelled words beginning with ‘ex’ with just an ‘x’), this is the first written in dialect:  “Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what the fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me…” (239).  Oral storytelling would, of course, be told in the accent of the storyteller.

            Oral storytelling, as the oldest form of storytelling and predecessor of literature, is a fitting place for the novel’s storylines to not only build to, as in the first half of the novel, but grow from, as in the second half of the novel.  Cloud Atlas is about, among other themes, progression and regression.  Oral storytelling is the root from which all literature has progressed.  Should the written word regress it is oral storytelling that would become, once again, the dominant mode of fiction.

Works cited:  

Barth, John. The Literature of Exhaustion Web.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Three Musketeers. 1844. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.


  1. Hello Matt,

    My cousin told me about your blog, and I really like your idea of reading the most popular books from the last century.

    I was happily surprised when I found this post. I read a book a week for my blog (and brain), and this was one of the top 2 books I read last year. I've thought a lot about the book and its structure, but until now it's parallels to the world of literature had escaped me. Very cool!

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    1. I'm glad you found it enlightening. I think Cloud Atlas has a lot more layers to it than most people give it credit for. Oh, and thank your cousin for recommending my blog!