September 14, 2004



Well, amen. The talk of CA being a "difficult" book has utterly baffled me from the beginning. I thought, to the contrary, that it errs on the side of page-turner.

Might have to argue with you about the "character" aspect of the book, but later, a little later, perhaps.


Ditto on "difficult." So too with "unreadable." What book were they reading?


Score one more on "difficult". My guess is that nowadays "difficult" is reviewer shorthand for "non-linear plot", or something like that.

It's definitely a book that you read more for the "how" than the "what". Mitchell is quite a talented writer.


I agree the idea that man’s virtue will ultimately overcome his more insidious impulses, that there is something inherently good in all of us, isn’t sufficiently carried off, but I think that’s because Mitchell doesn’t really believe it’s true. I think he subscribes to the idea of earth as a life raft: communities are useful social structures for determining pecking orders but when the water and salt horse start running low it’s the people with the pistols in their pocket and the will to use them who will prevail. Kill are be consumed. Literally.

The virtuous are the exception, not the rule, and there are so many eleventh hour rescues in Cloud Atlas that I was moved, and profoundly so, by Frobisher’s suicide. (Frankly, Mark, I find the idea that his suicide isn’t justified to be absurd: what suicide ever is?) There is no rescue for him, no escape. Frobisher’s self-destructive behavior finally catches up with him.

In the end, Ewing tells us his new purpose in life is to champion the abolitionist cause, and despite all the allusions and references to Melville, it’s Melville’s literary progenitor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who seems to be the chief influence here. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was a bestseller, but he never published another narrative. After serving as a jack-tar on the Pilgrim, a replica of which sits in Dana Point, named because Dana described it as the most romantic spot on the California coast, Dana went back to Harvard, got his law degree and spent the rest of his life defending seaman’s rights and fighting slavery. Ewing’s conversion is an interesting inversion (the noble savage teaches the educated white man what it means to be civilized) but it rings false. He is one man moving against the current of history and human nature.


More on Frobisher:

Like you, Jim, I found these segments to be the most engaging of the book. But I found Frobisher to be so relentlessly, creatively survivalist (not to mention vain beyond measure) that his suicide felt incredibly arbitrary to me. Like Mitchell was merely aiming for the emotional effect that clearly he got from you. Where, anywhere in the voice or character of Frobisher as he's established prior is there any inkling that this self-absorbed creature is capable of harming himself? On the contrary, he sports a vitality that seems "unsnuffable". Sorry, I just didn't buy it, although I was sorry to see him go.

It's also another one of the unfortunate cliches that do seem to dot Cloud Atlas - the one great work of my life is done, now I can die. Whereas I have less problems with Ewing's conversion, in that it's of a piece with the whole - he's fighting a losing battle from the outset, the same losing battle that undoes most of the other characters in one fashion or another.


Ah, don’t be bitten. If you take Frobisher's words at face value, then there is indeed very little justification for his suicide, but there is so much more to Frobisher than what he reveals to Sixsmith. True, Frobisher is endearingly precocious and charming, but he is a gambler and hustler who has disgraced his family and been cast out of his father’s house. When his hair-brained scheme to prostrate himself at Ayer’s feet works, his nature leads him to lie, steal, and fornicate his way to a worst-case scenario (to say nothing of his monstrous ego). There is nothing in his behavior to indicate that Frobisher is looking for a second chance or seeks to improve his lot in life. Quite the opposite; his behavior is borderline Oedipal. He's in a sinkhole and there's nowhere to go but down; Frobisher embraces the descent. As for an “inkling… that he’s capable of harming himself” I would refer you to the section where he haunts the graveyard where his brother lies buried, or wanders around with a pistol in his pocket, or even ask yourself why he’s writing these letters in the first place. He may say that his father’s approval and the love of Ayer’s daughter don’t matter, but they do.


I would agree about his letters about Eva post-revelation; they certainly smacked of "the composer doth protest too much," and it's clear that he cares a good deal more than he lets on. But - to this bitten reader - it felt more device-y than organic, as though Mitchell was looking for ways to justify what he had already decided to do. I scarcely think, though, that he ends up in a worst-case scenario - he's broke and without prospects, to be sure, but that's no appreciably worse off than his first appearance on Ayers' doorstep. Further, as a creative bloke yourself, I ask: How likely do you imagine it is to feel so self-destructive when so clearly in the full flower of creative power, as Frobisher is here? Possible, sure. But likely? The Oedipal reading, however, is very astute and worth mulling over a bit more.

Cheryl Morgan

If you are looking for movie references in the Sonmi-451 section, check out Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!. The Sonmi piece also has what looks like a deliberate nod to Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon.


“Feels a bit device-y” is probably my main complaint about the book too, and I keep asking myself how much disbelief am I willing to suspend when reading a book that looks like literature and feels like omnibus of thrilling genre fiction. I guess Frobisher’s suicide didn’t strike me nearly as gimmicky as some of the Starsky & Hutch maneuvers in the second Half Lives section. By necessity, each composer leaves behind a written record, and to some degree they are aware of what they are leaving and what they are leaving behind, which is so very Poe, Lovecraft, Howard, i.e. the titans of my adolescent imagination. Where it really gets fascinating for me are those places where the author willfully deceives, or attempts to deceive, his or her audience, and Frobisher is the craftiest of the lot, I think. That’s when the narratives transcend genre, and become something entirely more interesting to reflect on and think about.

To answer your question, I know I’m happiest when I’m working toward the completion of something I hope will turn out good; but isn’t it rather common for that fleeting feeling of triumph to be eclipsed by a more negative view once the work is done? Doubts set in. The artist questions its value (both inherent and in the marketplace) and confronts the reality of the work finding an audience. For Frobisher it’s especially dark: once the dictatorial preoccupation that sustained him for so long disappears, all he is left is the bad faith of his many failed relationships, i.e. all of them. Harrowing stuff.


Ah, the unreliably unreliable narrator, to quote James Wood ... I do like your reading of the story, I just wonder if it places more upon it than it really supports.

Cheryl, I seem to recall a direct Soylent Green reference, I think in the Cavendish chapter - doesn't he shout out "Soylent Green is people!" at one point?

Cheryl Morgan

Yes he does. Dear old Timbo is rather more widely read than he likes to pretend. Although of course Tim is simply refering to exploitation of the people by industry rather than the more direct fate suffered by Sonmi's clone-siblings. And I don't suppose that Sonmi understood the reference when she saw tim say it in the movie. I'm sure there are many more such examples of Mitchell linking the stories together in that way.

By the way, if anyone over this side of the pond finds that some of the electricity industry stuff in Half Lives is little odd, it is because Mitchell has based it on his knowledge of the British energy industry rather than finding out what happens in California. I know you guys don't have a "national grid", but Mitchell doesn't.


Yes, there is a Soylent Green reference in the Cavendish narrative, and yes, it's meant to be ironic in light of the PapaSong's revelations in the 451 narrative. This exchange is one of many exchanges that call out to each other between the narratives.

Regarding the Starksy-Hutch feel to Half-Lives -- it's supposed to feel like that. Mitchell is purposely playing on the mystery novel genre. Personally, i think he did an impressive job of replicating and playing off of the feel of the genre.

I agree that the book is cliche-ridden, but Mitchell does address this. In the Cavendish narrative there is a quote about the "how" vs the "what". He basically says "as if anyone could come up with anything that hasnt't been done to death. Art is about how you do it, not what you do."

We can discuss the validity of the above, but hte fact remains that Mitchell does state this rather clearly. I'm personally of the belief that he purposely filled his book with cliches.


I would tend to agree with Scott - Mitchell's far too intelligent a writer to be unaware; and it's clear that everything in Cloud Atlas is designed for a purpose - something that sometimes plays to its deteriment.

But it did prompt another question that I was toying with yesterday: What divides parody or homage from mere imitation? I'm not sure that, despite his best intentions, Mitchell climbs past imitation. To programmatically use the conventions/cliches of genre merely to show your mastery of them isn't hugely interesting, is it? It needs to be in the service of something greater, and I'm not sure that Mitchell hits that high note. It's just this side of an empty virtuosity - please note, I don't say it's an empty work; but it really does seem to shimmy up against that line at times.

Oh, Jim, on further reflection, I don't agree that Mitchell doesn't believe in the survival of goodness, et alia ... otherwise, how would "goodness" have survived the apocalypse? He keeps increasing the odds, arming the enemies more thoroughly (and more ruthlessly) but good keeps popping back up for another round. I think the notion is more along the lines that the battle is lop-sided but worth fighting. Not a terribly original thought, perhaps, but there it is. If he really believed in the eat or be eaten track, why not culminate the work with the Digestion of the Good? But it never happens, does it?

Dan Green

Mark: Just wanted to say I found your remarks extremely useful, and the backblog debate is itself almost as good.


I think you're getting too literal here, Mark. There are interesting things to be said about each of the narratives, but teasing out a particular point from one and seeking antecedents in all of them is not an exercise I'm interested in. The world as liferaft is a useful metaphor because of its echoes in Somni-451's Orison, but it’s by no means a paradigm. I don’t think that “satire or homage” apply Mitchell’s use of genre. I think he’s a shrewd storyteller who realized that Ewing’s journal, Frobisher’s epistles and Somni-451’s catechism are interesting narrative modes, but they are better suited to the novella than the novel. There is only so much artifice that we can take. Mitchell's genius is that he lashes them together, if you will, in the service of a set of ideas. He hooks his narrative to these marvelously inventive systems of exploitation where the protagonist’s loss of control is played out across various genres. Whether it’s enslaving Pacific Islanders or harvesting clone meat, the outcomes tend be on the bleak side. My point is that after hammering home multiple examples of how the human project is guided by self-interest, which almost always leads to greed, corruption and systematization of same, Mitchell seems to be saying that we are on a path toward dehumanization and annihilation, and that we’re a lot closer to it than we like to think. Josh Bearman’s excellent description of post-hurricane Florida reminds us that the social contracts that spring up in the wake of a devastating event provide a “direct preview of the mechanics of apocalypse.” (Ditto Abu Ghraib, liferaft Sudan, etc.) True, Mitchell’s survivors are a testament to the virtues of fighting the good fight, but then again he needs someone to tell the tale, doesn’t he? That’s the ultimate device, and the ultimate conceit: that someone will live to tell the tale, to testify, otherwise it’s all for naught, isn’t it?


I'm going to leave the last word on this one to Jim. He's especially right about one thing - do check out Josh Bearman's blog for a chilling post about post-Frances madness in Florida.

Jenny D

All right, clearly I must read this book! Which I haven't actually laid eyes on. Ironically I have just referred to Cloud Atlas on Sarah Weinman's backblog as an example of a "difficult" book that I have now decided guiltlessly that I won't read, but you guys have actually made it sound far more entertaining--I like to hear that a book errs on the side of being a page-turner, and am heartened by the comparison to Zadie Smith. Really, from what I've read elsewhere about this novel, I had it in my head that it was an impressive but wrenchingly unreadable novel in the DFW style, so you have done me a great service here....


Damn. Would love to join the argument here, but no time. Real quick: I think you folks are missing out on one of "Cloud Atlas"'s main themes -- how cultural identifiers determine the course of humanity. If the book comes across as "too neat," I would argue, well, that's only because the slow slide to a service sector-slavery economy/radioactive dystopia after the fact makes it that way.


All this interesting discussion and me having just bought Mitchell's previous novel instead of the new one (it was much cheaper).

Cheryl Morgan

I'm with Jim here. I don't think that Mitchell is saying that we are all doomed. Much of the novel is about how our actions shape both the past (through interpretation) and the future (through inspiration). He's trying to show where he thinks we are heading right now, and telling us it doesn't have to be that way. The SF term for this is an "if this goes on" novel.


I would suggest putting SPOILER warnings all over this post, for those who have not read, or are in the process of reading, this book. Half the fun of a book like this is figuring out how it all comes together - you spell that out pretty explicitly here.



Quick note: Luisa Rey, reference to "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," the classic Thornton Wilder book that examined the POTENTIAL of an unlived life after a disaster. (Not the only reference to "Bridge" either: there's also the Duchess on the island.) Luisa Rey, it should be noted, is also at the tail end of "Ghostwritten" -- one of the people who call into the radio show.

Mark's claim that Luisa Rey is too much of a do-gooder is unfair, given that the Luisa Rey section was a clear and loving homage to the pulp novel (containing a pulpish heroine to boot). The whole idea behind Mitchell's framework was hardly mere novelty, but one that brilliantly encapsulated the spirit of influence. Whether fact or fiction (several manuscripts and tales were referred to, often with contrasting ideas on whether they were real or not), "Cloud Atlas" dared to plot a bold fictional trajectory for humankind, demonstrating how different events and tales whir into further ideas, and how these very ideas can be destructive (a la Somni 451), wacky (the hilarious rest home), or triumphant (Patrick Ewing).

As for Frobisher's suicide, I found it to be one of the few points in the book that was fascinatingly unexplained. Which suggested that despite influential behavior and ideas, there are just so many damn things that are positively inexplicable.


In an article for readysteadybook.com, Mitchell explained the questions that lead to the writing Cloud Atlas after a visit to Chatham Island:

"So my Chatham Island notebook contains mostly questions – but some struck me as having a contemporary resonance. Is non-violence a viable defence if your enemy doesn’t share your conscience? Are all civilizations condemned to extinction by their strengths? What are the modern tribes? Nations? Corporations? Demographic strata? Can Globalism be considered a civilization? Will it, fueled by consumption, one day consume itself? How will its remnants be “Moriorized”? Is history a fiction? Is the future a fiction based on the present?"

I think Mitchell isn’t sure of the answers to these questions: thus, the book folds back on itself; thus, the book ends at the beginning; thus, the path of humanity may just be a story in the head of a goatherd, or a 19th-century dream of what is to come. The devices employed are all commentaries on these themes. Mitchell’s questions on fiction are what haunted me after reading the book: the image of the goatherd relating the story at the core of the novel, as if all that’s left in the end is the story. (Throw another literary comparison on the fire: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)

And a hearty Amen to dispelling the “difficult” myth. That needed to die.

Peter Bovingdon

I think the book is purposfully written in genre's that can be called cliche. I think the author is saying by imagining (collectively through recognizable genres: mystery, mellville, sci fi, chatacisms) we can transcend the everpresent alternative that "the meek are meat and the strong do eat".

We can't be sure which characters or experiences are supposed to be real possibly because we aren't supposed to be too concerned. We can and must create a "good" reality by imagining it. If we don't, If we discount imagination and dimiss as cliche what is familiar we are left with that other horribly familiar story.

I still don't understand exactly what happenned in this book, but days after reading it, it is starting to seem really important.


Russell Hoban's wonderful post-apocalyptic novel RIDDLEY WALKER must have been an influence on Mitchell. Zachry and Riddley, the links to the past, the manipulation of language.....all so similar.


Frobisher is clearly bipolar, from his actions prior to his suicide, and the prose that he uses in his letters. That is why Sixsmith asked him if he was alright, and came to find him. Hence his suicide does not seem to be out of the blue,


Thanks to all for all the great comments. Found the book to be challenging for a few pages, but then, as noted, it quickly became a page turner. Overall, it's loads of fun, and actually enjoyed the various cliche sections, in part because of all the references to previous works. On that note, there's also a minor character in the Sonmi-451 section named Shirl, which is a direct reference to the Shirl who is one of the main characters in Soylent Green. It's been interesting to see all the other references that others have found scattered throughout the novel.


I would love to see more of a list of the references.

Whoever said Sonmi would not know Soylent Green may be mistaken. She had a wide-ranging reading list and she refers to Primo Levi, who is quoted by Merelyn (that was probably the moment that moved me most in the whole novel - the thought of his testimony surviving all the way for her to have read it).

But I am not the best read of people, so I suspect there are a lot more sneaky references that would illuminate the story if they were pointed out.

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