Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a well-written and far-reaching book. All the more so considering the many narrators, voices and dialects used for the several distinct sections, each of which also took place at a different time in our past or future. It’s written in several parts: the first five parts are from different narrators and each subsequent one picks up the story by somehow mentioning the writings of the previous narrator, however obliquely.
Each piece builds on the previous one, laddering up through the years into a future where humanity is reduced to tribes on islands visited by leftover vestiges of more advanced but increasingly desperate humanity. With the middle part of 11, we retreat back through the narrators, in reverse order, until we arrive where we started, having perhaps learned something of humanity’s reach and maybe something about souls and reincarnation.
The writing is top-notch and the stories intriguing and connected in oblique but interesting ways. This is a challenging book to read because of the spiced chronology and the telling of an overarching philosophy through six individual stories which, though connected, also would mostly stand on their own. Instead of summarizing further, I forward you to the Wikipedia article. While accurate, I doubt that very much of it will make sense until after you’ve read the book.
The citations mostly highlight my favorite bits of writing. I like Frobisher’s narration the best of all of them, though Cavendish came a close second. Throughout Frobisher’s bits are phantom suggestions of a haunting bit of music called The Cloud Atlas Sextet … and the writing makes you positively desperate to actually hear it.
The patois of Zachary in the middle segment was a work of dedication on both the part of the author and whoever had to edit it.
“Rather doubt her interest in the Frobishery’s memsahibs was genuine, but the woman likes to watch me talk, so I painted witty caricatures of my estranged clan for my hostess’s amusement. Made us all sound so gay, almost felt homesick.”
“At a prim and proper public garden named Minnewater Park, courting couples ambled arm in arm between willows, banksia roses, and chaperones. Blind, emaciated fiddler performed for coins. Now he could play. Requested “Bonsoir, Paris!” and he performed with such élan I pressed a crisp five-franc note into his hand. He removed his dark glasses, checked the watermark, invoked his pet saint’s name, gathered his coppers, and scarpered through the flower beds, laughing like a madcap. Whoever opined “Money can’t buy you happiness” obviously had far too much of the stuff.”
“dreamt of a … nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out. I’d been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music in the café was”—he wagged an exhausted finger at the MS—“this.””
“ever since a disciple of the Buddha preached on the spot centuries ago, every bandit king, tyrant, and monarch of that kingdom has enhanced it with marble towers, scented arboretums, gold-leafed domes, lavished murals on its vaulted ceilings, set emeralds into the eyes of its statuettes. When the temple finally equals its counterpart in the Pure Land, so the story goes, that day humanity shall have fulfilled its purpose, and Time itself shall come to an end. To men like Ayrs, it occurs to me, this temple is civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants, and foot soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists, and most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization’s architects, masons, and priests. Ayrs sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, “Look, there is Vyvyan Ayrs!” How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
Why create? For immortality? For riches? Or just because it’s better than doing nothing? Because it staves off thoughts of ending it all?
“Ayrs can’t see further than Eternal Recurrence, but Eva is due back in ten days, and that hawkeyed creature will sniff out a decomposing secret in a jiffy.”
“Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage. A feisty stagger was needed to reach the next train before it left—only to find it had been canceled! But, “luckily,” the train before mine was so late that it still hadn’t departed. All the seats were taken, and I had to squeeze into a three-inch slot. I lost my balance when the train pulled away, but a human crumple zone buffered my fall. We stayed like that, half fallen. The Diagonal People.”
An Orison of Somni-451:
“‘Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.’ ” Warlock-Williams looked at me as if I had spoken in tongues. “Solzhenitsyn.””
“You show xtraordinary erudition for an eighth-stratum, Archivist. I wonder if you encountered this dictum first spoken by a twentieth-century statesman: “An abyss cannot be crossed in two steps.””
“The Abbess nodded. If consumers found fulfillment at any meaningful level, she xtemporized, corpocracy would be finished. Thus, Media is keen to scorn colonies such as hers, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp, royalties from VegCorp patent holders, oxygen from Air-Corp. The Abbess feared that, should the day ever come when the Board decided they were a viable alternative to corpocratic ideology, “the ‘tapeworms’ will be renamed ‘terrorists,’ smart bombs will rain, and our tunnels flood with fire.””
Even in the future, Mitchell sees the same patterns repeated. The enemy is change, the unsatisfied and oppressed terrorists.
“Purebloods played cards, ate noodles, smoked, worked at sonys, joked, engaged in ordinary life. How could they know what happened in the underbelly and just … sit there, indifferent? As if it were not living fabricants being processed but pickled sardines? Why did their consciences not scream for this obscenity to end?”
This sounds like a well-argued plea for vegetarianism in our time. If it is inhumane to grow fabricants—human simulacra—for all sorts of purposes then why is it humane to grow animals for food?
From the point of view of Timothy Cavendish.
“logistics. That fancy electric lock on the gate, for example, I could take it apart blindfolded if I had the mind to, but what about a vehicle on the other side? Money? Boltholes? You see, without logistics, where are you? Belly-up is where, and in the back of Withers’s van five minutes later.” Mr. Meeks screwed up his gnomish features and ground out the only two coherent words he had retained: “I know! I know!” Before I could discern whether or not Ernie Blacksmith was warning me or sounding me out, Veronica came in through the interior door wearing a hat of ice-melting scarlet. I just stopped myself from bowing. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Costello.” “Mr. Cavendish, how pleasant. Wandering abroad in this biting cold?” “Scouting,” Ernie answered, “for his one-man escape committee.” “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back.” Veronica settled herself in a rattan chair and adjusted her hat just so. “We—”
““We—by whom I mean anyone over sixty—commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.””
“That is more or less it. Middle age is flown, but it is attitude, not years, that condemns one to the ranks of the Undead, or else proffers salvation. In the domain of the young there dwells many an Undead soul. They rush about so, their inner putrefaction is concealed for a few decades, that is all.”
“Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction—in short, belief—grows ever “truer.” 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)”
Frobisher again (Part 2).
I thought “ballooning” below was really, really visual.
“Spent last night working on a rumbling ’cello allegro lit by explosive triplets. Silence punctuated by breakneck mousetraps. Remember the church clock chiming three A.M. “I heard an owl,” Huckleberry Finn says, “away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die.” Always haunted me, that line. Next thing I know, Lucille was ballooning sheets of bright morning by the window.”
““Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. 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. War, Robert, is one of humanity’s two eternal companions.””
““Oh, diplomacy,” said M.D., in his element, “it mops up war’s spillages; legitimizes its outcomes; gives the strong state the means to impose its will on a weaker one, while saving its fleets and battalions for weightier opponents. Only professional diplomats, inveterate idiots, and women view diplomacy as a long-term substitute for war.””
“You know, having the roof over one’s head dependent upon the good offices of an employer is a loathsome way to live. Christ only knows how the serving classes stand it. Are the Frobishery domestics forever biting their tongues as I must? one wonders.”
“Reception a rarely manned nook under the stairs.”
This brings to mind the Sully Hôtel off of rue Saint Antione in Paris. They have their reception in exactly such an isolated, dark and largely empty nook.
“Cowardice is nothing to do with it—suicide takes considerable courage. Japanese have the right idea. No, what’s selfish is to demand another to endure an intolerable existence, just to spare families, friends, and enemies a bit of soul-searching. The only selfishness lies in ruining strangers’ days by forcing ’em to witness a grotesqueness.”
“Pater’ll sigh, “It’s no Eroica, is it?” and stuff it into a drawer; but it’s an incomparable creation. Echoes of Scriabin’s White Mass, Stravinsky’s lost footprints, chromatics of the more lunar Debussy, but truth is I don’t know where it came from. Waking dream. Will never write anything one-hundredth as good. Wish I were being immodest, but I’m not. Cloud Atlas Sextet holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.”
Lovely, tight description, evocative. The scene springs to life in great detail from just a few words.
“The Societies loomed larger & after three weeks of oceanic grays & blazing blues, our eyes rejoiced at the moss-drenched mountain faces, aglint with cataracts, daubed with cacophonous jungle. The Prophetess cleared fifteen fathoms, yet so clear was the water, iridescent corals were visible”
“On the beach of Bethlehem Cove we fought & some of us fell. Had our pistols not won that first week’s battles, well, the Raiatea Mission should have remained a dream. But it was the will of the Lord that we light his beacon here & keep it burning. After a half year we could bring over our womenfolk from Tahiti. I regret the Native deaths, but once the Indians saw how God protects his flock, why, even the Spartans were begging us to send preachers.””
“Mrs. Wagstaff’s contempt for her young husband, if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison. “Mr. Ewing will think whatever Mr. Ewing will think. Then, tomorrow, he will leave on his handsome schooner, taking his thinkings with him. Unlike you & I, Mr. Wagstaff, who’ll die here. Soon, I pray God.” She turned to me. “My husband could not compleat his schooling, sir, so it is my sorry lot to explain the obvious, ten times a day.””
“Mrs. Horrox seized the rudder of conversation ere we ran onto reefs. “Your employers evince great faith in your talents, Mr. Ewing, to entrust you with business necessitating such a long & arduous voyage.” I replied that, yes, I was a senior enough notary to be entrusted with my present assignment, but a junior enough scrivener to be obligated to accept the same. Knowing clucks rewarded my humility.”
“Our own century shall witness humanity’s tribes fulfill those prophecies writ in their racial traits. The superior shall relegate the overpopulous savages to their natural numbers. Unpleasant scenes may ensue, but men of intellectual courage must not flinch.”
“Henry obliged. “Our weaponry was not dropped onto our laps one morning. It is not manna from Sinai’s skies. Since Agincourt, the White man has refined & evolved the gunpowder sciences until our modern armies may field muskets by the tens of thousands! ‘Aha!’ you will ask, yes, ‘But why us Aryans? Why not the Unipeds of Ur or the Mandrakes of Mauritius?’ Because, Preacher, of all the world’s races, our love—or rather our rapacity—for treasure, gold, spices & dominion, oh, most of all, sweet dominion, is the keenest, the hungriest, the most unscrupulous! This rapacity, yes, powers our Progress; for ends infernal or divine I know not. Nor do you know, sir. Nor do I overly care. I feel only gratitude that my Maker cast me on the winning side.””
“I ventured that Henry might practice a little reserve when disagreeing with our host. “Dearest Adam, I was practicing reserve, & more than a little! I longed to shout this at the old fool:—’Why tinker with the plain truth that we hurry the darker races to their graves in order to take their land & its riches? Wolves don’t sit in their caves, concocting crapulous theories of race to justify devouring a flock of sheep! “Intellectual courage”? True “intellectual courage” is to dispense with these fig leaves & admit all peoples are predatory, but White predators, with our deadly duet of disease dust & firearms, are examplars of predacity par excellence, & what of it?’”
“As with cooks, doctors, notaries, clergymen, captains & kings, might evangelists also not be some good, some bad? Maybe the Indians of the Societies & the Chathams would be happiest “undiscovered,” but to say so is to cry for the moon. Should we not applaud Mr. Horrox’s & his brethren’s efforts to assist the Indian’s climb up “Civilization’s Ladder”? Is not ascent their sole salvation? I know not the answer, nor whence flew the surety of my younger years.”
““joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety & nine just persons, which need no repentance.””
“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. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?”