Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell is a postmodernist novel that has been adapted into a film.
Postmodernist themes: different narrators and narrative techniques (journal writing, letters, mystery-novel, and interview; also newspaper clippings), simulacra and simulation, intertextuality (the stories are interconnected and mentioned), allusions (real and imaginary) to other literary works, consumerism (Sonmi narrative) and historicizing the characters.
All the main characters have a comet shaped birthmark- Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, clone/fabricant Sonmi-451, and Zachry. Each of them seem to break away from conventions and reincarnated in different lives.
Robert Frobisher (bisexual composer) mentions the “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” to a letter (section “Letters from Zedelghem) to Sixsmith Rufus (who appears in Luisa Rey): “the edited journal of a voyage from Sydney to California by a notary of an Francisco named Adam Ewing. Mention is made of the gold rush.. so I suppose we are in 1849 or 1850. The journal seems to be published posthumously by Ewing’s son (?). Ewing puts me in the mind of Melville’s bumbler Cpt. Delano in “Benito Cereno,” blind to all conspirators- he hasn’t spotted his trusty Dr. henry Goose [sic]is a vampire, fueling his hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money” (64). Also an example of foreshadowing as the journal does not mention the nature of Goose.
Luisa Rey searches for The Cloud Atlas Sextet that Frobisher composed. Luisa gets to know about Frobisher through Sixsmith’s letters. Frobisher is described as “a wunderkind, he died just as he got going” (119). “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is mentioned as the title of manuscript to Cavendish in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” by a dubiously named lady author Hilary V. Hush (156).
Some of the works mentioned: “Jong Il’s Seven Dialects; Prime Chairman’s Founding of Neo So Copros; Admiral Yeng’s History of the Skirmishes” (211), “Sixthmonth 18th, Epic of Gilgamesh; Seventhmonth 2nd, Ireneo Funes’s Remembrances; Ninthmonth 1st, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (218), Wittgenstein (219).
Consumerism of the Purebloods, “Wangshimni Orchard: what an encyclopedia of consumables! For hours, I pointed at items for Hae-Joo to identify: bronze masks, instant bird’s nest soup, fabricant toys, golden suzukis, air filters, acidproof skeins, oraculars of the Beloved Chairman and statuettes of the Immanent Chairman, jewel-powder perfumes, pearlsilk scarves, realtime maps, deadland artifacts, programmable violins. A pharmacy: packets of pills for cancer, aids, alzheimers, lead-tox; for corpulence, anorexia, baldness, hairiness, exuberance, glumness, dewdrugs, drugs for overindulgence in dewdrugs. Hour twenty-one chimed, yet we had not advanced beyond a single precinct. How the consumers seethed to buy, buy, buy! Purebloods, it seemed, were a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor, dinery, bar, shop, and nook” (227)
Sonmi and Hae-Joo watch a “picaresque titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, made before the foundation of Nea So Copros” (234).
Simulations: Sonmi is a clone/fabricant. Also this section has numerous examples of the differences between Purebloods and fabricants who function as menial workers. Also capitalism, welfare societies and religion.
An atlas of clouds mentioned by Cavendigsh, “A history program on BBC2 that afternoon showed old footage shot in Ypres in 1919. That hellish mockery of a once fair town was my own soul.
Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides … I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds” (373).
Narration of Isaac Sachs, who has a soft spot for Luisa Rey, writes down sentences in bullet forms on passage of time and simulacra, and how the entire novel is a set of puzzles, nestled into each other:
- 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 of , 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…
- 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. …
- Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows—the actual past— from another such simulacrum—the actual future? One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside 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. Proposition: I have fallen in love with Luisa Rey. (392-393).
Poem: “Brahma” by Ralph Waldo Emerson 433.
What sparks war, as told by Morty Dhondt to Frobisher: “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 ofstates. 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.” So, I asked, what was the other? “Diamonds.” (444).
Captain Molyneaux on Civilization’s Ladder, “Highest ofalltheraces on this ladder stands the Anglo-Saxon. The Latins are a rung or two below. Lower still are Asiatics—a hardworking race, none can deny, yet lacking our Aryan bravery. Sinologists insist they once aspired to greatness, but where is your yellow-hued Shakespeare, eh, or your almond-eyed da Vinci? Point made, point taken. Lower down, we have the Negro. Good tempered ones may be trained to work profitably, though a rumbunctious one is the Devil incarnate! The American Indian, too, is capable of useful chores on the Californian barrios, is that not so, Mr. Ewing?” (487) “Last, lowest & least come those ‘Irreclaimable Races,’ the Australian Aboriginals, Patagonians, various African peoples &c., just one rung up from the great apes & so obdurate to Progress that, like mastodons & mammoths, I am afraid a speedy ‘knocking off the ladder’—after their cousins, the Guanches, Canary Islanders &Tasmanians—is the kindest prospect [extinction]” (488).
Long lecture on the last page on humanity and civilization 508.
- Review in The Guardian.
- Review of the movie on RogerEbert.
- Helpful infographic on the movie.
- Postmodern elements in the movie by T.J.Dawe.
- Teaching notes by Ben Robertson.
- Review of the movie in Salon.
- Interview with Mitchell in The Paris Review.
- Interview in The Washington Post.
- Guide to watching the movie by Robbins.
- List of allusions on Shmoop.
- The novel demystified: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lq3ee6gWcc
- Extended trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWnAqFyaQ5s
- Cloud Atlas Sextet Song.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House 2012.