Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1833
David Mitchell's first novel Ghostwritten (2000) linked nine characters throughout the world and showed how chance meetings among them determined their fates. Mitchell's second work,Number9Dream (2001)—like Cloud Atlas, a finalist for the Man Booker prize—combined one man's confusion between reality and fantasy with primary-source and fiction-within-fiction elements, including excerpts from a diary and several short stories. Cloud Atlas similarly links several characters through letters, diary entries, interviews, and narrative prose in a puzzle connecting the past to the future and fiction-within-fiction to the novel's reality.
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Nineteenth century American notary Adam Ewing is a passenger on the ship Prophetess, sailing the Pacific Ocean on a business trip and keeping a diary of his journey. When the Prophetessstops for repairs at Chatham Island, near New Zealand, Ewing sees that vicious local tribes have conquered the island's peaceful Morioris. Ewing's harrowing traveling conditions and his brutish fellow seafarers are horrifying enough, but then Autua, a Moriori enslaved on Chatham Island, stows away on the ship, putting his own life—and Ewing's—in danger. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Goose, whom Ewing also met and befriended on Chatham Island, diagnoses a chronic ailment of Ewing as a parasite in his brain. He prescribes poison and persuades Ewing that taking a small dose every day will eradicate the bug.
Ewing's diary ends mid-sentence and is followed by Robert Frobisher's “Letters from Zedelghem,” dated 1931. A British composer and musician, Frobisher is estranged from his wealthy family and barely avoiding his creditors when he devises a plan to become amanuensis to the famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. For years, Ayrs has been isolated in Belgium, nearly blind and too ill to compose. Frobisher charms his way into Ayrs's household. With Frobisher transcribing for him, Ayrs begins to write music again. Frobisher describes their work, the affair he is having with Ayrs's wife, and the valuable first editions he is stealing from Ayrs's library in glib, chatty letters to his friend and sometime boyfriend Rufus Sixsmith.
Frobisher finds a published version of Ewing's diary propping up one leg of his bed at Zedelghem. The book is torn in half; Frobisher asks Sixsmith if he can identify the fragment and find the rest of Ewing's story. Confessing he is tired of Ayrs's wife, Frobisher plans nonetheless to remain with the older composer's household for at least another year, partly to learn from Ayrs and partly because, while there, his expenses are covered.
Sixsmith and Luisa Rey are the focus of “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a third-person narrative set forty years later in Buenas Yerbas, California. Sixsmith is the only dissenting scientist among several consultants to Seaboard Incorporated, a nuclear energy company whose chief executive officer is planning to build a power plant on Swanekke Island outside Buenas Yerbas. Twelve scientists were hired to confirm the safety and wisdom of building the plant; Sixsmith alone has not endorsed it and carries an incriminating report on the plant's potential negative effects. Seaboard's executive arranges for Sixsmith's murder, not knowing that Sixsmith has already sent a young reporter, Rey, a copy of his report.
Rey works for Spyglass, a tabloid newspaper, but sees a real story in the unsafe nuclear reactor planned for Swanekke Island. She is ready to expose the corruption at Seaboard when a hit man forces her car off a bridge. As she sinks, trapped in her Volkswagon Beetle with Sixsmith's report hidden under the seat, the narrative switches to “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.”
Cavendish, co-owner of the vanity press Cavendish-Redux, narrates his own tale in the first person voice. Dermot Hoggins, a Cavendish-Redux client and author of the fictional memoirKnuckle Sandwich, has murdered a critic, propelling his book onto the best-seller lists. Cavendish suddenly finds himself considered a legitimate publisher, and as Cavendish-Redux's standard contract gives him ownership of every book, no royalties are due the murderous author. When Hoggins's brothers break into Cavendish's apartment, demanding money and threatening violence, Cavendish panics; in spite of the success of Knuckle Sandwich he remains impoverished by longstanding debts. His brother Denholme offers him a place to hide, arranging for him to stay with people in Wales who owe Denholme a favor.
Cavendish checks into what he thinks is a Welsh hotel, only to find that he has admitted himself to a well-guarded nursing home. Unable to talk his way out of the institution or contact his brother, he amuses himself by reading a manuscript he received from a hopeful author before he left London: “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.”
Cavendish eventually realizes he will not be able to bluster his way out of the nursing home; he will have to plan an escape. However, before he can start scheming, Cavendish suffers a stroke, and his tale gives way to the “Orison of Sonmi-451.” This interview with Sonmi, a fabricant on Neo So Copros (once Korea), describes a “corpocracy” where consumerism is supreme and corporate identities have become standard (all coffee is “starbuck,” all shoes are “nikes”). Sonmi was a clone genetically programmed to serve meals in a fast-food “dinery” called Papa Song's. Sonmi tells of her life in the dinery and how she worshiped Papa Song, a holographic corporate logo who promised his workers “Xultation” (an idyllic retirement) after twelve years of service. Each evening, Sonmi and the other fabricants ate Soap, a food that erased their memories.
As Sonmi began to have thoughts and knowledge, she was sent to a university to be a research subject, then was recruited by a rebel group of anticorporate activists. For her activities with the group, Sonmi has been condemned to death for crimes against the corpocracy. Even so, she still believes that corpocracy is the best way for people to live, in harmony with human nature.
This first part of Sonmi's interview is followed by “Sloosha's Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” narrated in the first person voice by Zachry, a young man living in Ha-Why (once Hawaii). Ha-Why civilization has reverted to a primitive tribal society, a bartering and farming culture that worships Sonmi.
Meronym, a woman from a group called Prescients who barter seasonally with Zachry's people, comes to live temporarily with Zachry's family in order to study their society. Meronym carries with her a metallic egg that produces a holographic image of Sonmi making her final statement. When the savage Kona tribe overrun Zachry's village, Meronym helps him escape, and the novel then turns back upon itself, revisiting the characters in reverse order to finish their stories.
All six narratives deal with enslavement and the cruelty powerful people impose upon the less powerful, often in the pursuit of profit. Ewing witnesses Autua's flogging and learns how the Moriori were enslaved by Maoris. On the island of Raiatea, Ewing observes that missionaries teach the natives to smoke, creating a need for tobacco—which they are then denied unless they work for the mission. Ewing does not realize he himself is in the power of his new friend Dr. Goose, who is deliberately poisoning him.
Frobisher's situation is far less dire but is nonetheless psychologically and spiritually exploitative. Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher's compositions; Frobisher is merely the latest in a string Mrs. Ayrs's lovers; and he is humiliated when he falls in love with the composer's daughter Eva. Having left Zedelghem and believing Eva's parents prevent her from seeing him, Frobisher sends her letters and symbolic tokens, only to find he misunderstood Eva's confession of love: she loves someone else. Emotionally bankrupted, Frobisher commits suicide.
Sixsmith's integrity costs him his life. Seaboard's plant will have detrimental, if not deadly, effects on the people of Buenas Yerbas, but the chief executive's corporate greed overshadows environmental concerns. Cavendish is kept prisoner in the nursing home where his brother has sent him as a joke, is physically abused, and eventually suffers a stroke.
Sonmi is more profoundly enslaved. She writes a manifesto against the corpocracy when she realizes that fabricants reaching Xultation are executed. However, Sonmi rebels only because, as an experiment, she was created with the ability to do so. She comes to understand that much of her experience was planned and enacted to manipulate her; even anticorpocracy activists are controlled by the corpocracy, which encourages a rebel faction to attract malcontents and keep them under surveillance. When Sonmi has served her purpose she is publicly denounced and executed.
After the corpocracy's catastrophic demise, Zachry and his people live in a primitive civilization that mirrors the tribal rivalries and oppression of the peoples Ewing encountered in New Zealand and Raiatea, centuries before. Zachry's village lives in fear of the Kona, a violent tribe that has killed Zachry's father and ultimately enslaves Zachry's tribe. Only a few escape the Kona's final attack.
As Cloud Atlas moves backward and forward in history the characters are linked by the records they create of their lives, and also perhaps by something supernatural. Each character reads or hears about another: Zachry watches Sonmi's orison; the twentieth century movie Sonmi asks to see as a final request is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish; Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel about Rey, who reads Frobisher's letters to Sixsmith; and Frobisher reads a portion of Ewing's diary. The Prophetess is preserved as a tourist attraction in Buenas Yerbas. Rey discovers Frobisher's final composition, Cloud Atlas Sextet, and feels drawn to the music, as if she has always known it. Rey, Frobisher, and Sonmi also bear identical, comet-shaped birthmarks.
Mitchell uses a different prose style for each story. Ewing's nineteenth century diary is appropriately formal and philosophical, as befits a gentleman, while Rey's story, set in the mid-1970's, has the tone of a popular mystery novel. The orison of Sonmi and Zachry's fireside tale, both set in a distant future, use language and dialects invented by the author. The mores and tenets of the times are effectively conveyed through language.
Although Mitchell's visions of the future are grim, the novel has an underlying theme of hope. Zachry suggests that souls travel through time as clouds are blown across the sky and that a soul's outer appearance might change while it remains the same soul. This seems to imply that there will always be someone like Rey, Meronym, or Frobisher, to create beauty or stand up for what is right. This hopeful theme is undermined somewhat by the fiction-within-fiction aspect (several of the characters are simply that in relation to each other—characters in novels or films) and the fact that the futuristic Zachry and Sonmi in their terrifying worlds are the two most “real” protagonists, not appearing in accounts read or seen other characters. Zachry still worships Sonmi as he makes his final escape from Ha-Why's Big Isle—and Sonmi died still believing in the corpocracy.
Library Journal 129, no. 11 (June 15, 2004): 60.
Macleans 117, no. 46 (November 15, 2004): 129.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (August 29, 2004): 7.
The New Yorker 80, no. 23 (August 23, 2004): 85.
Newsweek 144, no. 9 (August 30, 2004): 57.
Publishers Weekly 251, no. 26 (June 28, 2004): 30.
The Spectator 294 (February 14, 2004): 34.
Time 164, no. 8 (August 23, 2004): 67.
The Wall Street Journal 244, no. 36 (August 20, 2004): W6.