Mapping the Ineffable: The Nebulous Flow of History in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

Three or four times only 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.

– Timothy Cavendish in Cloud Atlas (373)

If only we could have some sort of “never changing map of the ever constant ineffable?” Yet, would not such a map only be relevant for a brief moment? The ineffable maybe indescribable but is it fixed? In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, souls flow across time and space inhabiting different physical bodies but encountering their spiritual counterparts repeatedly, revealing that our actions in the future might influence ours in the past. For Mitchell’s characters, time exists more as an abstract open space within which our spiritual selves flow backwards and forwards, often intertwining with others. Even the structure of the novel suggests that our linear progressive understanding of history may be flawed. Mitchell tells six different stories, in six different time periods, in six different genres, unfolding in ascending and then descending order, visiting each story twice except for the sixth which takes place in one sitting (think of it this way, the stories are told in this order: 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1). Throughout, Mitchell’s characters experience not only deja vu from the past but also evoke feelings or memories from actions their souls commit in the future. If anything the future seems to disrupt the past as much as the opposite.

Released in 2004, Mitchell earned praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his third novel, Cloud Atlas. Though the Sunday Telegraph’s critic initially refused to review the novel because it was “unreadable” even those critical of the work acknowledged Mitchell’s prodigious talents. New York Times reviewer Thomas Bissell conceded that Mitchell “is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”  Yet, Cloud Atlas left Bissell wanting as the critic found the book more form than emotion, more skill than heart. For Bissell, Cloud Atlas may prove innovative, a novel that might propel literature forward, but he wondered aloud “to what end things are being moved.”

Hopping from colonial New Zealand to interwar Belgium to 1970s California to the 1990s multi cultural UK to futuristic Blade Runneresque Korea to post apocalyptic Hawaii, Cloud Atlas proves at once transhistorical and transnational (it’s also chock full of transfiber). In New Zealand, Adam Ewing a young lawyer from California provides the storyline, engaging in discussions of imperialism, exploitation, morality and race. Robert Frobisher’s letters to friend and lover Sixsmith narrate the second chapter. The cynical bisexually adventurous young musician details his trials in the service of a decrepit but notable composer of the period. Mitchell’s third piece remains the only one told in the third person and not from the direct viewpoint of a protagonist. Journalist Luisa Rey battles a corporate nuclear conspiracy in Reagan California. Elderly, self-centered, and deeply indebt book publisher, Timothy Cavendish, serves as the novel’s fourth protagonist. Cavendish, a Londoner uncomfortable with his fellow UK members (“The London Irish unnerve me at the best of times,” 153), finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home after fleeing some rather aggressive debt collectors. Fast forwarding to a futuristic Korea, Mitchell then deposits the reader at an archival rendering of Sonmi-451, a replicant-like figure who had ascended to human intelligence and awareness only to be deemed threat by the consumerist corporate dictatorship Neo So Copros. Sonmi-451 recounts her life’s story to the “state” archivist before her execution. Finally, the only story told in one chapter, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After,” is narrated by Valleyman Zachary. Inhabiting a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachary’s tale unfolds in a dialect created by Mitchell that somehow remains intelligible as the young man witnesses the possible fall of civilization. Despite traversing such disparate times and places, Mitchell presents the constant tension between transience (empires fall, enslaved people are freed, free people are enslaved) and persistence (the groups may change the but the central structure remains fixed; the thread of history that connects Adam Ewing and Zachary, the survival of Sonmi’s legacy, the fact there is always a struggle between master and slave).

Perhaps even more confusingly, Mitchell implies that some of the stories may not even be real, Luisa Rey appears in Cavendish’s tale, but as manuscript for an airport thriller type work written by a man Cavendish describes as a “lardbucket.” Likewise, Cavendish appears in Sonmi-451’s interview but as a movie from humanity’s early days. Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith appears in Luisa Rey’s story as key source in her investigation. Rey reads the very letters Frobisher sent to Sixsmith which constitute the previous chapter. Realizing she has the same birthmark as Frobisher the journalist concludes that she and the musician are the same soul. Cavendish reading the Rey novel pronounces such plot twists as “Far too hippy drug-new age” but then unwittingly reveals that he carries the same birthmark:  “(I, too, have a birthmark, below my left armpit, but no lover ever compared it to a comet)” (357) Frobisher reads Ewing’s journal while composing for his syphlytic employer. Sonmi-451 serves as the god of Zachary’s tribe (“birthed by a god o’ Smart named Darwin”) and so it goes.

Clearly, Mitchell wants to challenge concepts of time, history, and reality. In his earlier novels, Mitchell frequently employed Joycean techniques to create dream like sequences in which discerning reality from fantasy proved difficult. Determining what is real in Cloud Atlas and what is “fiction” can be difficult. For example, though Cavendish reads the Luisa Rey mystery as a prospective publication, he also exhibits clear connection to Rey through the aforementioned birthmark. If Rey remains only a fictional story in a fictional story why does Sonmi-451 in her testimony to the archivist recall a feeling of de ja vu during her initial escape from authorities, “The final drop shook free an earlier memory of blackness, inertia, gravity, of being trapped in another Ford. Where was it? Who was it?”(314) Without revealing any deep plot lines, it is safe to say Luisa Rey may have endured an unpleasant experience in a certain American made automobile. (Of course, if Luisa Rey is only a pulp mystery and not a reality, it’s possible Sonmi-451 read it at some point and remembered the events within as her own.) Similarly, when stealing away from his sleeping employer, Robert Frobisher hovers over the sleeping old man and fights off an “unaccountably strong urge “ to slit the old man’s throat. Frobisher reflects “Not quite Déjà vu, more jamais vu”. Likewise, as Zchary sits perched over a sleeping Kona sentry, a member of the savage tribe that had killed his father and enslaved his people, he debates whether or not to slice the unconscious guard’s throat “See, murderin’ was forbidded by Valleyman law” … If I’d been rebirthed a Kona in this life, he cold be me and I’d be killin’ myself” Ultimately, the Valleyman slayed the sleeping enemy but knew it came with a price, “I knowed I’d be payin for it by’n’by, but like I said a while back, in our busted world the right thing ain’t always possible.” (300-301) Like the Maori in Ewing’s story, the Valleyman banned murder yet because of this apparent “civilization” they later find themselves enslaved by more brutal peoples.

Ironically, within the Luisa Rey mystery, Mitchell even lays out fragments of his logic through the writings of a doomed scientist working for the corporate malefactor Rey investigates. According to Isaac Sachs, there exists two pasts: the real past and the virtual past. The real past fades and becomes increasingly unreachable as its participants die off and its remnants collapse or disintegrate. However, the virtual past which we construct from the real past is as Sachs explains “malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.” The present “presses” the virtual past into work, using it to legitimize mythologies and justify the “imposition of will.” Power “landscapes” the past. The future has an actual and virtual reality as well, “We imagine how next week, next year or 2225 will shape up – a virtual future constructed by wishes, prophecies, + daydreams. The virtual future may influence the actual future, as in self fulfilling prophecy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today.” (392-393)

If all this seems highly theoretical, it is. Mitchell’s skill lay in his ability to interweave these intricate ideas into a text that fluidly explores issues of time, reality, and collectivity. From a historian’s point of view, Mitchell’s world remains a troubling comment. The soul that each of these characters represents fights against various forms of subjugation. Though each character seems to recognize their apparent vulnerability, they nonetheless engage in acts that doom themselves but also their reincarnations to subservience. This permanence pushes back against historian’s belief in contingency.

Mitchell’s work suggests our souls remain hardwired, persisting in their various traits. Though they experience success (Rey defeats the corporate behemoth that threatened to ruin California with an ill advised nuclear reactor/Cavendish emerges a new man with new book deals and movie options), defeat (Sonmi-451 is executed, failing to lead an uprising of replicants/Frobisher’s turn from a cynical gigolo to a love sick suicide case/Zachary and Meronym witness the potential collapse of civilization) and ambivalence (Ewing devotes his life to anti-slavery after having his own life rescued by a Maori once destined for execution but does so with the knowledge as his father in law promises his future descendants pain and suffering for Ewing’s new devotion/Sonmi-451’s death results in her ascending to god status among Zchry’s people) the structure of the novel suggests not a march of progress or linear growth, but an expansive but bounded world, where ascendancy and decline seem locked in a perpetual lover’s quarrel. While historian’s precious contingency remains, it does so in a circumscribed way that results in a permanent struggle or as Frobisher writes to his lover Sixsmith, lamenting the death of his brother Adrian in WWI, “We cut a pack of cards called historical context – our generation, Sixsmith, cut tens, jacks, and queens. Adrian’s cut threes, fours, and fives. That’s all.” (442)

Throughout, Mitchell also questions ideas of empire and capitalism. Cavendish appears completely out of sorts with the multicultural England of the 1990s. Scottish resentments, dangerous Irish, and intimidating pot-smoking West Indians seem to bedevil the crotchety old Englishman. Yet, Cavendish’s salvation comes at the hands of a nearly autistic Scot who in a critical moment marshals Scottish anger over English footballing and attitudes of superiority to crush the attempts of an enraged nursing home staff modeled after those seen in the famous movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Adam Ewing’s own acceptance of imperialism soon collapses as he suffers near death at the hands of a serial killer/grifter who embraces the most savage form of Social Darwinism. Both Ewing and Cavendish, though skeptical of the value of other ethnic/racial groups at the novel’s outset, see the falsity of their beliefs writ large in the more harrowing moments of their tales.

Economic systems based on capital accumulation draw a jaundiced eye from Mitchell as well. Sonmi-451’s world exists as a hyperconsumerist tyranny. Citizens seem little aware that the very voracious appetites they feed, have drained the world outside Korea of its life. Luisa Rey’s fight with corporate America reveals a nation less under the thumb of an overbearing government, than one at the mercy of private sector plots and machinations. If anything, government never develops the kind of control we attribute to totalitarianism until it embraces the techniques and language of hyper capitalism as evidenced by Sonmi-451’s tormentors Neo So Copras.

How we know history seems at play with Mitchell as well. Incorporating numerous devices for conveying historical memory, we come to know the protagonists through journals (Ewing), personal letters (Frobisher), pulp fiction (Luisa Rey), state sanctioned recorded archival testimony (Sonmi-451), and first person accounts. Yet, the characters within the text come to know history through a variety of means both “authentic” and replicated (the movie optioned for Cavendish serves as Sonmi-451 last wish). How the past comes to be known filters through these means as Sonmi-451 attains god status through recorded state testimony. When Mitchell insinuates that Luisa Rey existed as both the fantasy of an overweight man and an earlier incarnation of Sonmi-451, Mitchell exhibits the very tenuous structures we have used to scaffold our own knowledge.

Mitchell’s latest book The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet follows a more traditional narrative structure but remains as engaging and historically founded as Cloud Atlas. Historians might be troubled by Mitchell’s implications that in some ways humanity remains an unchanging entity, one in which the tensions of subservience and domination serve as permanent features of life. However, Mitchell’s grasp of history, postmodern theory, nineteenth century racial logic, and countless other subjects dazzles even the most jaded reviewer, well except for the aforementioned New York Times critic. Ultimately, the book has a melancholy sweetness, our souls no matter how tortured tumble along time, backwards and forward, making decisions they know full well will doom them. It is in this acceptance that Mitchell’s characters exude an iridescent quality that illuminates the very ineffable Cloud Atlas Timothy Cavendish pines for.

Ryan Reft