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Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell

Discussed January 2013

Buy Cloud Atlas from

Characters, style and tone (section by section):

Character notes from Cloud Atlas BookCaps Study Guides. Kindle Edition.

1, 11 The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
Journal entries; 1849
Places: New South Whales, Chatham Islands,  The Prophetess, ship, bound for San Francisco
Adam Ewing - Young man, notary from San Francisco; plagued by a mysterious Ailment
Dr. Henry Goose - An eccentric doctor, Henry’s friend; accompanies him on the Prophetess; ends up poisoning him to steal his money
Autua - An escaped Moriori slave, stowaway aboard the Prophetess; Adam convinces the captain to let him stay on board
The journal’s style recalls Herman Melville; Recalled as a novelized journal by Frobisher in the next chapter
The Prophetess appears in the Luisa Rey Chapter

2, 10 Letters from Zedelghem
Letters, to a man named Sixsmith; 1931
Place: Belgium, Chateau Zedelghem
Robert Frobisher - Young musician, composer. From London, and in debt. Travels to Belgium to work with Vyvyan Ayrs. Has a comet-shaped birthmark. Hints that he is in love with Sixsmith
Vyvyan Ayrs - Famous composer, elderly and ill. Hires Robert and comes to depend on him
Robert Frobisher and Vyvyan Ayrs were inspired by Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius (Fenby was an amanuensis to the great English composer - Echoes the work of Christopher Isherwood; Recalled as a series of letters to 'Sixsmith' by Luisa Rey and Sixsmith's Niece in the next chapter
Vyvyan Ayrs dreams the music of Sonmi's dinery

3, 9 Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Series of short, third person chapters; 1975
Place: Buenas Yerbas
Luisa Rey - Young journalist for a gossip magazine called Spyglass. Investigating Seaboard Incorporated. Has a comet-shaped birthmark
Rufus Sixsmith - 66 year old atomic engineer, worked at Seaboard Incorporated. Meets Luisa on an elevator. Is assassinated for his plans to expose Seaboard’s cover-up. Most valuable possession, letters from his lover, Robert Frobishner
Is this a John Grisham story set in the 70s? Is Luisa Rey a reference to Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”?; Recalled by Cavendish as a novel/manuscript in the next chapter

4, 8 The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
First person memoir; set in an unidentified but near future
Place: London, Hull
Tim Cavendish - Elderly man. Runs a small book publishing company Has a comet shaped birthmark (?)
Denholme (“ Denny”) -Tim’s brother, sends him to an elderly home Nurse Noake’s - Resident nurse at Aurora House
Nurse Noakes - Resident nurse at Aurora House
Mr. Withers - Gardener at Aurora house
Ernest Blacksmith - Fixes the boiler, plans on escaping
Victoria Costello - In love with Ernest, also plans on escaping
The white-male-reactionary flavor to his Ordeal–hints of Saul Bellow, Updike, and maybe Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Recalled by Sonmi as a film in the next chapter

5, 7 An Orison of Sonmi-451
Interrogation; set in an unknown, far future
Place: Nea So Corps, Korea
Sonmi-451 - A server fabricant who achieves Ascension. Has a comet-shaped birthmark
Archivist -  In his early 20’ s, conducting Sonmi’s interrogation
Yoona-959 - Sonmi’s fellow server, achieves Ascension, is killed
Wing-027 - A disaster fabricant, gives Sonmi her laptop
Hae-Joo Im -Takes Sonmi out of University, revealed as rebel officer
This section harks back to work by Orwell, Huxley and Philip K. Dick; Recalled by Zachry and Meronym in the next chapter

6 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
first person narrative; unknown, post-apocalyptic future
Place: The Valley (Hawai'i - The Big Island - esp. Mauna Kea)
Zachary - Young goat-herder
Old Georgie -Mythical devil, haunts Zachary
Meronym -Prescient woman, in 50’ s. Comes to the Valley to observe, stays with Zachary. Has a comet-shaped birthmark
Written in invented argot that recalls Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker. or William S. Burroughs in a Cities of the Red Night 
Meronym has visited locations from the Luisa Rey chapter

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark...that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context.- BBC Radio Interview With David Mitchell, BBC Radio 4. 2007-06.

David Mitchell told the Paris Review in 2010 that “‘Cloud Atlas’ is a novel about whose echoes, eddies and cross-references even its author possesses only an imperfect knowledge.”

Questions for discussion

  1. What were your overall impressions of Cloud Atlas? How well do you think it flows as a whole?
  2. Which was your favorite story in the novel? Why?
  3. Here are some commonly discussed themes:
    1. The number Six (sextet, six chapters, sixsmith...)
    2. Cycles, Samsara/Reincarnation
    3. Ascent, descent
    4. Running, escape
    5. Enslavement
    6. oppression, liberation, intervention
    7. Injury and rescue by an outsider
    8. Capitalism; Corporate morals vs. social morals
    9. Prejudice
    10. Scars/Birthmarks
    11. "Truth"
    12. Prophets, prophecy, dreams
    13. Stories, recorded history, media
What did I miss?
  1. Why is the book structured as it is, with the stories only half told to start with, and then being finished in the reverse order? How does this reflect the themes of the novel?
  2. What role does science play in this novel?
  3. How is the idea of race dealt with?
  4. How are the subjects of gender and sexuality handled?
  5. How do the queer characters fare?
  6. Cloud Atlas is often referred to as one of the "unfilmable' novels, like Ulysses, or Gravity's Rainbow - Did you see the film? Does it work, or is a mess?
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