Cloud Atlas: Six Stories in Search of Ovaltine


Cloud Atlas: Six Stories in Search of Ovaltine –a review:       ***Spoilers***

Images from the movie, "Cloud Atlas"

Cover for “Cloud Atlas,” the movie

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book.

The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting.

Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century and his inventiveness in terms of language are exceptional. The detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive.

Of the Cloud Atlas stories, five are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories.

Story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” describes the gasps of a dying Earth. Except for a dying few who cling to what’s left of civilization and scientific study, humanity has devolved into superstitious tribal societies where the strong prey on the weak. After story six which is in one piece, Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order. Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resumes after Story six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, written ala Herman Melville is the first story in the Cloud Atlas.

The story is a first person narrative. After a shipwreck, thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing writes in his journal. It’s the 1850’s. We meet Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. Along with Ewing is his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). Ewing learns of this injustice as he witnesses a Moriori being flogged.

When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces.

Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium.

A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work.

Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions.

There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Cloud Atlas story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one.

Three is the only one of the six written in third person. We know this story takes place in the 1970’s because Disco music plays. Stuck in an elevator Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s, meets Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant, an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island.

And so the killing begins.

First, someone murders Sixsmith and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her.  We leave the story as her car plunges off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with the second murder in the Cloud Atlas.

An author murders the reviewer who panned his book by throwing the reviewer off a balcony. Oops, better be careful.Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: “Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and then the story breaks,

His sneaky brother traps Cavendish in an old folks’ home, where a Nurse Ratched running things.

This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey. His randy reminisces of past romances makes use of Mitchell’s florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world.

The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves Somni on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha. When a nun explains the meaning of the symbol, we encounter the “author’s message,”

Whenever I see an overt “author’s” message in fiction, I remember Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas.

Or was it Take the Money and Run? I’m not sure but I do remember the joke. In the Allen movie, during the “death” scene dialogue, the words “author’s message” kept flashing on the screen. “An Orison of Somni-451” was the first story I actually enjoyed. I did notice elements of other works of science fiction. The layered corruption and the Asian setting evoke Philip Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose echoes O’Brien’s speech in 1984: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.”  And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!”

Before her execution, Somni asks to see the movie version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

It is my opinion that this connection to Story Four is imposed on the Somni story. I can’t find any indication that shows Somni’s choice as an outgrowth of the plot or her character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Like characters in Stories One, Two and Three, Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder. I recognize this as a device that implies connection and identity.There needed to be more.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five.

As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story. In the second part of Story Four, I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish tale. However, the only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music. The music could have been used to connect all of the stories. And there’s Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” The Prophetess should have appeared in all of the stories. But it doesn’t and Frobisher’s suicide at the end of Story Two made me shrug. Unfortunately he was too unlikeable.

Then I read part two of Story One, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”

I assumed that Mitchell would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. He didn’t. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

 As I finished Cloud Atlas, I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story.

Like the nun’s speech and Buddha’s statue, Mitchell wants to make sure we understand. So the last two pages are pure “author’s message.” It’s 1939’s middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a bee-bee-gun to be under the tree. A fan of Little Orphan Annie, Ralphie has sent in all the boxtops to get Annie’s secret decoder ring. When the ring finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message. This message is accessible only to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Ignoring the protests of his younger brother who has “to go,” Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom. Outside, little brother Randy wails and pounds the door.

His breath labored, a defiant and determined Ralphie turns the ring to find each letter.

Then, his excitement barely contained, he reads Annie’s message. Rather than a secret formula or news of a decoder ring-bearer secret meeting, Annie tells him to “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!”  Ralphie is disappointed to say the least. Disgusted, he feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.