Some notes on Cloud Atlas

I am finding it very hard to organize my thoughts on Cloud Atlas and am reminded what it must have been like to teach systems novels in the 1980s, before anyone had collated so much information on them. At least with House of Leaves I can just ignore things. I don’t feel I can do that here.

Anyway, these notes are “as is.” They are likely “wrong” in one or more spots for one or more reason. They reflect my idiosyncrasies and the way I teach. They also only reflect the fact that we had only read the first two parts of the book (the first Adam Ewing section and the first Robert Frobisher section)

discussion points

  • several difficulties
  • several themes

several difficulties

  • first and foremost, this novel is difficult because it is not about one single story
    • or, rather, it reveals that novels are never about one single story
      • Murakami is about Toru, but we need the other stories too or it would not be the same
      • PotT is about Lauren, but the other, non-Lauren parts are important to the NOVEL if not the plot
      • Intuitionist is about Lila Mae, but is clearly about a longer history as well in which she is situated
      • Oryx and Crake is also about a longer history, but it is all focused through Jimmy
    • in any case, most novels focus on individuals and their stories
      • which is to say that most novels are humanist, in the sense that they are about autonomous, liberal human subjects
      • even when they critique such humanism, they tend to focus on individuals because we can relate to individuals
      • we find it harder to relate to groups, as Crake reminds us when he tells us that humans are hardwired against thinking of groups larger, the very thing that perhaps creates his lack of empathy for the mass call “humanity”
    • further, most novels that deal with multiple storylines deal with the relation between stories in some kind of coherent manner
      • so it’s clear that Toru hears stories from others; that’s how the stories appear, even if we are left to puzzle out their relation to the main story
      • in the Intuitionist, it’s crucial for us to understand how the present conflict comes from the past and the histories of those individuals who precede the present narrative
    • thus many novels strive for some kind of coherency
      • they seek to tell a consistent story about a consistent individual or group of people
      • they impose order (called plot or narrative) on the world
      • they may involve themselves in a larger STORY, but they try to limit their plots
      • this is less the case with certain experimental works of the modernist and postmodernist period
      • but most novels still owe a tremendous debt and allegiance to realism, the novels that follow most directly from the advent of humanism
    • Cloud Atlas does not do this
    • this novel tells six stories, few of which seem to have any direct, material connection with the others beyond the fact that each subsequent story in some way “reads” the previous story
      • we will see that Sixsmith, RF’s lover and correspondent, is a character in the next part
      • but the question of what is real and what is not becomes important here
      • we will deal with this question in a bit
    • Adam Ewing is in no literal manner Robert Frobisher’s relative (although, again, Sixsmith is a presence in at least two sections)
    • in short: one of the difficulties of the novel is that it is not “about” a single thing
      • it is not about a single protagonist or a single conflict
      • it does not follow a single narrative thread
    • it eschews the linearity of the conventional novel
      • back to that in a moment, as this leads us to a second, very much related problem
  • second problem
    • it’s very difficult to discuss the novel without having read all of it, because w what is important about each of the stories is the ways they reinforce one another
    • however, this reinforcement is not an issue of the same character acting in a consistent manner and moving towards a stable goal (called the narrative climax or resolution)
      • there are at least six main characters all involved with their own narratives, so that is not entirely absent
    • rather, the six parts of the novel reinforce one another thematically, by demonstrating certain inhuman or nonhuman connections between various times and places
      • the novel seems to run with the idea that history repeats itself, regardless whether we remember it or not
      • the novels considerations of slavery and the way the strong prey upon the weak occur in various ways in each section
    • but most important here, the novel is told in a manner reminiscent of a Matryoshka doll
      • these are the Russian nesting dolls, each one smaller than the one it belongs inside of
      • so the first part of the story is set in the 1850s
      • the second in the 1930s
      • the third in the 1970s
      • the fourth in the 2000s
      • the fifth in the future, some one or two centuries
      • the sixth in the far future
      • the seventh back to the time of the fifth in which that story is completed
      • the eighth back to the fourth where that story is completed
      • the ninth back to the third when that story is completed
      • the tenth back to the second
      • the eleventh back to the first
    • thus the first story to start is the last to finish, giving us reason to question what we know about linearity
    • but, more important, we will see that while the individual stories do not necessarily explain one another, and while there is no consistent PLOT to be found that travels across and through them, they nonetheless require one another
      • the NOVEL only completes itself once we return to the past, as if what happens to Adam Ewing doe sin some sense draw to a close what HAS NOT HAPPENED YET
      • of course, the issue of Nietzsche is important here, although it’s not clear to me whether Mitchell is reading Nietzsche correctly or not
    • there are textual reasons why each story is interrupted, but we don’t always know that as we read, until we read more
      • for example, that Frobisher is reading Ewing’s journal and can’t find the rest
      • see page 64
      • each story does have some TEXTUAL connection with the ones around it therefore, but will again raise the question of reality and whether there is a final authentic position anywhere in the text
  • third problem
    • because each section is about such a very different moment in time, and is actually told through a rather different medium than the one before, each part is very different in its voice
    • each novel requires us to become familiar with the language of a different time
    • each section carries with it Mitchell’s understanding or those different times
      • his attempts to mimic not only the language of that time, but the assumptions and ideologies buried in those languages
    • thus each section requires us to learn to read all over
      • not only the words and what they mean, but the cultural and historical contexts that produced the people who produced the words (or images, depending on the language)
    • so we must become familiar with the language of the journal and that of the American at sea in the South Pacific in the middle of the 19th century
      • then with the language of an educated young Englishman in the early 1930s
      • then the language of the thriller novel
      • then that of the cranky older Englishman (many say Martin Amis)
      • then that of science fiction and an interview to boot
      • then finally an oral narrative set in a far future in which English has both evolved and devolved
    • each section presents its own challenges, whether of apparent opacity or clarity
      • that is, what is opaque appears difficult and makes what is clear too clear, perhaps allowing us to avoid what is difficult about it
    • we need concern ourselves not only with the language of the times, but also with genre
    • finally, what we think we learn in one section is often undermined in subsequent sections
      • as when RF considers whether the journal of Ewing is authentic
      • as the past becomes more distant, the distinction between fiction and reality becomes blurrier, just as our ability to “read” a given moment becomes more and more problematic
      • we can no longer “think” like those people
      • this is problem for the characters here
      • it is a problem for us trying to read what they write
      • it is a problem for Mitchell who is trying to write in their voices so that we may read them
  • fourth problem
    • the impossible
    • namely the idea of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls
      • see small example on 67
    • we have not quite seen this issue
    • but that is part of the second problem, the fact that this novel needs to be understood all at once


several themes

  • the strong and the weak
    • see page 3
    • page 8
      • also related to the human and its exalted position within HISTORY
    • 18: lex talionis
  • slavery
    • related to last
    • see page 6
    • 30
  • violence
    • the gun on 68
  • the cycle of history/origins
    • 11 – 16: history of Moriori
    • 16: what moral to draw
    • 61
  • knowledge
    • see page 4
      • and 18: the evidence of the material and physical
      • contrary the text’s assumption about immaterial connections
      • see page 79: the dream Arys has of the future
    • 9: accurate time
    • 19: the mind abhors a vacuum
    • 31: seeing violence for oneself
  • the human and its passing
    • see page 3
      • cf Foucault and Crusoe
    • page 6: assumptions about the human
    • 10: the question of civilization
      • it seems eternal, but it will not last
      • it is historical
      • and, it seems for Mitchell, cyclical
    • all forms of government bad (this is Nietzschean)
      • 61
      • all exploit
      • all are human constructions and shall pass
      • Foucault takes this from Nietzsche
      • both are antidotes to Hegel
      • see 62: Zarathustra
    • 76: times change and empires fall
    • 81: hankering for immortality
      • through authorship
      • will it work?
      • we will see something of it in the 1970s section
  • chance
    • especially the references in the second part to croupiers, but also the fact of the way that Ewing and Autua meet, etc
    • chance stands opposed to necessity
    • necessity is a property of the eternal as opposed to the historical, but the two become confused
    • what is historical is, in theories contrary to the Hegelian, what is accidental
    • not that it happened on accident, but that what happens could have happened otherwise or could have not happened at all
  • textuality
    • amanuensis (see page 45)

plural amanuenses, is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under their authority. The term derives from a Latin expression made up of a suffix, -ensis, “belonging to”, and prefix, manu-, “hand”.


The word originated in ancient Rome, for a slave at his master’s personal service “within hand reach”, performing any command; later it was specifically applied to an intimately trusted servant (often a freedman) acting as a personal secretary.

    • the issue here connects slavery to textuality as well as to the undecidable nature of the text
      • who writes it?
        • this is an issue in the second part
      • who completes it?
      • who reads it?
    • see also 65: giving up share of authorship
      • cf “His Master’s Voice” on page 60
    • see also the thematic links between Arys’s musical works and the rest of the text
      • page 52
      • untergehen: to die out or to go down fighting
  • love
    • of all kinds, even amongst people who never know one another
  • Romanticism
    • page 59 – 60
  • this last related to the question of the new
    • are classics good?
    • should we try to overcome them?
    • can we, or are we always simply plagiarizing from the past?
    • see 83: daring ideas in old age





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