Plenty of authors are willing to tell us how bad things are. Literary fiction readers lack not for doom and gloom. Even that former harbinger of a comedic, post-racial society to come, Zadie Smith, seems to want to tear down hope in her latest tome, NW. Maybe I should be okay with that. And maybe I’m just getting old, but I admit – I want literature to offer a silver lining of hope even at the bottom of a dark truth cloud. Like I tell my students – it’s easy to point out what’s wrong; it’s a lot harder to figure out where we go from here. Cloud Atlas, a beautiful, dense, “Russian nesting doll” of a book, manages to do both.
Cloud Atlas is about reincarnation. (If you’re not sure just watch the movie; it is impossible to miss). The lives of the six characters it follows don’t overlap so much as brush up against one another. Luisa Rey swears she’s heard the Cloud Atlas Sextet by Robert Frobisher somewhere before. Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing’s diary. Zackary of Baily’s Dwelling worships Sonmi as a god. Sonmi is influenced by a film made by Timothy Cavendish. Timothy Cavendish reads mystery novels written by Luisa Rey. And so on. The book begins in 1845 and moves chronologically through time to the two futuristic narratives – Sonmi, a “fabricant” in a “corpocratic” society in 2144, and Zackary, a goat herder in Hawaii in a distant future after “the fall.” After this outward movement, the book moves in again, like clouds wafting in a never-ending progression across the sky. The cyclical rotation is highly thematic. David Mitchell wants us to know that he’s talking about recurrence, repetition, eternity, the way the Earth rotates, and our continuous cycles around the wheel of the Earth, from birth to death to birth again. Though he mentions Christian, secular, and scientific ideas, as well as Buddhist ones, Mitchell suggests that Buddhism is the most useful because it acknowledges reincarnation and interbeing (that we are reborn as different people in different lifetimes, and that we are connected to everyone else in unexpected and unseen ways). Despite several mentions of Buddhism and strong thematic connections, Mitchell isn’t merely proselytizing; the book is entertaining and unique enough at the level of story that it avoids being polemical (many have written that the movie does not succeed in this regard; I would agree, but think that it’s fun to watch anyway. Then again, I agree strongly with its claims).
On the one hand, the message of the text is obvious – déjà vu comes up in every section and, in case you didn’t get it, each character has a comet shaped birthmark, suggesting that they might be one of the others reborn. This is all familiar to me from my study of Buddhism. But something Robert Frobisher, the character from the 1931, says complicates my understanding of Mitchell’s concepts of reincarnation and time. The composer, Frobisher says, “Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortes’ll lay Tenochtitlan to waste again, and after, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.” According to Frobisher, not only will we be reborn to another life on Earth, but maybe into the very same one. The structure of the book also indicates that we are doomed, if not to literally return to the same time, place, and body, then at least to repeat the same patterns “for an eternity of eternities.” Is there no Nirvana, no extinction, no respite from the cycle to look forward to?
Cloud Atlas is not only about reincarnation but also about the nature of that recurrence. The book suggests that though we progress, we also fall back. The struggle between the forces of good and evil is ongoing. While Mitchell doesn’t offer a lot of hope that evil will ever be permanently abolished, he does hint that good could be. So, while it seems we are unable to permanently “fix” the world, in fact it takes our very best efforts just to maintain the status quo. As these things tend to go, the movie is more uplifting than the book, showing a vision of interconnection that dwells more on the heroic acts of extraordinary individuals than the negative doings of the masses. Still, Mitchell leaves us with a tentative hope. At the very end the 19th century notary, Adam Ewing, expresses disgust with the world, and the desire to create a better one for his son. To do this, he proclaims, he will work for the Abolitionist cause. He imagines that his father-in-law’s response to this will be that it’s an admirable but impractical goal; people will never change; Adam’s actions will be nothing more than a drop in the ocean. To this hypothetical critique Adam replies, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” Adam wants to end slavery and, indeed, chattel slavery was abolished. On the other hand, the book questions the “once and for all-ness” of an idea like the “end” of slavery, since, in the future sections, slavery returns, albeit in a different guise. The indication might be that the equally strong forces of good and evil are at work at all times. Sometimes the good is heavier, and sometimes the bad. What we do, Mitchell suggests, does alter the course of history, even if it doesn’t do so permanently. We may not be able to change the nature of people in general, but if we change the way we are, we will affect the quality of our own and others’ worlds right now. Stasis may be the only progress available, but it’s not nothing.