Cloud Atlas Critical Essay

Reincarnation is the single thread that binds the stories of Cloud Atlas together. As a major theme within the text, reincarnation advances the plot, influences character interactions, and compliments the novel’s parting theory that all life on earth is connected. In its simplest form, reincarnation is the spiritual or philosophical view that the soul can be reborn to a new body, be it human or animal, after its physical body has died. Various religions differ on the exact nature of reincarnation and how the individual determines the course of their next life.

David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas uses the idea of reincarnation in the novel in an unconventional manner, molding it to fit the lives of his characters and making no attempt to explain its deeper significance within the overall plot. He borrows from several different religious and scientific beliefs concerning reincarnation. They are as follows.

In Hinduism the soul is considered immortal. After physical death the soul travels into another world or realm for a time and then returns to earth and is reborn in a new body. Karma determines the quality of the new body based on the conduct of the soul’s previous life and their spiritual needs. The new body is chosen to obtain spiritual fulfillment which includes both human, animal, insect, and even plant form. They believe the soul is genderless. Each “class” of being has a different level of awareness. The human body in comparison to other life forms is most aware and strives for spiritual connection. The ultimate goal of the righteous soul is to reach the purest state of being, nirvana. Of the major religions, Hinduism’s beliefs concerning reincarnation are largely absent from [Cloud Atlas] aside from the general principal of the immortal soul.

Christianity rejects the teachings of reincarnation believing that the immortal soul and mortal body are created in imitation of God and are sent to Earth to lead a virtuous life. When the body dies the soul is returned to an afterlife and reunited with its creator in Heaven, if they are deemed worthy. The concept of reincarnation would also demean the divinity of Christ’s resurrection. Early Christians may have believed in some from of reincarnation as had the Jews but contemporary Christian culture does not believe it is possible for a soul to be reborn. Yet, there are several aspects of Christianity within Cloud Atlas that influence the character’s interpretation of reincarnation. For example the Valleymen believe their souls are weighed down by stones whenever they do wrong. Stones are suggestive of the concept of sin and the Valleymen’s prayers to Sonmi-451 for spiritual guidance are similar to that of the Christian ideal of the forgiveness of sins.

Some Shiite Muslims believe that God creates a series of lives for each soul. The soul moves from one life to the next until Judgment Day when God tallies up the soul’s good or bad conduct during each life and decides if the soul will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. They do not believe that the soul can come back in animal form or change genders. This belief system is similar to that which appears in the novel concerning the “series of lives” which appear in chorological order and are usually not far removed from one life to the next. They do; however, change genders.

In Cloud Atlas most of the main characters are reincarnations of one another, each learning and growing at their individual rate. They are connected by the same comet-shaped birthmark that appears on or near the torso area. The birthmark is used by the author as a visual clue to the reader that the character in question is a reincarnation of another character. If there are other reincarnations present in the novel, there are no set visual clues.

Unlike more traditional beliefs concerning reincarnation, the main characters in Cloud Atlas are born within close proximity to each other both in time and location. Ewing and Luisa are both born in California just as Frobisher and Cavendish are born in London. Sonmi -451 is born near Korea, one of the only inhabitable places left on the planet at that time. Zachry, likewise, is born near Hawaii, considered paradise by Sonmi-451 and later by Ewing who takes refuge there after Goose tries to kill him.

Other more contemporary views on reincarnation, according to Dr. Ivan Stevenson, who conducted a forty year research study on the subject of past lives, concludes that personality traits, birthmarks, even facial features, transcend from one life to the next during reincarnation. Stevenson, who interviewed thousands of children about their past life memories, suggests that the déjà vu experience as repeated throughout Cloud Atlas is a “flashback” to an incident in a previous life. In the novel Sonmi-451 remembers Luisa’s car crash as Mr. Chang’s car falls down the hill. Similarly when Autua is being whipped by the Maori he looks into Ewing’s eyes and the notary recognizes him although neither had met in this life. Ewing is so startled by this recognition he feels ill. There are other various incidences of a similar nature that correspond with Stevenson’s theories although it is unknown if the author of Cloud Atlas was directly influenced by them.

Regardless of where Mitchell drew his inspiration for the various aspects of reincarnation in the novel, it is the primary theme which connects the characters together. It is not a strong or coherent theme but the only one which is consistent throughout the sections. As Cloud Atlas is so unconventional in structure a strong theme was needed to cohesively tie the main characters together. If left untied the stories would not have had anything to do with one another except for the occasional crossover in characters. The only other connection is the influence of art or fiction on the lives of the protagonists be it through journals, music, film, etc. It would have been interesting and structurally coherent had the author forgone the spiritual connection between the characters and written the novel as novel within another novel. Instead the author seems to have written Cloud Atlas as is solely for the purpose of creating a difficult yet structurally unique story. Mitchell’s writing is brilliant but the slim connection between scenes and characters, especially the mixed theories of reincarnation, leave something to be desired.

How economical is the structure of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? When the author confessed at the Guardian book club event at the Hay festival that his novel had once been intended to have not six but nine sections, a member of the audience suggested that this left room for a sequel. Or, responded Mitchell, there could be a "director's cut" version. As we laughed at the expense of movie-makers' self-importance, he observed that this was not entirely a joke: it had indeed been suggested that he include "excised scenes" from the novel in an ebook version of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is a virtuoso of literary pastiche (his article in this paper last week listed the authors and styles that he imitated). One commentator on the book club website thought this mere technique: "by the halfway point it felt as though I was reading the output of a series of creative writing tutorials, each asking the writer to demonstrate competence in a different genre". Mitchell's admirers, however, delight in what one called his "ventriloquism" – his "multitude of tones and styles" – and like to feel there is hardly a limit to it.

Opinion is divided about how testing Mitchell's structure of nested narratives really is. One reader at Hay called Cloud Atlas the "natural successor" to the "relentless experimentation of meta-fiction" characteristic of post-modernism. A reader on the website thought the experimentalism was bluff: "He's a genius at making middlebrow readers feel that they're experiencing the avant garde." But this could also be said in admiration of the novel. "I really don't know where its reputation as being 'demanding' came from as I think that does it a disservice – it's a bit like the best-ever volume of Reader's Digest Compacted Library – and I don't mean that in a bad way." This reader, like many, thought that Cloud Atlas used structural trickery to satisfy old-fashioned narrative appetite. "Each cliffhanger and new voice ratcheted up the tension for me. The pay off was that once they started collapsing back into each other again all that energy came back out in the most glorious fashion."

Mitchell himself spoke at Hay of his impatience with the kinds of "meta-fiction" that keep reminding the reader that he or she is reading fiction. He must be glad to know that some of his readers think of him as, in the words of one, "a real storyteller in a literary world which abandoned storytelling some time ago". As a website reader remarked: "If you go on to the London Underground and look at what your fellow commuters are reading, you will see plenty of Twilight and Stieg Larsson, but you will often catch people reading Cloud Atlas with the same enthusiasm. I've seen three this week. Who says the literary novel is dying?"

On the book club website, readers undertook some close analysis of the relations between the novel's different narratives. There was some resistance to its use of the comet-shaped birthmark given to several of the main characters. "If we do take it at face value – that all these characters are reincarnations of one another with unconscious recollection of the previous life to theirs and who learn of that previous life's history – how does it embellish the story in any way? This irks me because it detracts from the (truly successful) thematic connection between the stories." Another responded that "the transhistorical connections – the 'Cloud Atlas' melody, the birthmark, the text of each protagonist 'folded into' the hand of the next (in time)" did not indicate "actual reincarnation", but suggested that the novel's "drama of amity and destruction" was "connected through time historically – materially and culturally, in artefacts and institutions".

One critically attentive reader worried about the fact that Adam Ewing's journal (narrative one) and Robert Frobisher's letters to Rufus Sixsmith (narrative two) give way to the story of Luisa Rey (narrative three), which is revealed by Timothy Cavendish (in narrative four) to be a novel. "Frobisher describes Ewing's book in his letters to his friend Sixsmith, who then shows up as an old man in the third narrative. Which means that if, within bounds of the novel, Luisa Rey exists only in a work of fiction written in Cavendish's time . . . then the first and second stories – including Ewing and Frobisher and Sixsmith too – must be fictional as well, as they are part of the same fictional construct as Luisa Rey".

Is this a logical glitch? "Not necessarily," replied another reader. "I could write a fictional account of a 17th-century nobleman who studies the Domesday book – my book would be fiction, but the Domesday book exists in reality." Everyone seemed to agree that Cloud Atlas was a novel that rewards analysis – or as one reader sardonically put it, it is "just the sort of book most critics wish they'd written". Perhaps this means that it is a novel written by an author who loves stories, but also knows plenty about criticism.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Next week he will be looking at American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Join them for a discussion on 14 July at 7pm, Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. Tickets are £9.50 online (www.kingsplace.co.uk) or £11.50 from the box office: 020 7520 1490.

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