Cloud Atlas Summary

David C. Mitchell

Cloud Atlas

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Cloud Atlas Summary

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David C. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel consisting of interconnected stories that stretch from the nineteenth century to a futuristic dystopian society. The book opens with five stories of varying styles each stopping at a significant moment, then there is a sixth story followed by a return to the initial five, but in reverse order. The stories are related by documents or other references to a previous chapter.

The opening segment, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” is set in 1850 in the Chatham Islands. Ewing is waiting for his ship to be repaired. He is a notary from San Francisco during the Gold Rush. He sees a Moriori slave being whipped by an overseer, and while he is feeling sorry watching the incident, he is being watched by Autua. Ewing later falls into a crater on Conical Tor hill where he sees trees carved with faces. He manages to escape to his ship where his friend, Dr. Goose diagnoses him with a deadly parasite and begins treating him. Autua has hidden in Ewing’s cabin and is put to work by the captain to pay his way.

The next part, “Letters from Zedelghem” takes place near Belgium in 1931 and is in the form of letters sent from young English musician Robert Frobisher to his lover Rufus Sixsmith while Frobisher is visiting a one-time well-known composer Vyvyan Ayrs who is dying of syphilis. Frobisher mounts a production from music that Ayrs gives him, returns to his own composing, and takes Ayrs’s wife, Jocasta, as a lover. Frobisher sells some books from Ayrs’s collection of rare volumes including half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Jocasta is grateful that Frobisher has helped Vyvyan return to music, and he decides to stay until the next summer.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” resembles a mystery novel and takes place in Buenas Yerbas, a fictional city in California in 1975. A young journalist Luisa Rey meets Rufus Sixsmith while stuck in an elevator. She talks of her dead father who was an upright police officer and a well-known war reporter. Sixsmith tells her of his concerns over the safety of a nuclear plant. Later he found dead, apparently by his own hand. Luisa finds some of Frobisher’s letters in Sixsmith’s hotel room, starts investigating the power plant, and is followed by an assassin hired by the plant who forces her off a bridge.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is set in the present in Britain. Cavendish, who runs a vanity publishing press, finds himself threatened after publishing a book by a gangster. He then finds himself unwittingly in a position of being held permanently in what he thought was a hotel; in another connection to a previous section he mentions having read, but not being impressed by, a manuscript titled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451,” the fifth story in the book, takes place in a dystopian state in futuristic Korea. It is structured as an interview between Sonmi-451, a clone who is a waitress at Papa Song’s restaurant and an archivist. Those in society who are not clones try to prevent the conscious awareness of the clones via chemicals. Sonmi is taken by members of a university faculty who want to study and increase her awareness. She later describes watching a film, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” an old man named Zachry relates a story from his youth about living in a post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii. He tells of his people who were farmers and of a tribe called the Kona, cannibals who take slaves.

After the sixth chapter, the previous five are revisited. Events therein include Sonmi boarding a ship while disguised and seeing clones, or fabricants, being recycled into the substance that is used as food for them. She writes a series of documents called Declarations that urge rebellion, using themes from Adam Ewing’s diary and is eventually arrested. She tells her story to the archivist; she hopes her work has been purposeful. Knowing she will be executed, her final wish is to watch Cavendish’s story.

The second part of the “Ghastly Ordeal” chapter includes Cavendish obtaining the second half of Luisa Rey’s book and his thinking of turning the events of his own life into a film script. The chapter with Luisa’s mystery includes her receiving a package from the niece of Sixsmith which has in it Robert Frobisher’s final letters to Rufus Sixsmith. “Zedelghem” continues with Frobisher falling for Eva, the daughter of Ayrs and Jocasta, and Jocasta vowing to ruin his life if he has any contact with her. Additionally, Ayrs blackmails Frobisher into making him stay with him. The final chapter circles back to Ewing and his completing his journal.

The structure and style of Cloud Atlas have unique aspects, which make the book unique. In 2004, the New York Times Book Review said of the novel, “To write a novel that resembles no other is a task that few writers ever feel prepared to essay. David Mitchell has written such a novel—or almost has. In its need to render every kind of human experience, Cloud Atlas finds itself staring into the reflective waters of Joyce’s Ulysses.”