Metaphor in Cloud Atlas

I finished Cloud Atlas this week. – That’s too mild a sentence, by the way, to fully capture my last few days of staying up late / toting the book to lunch with me / shirking my studying for midterms / frantic tweeting / exuberant retelling of the story to my somewhat bemused friends. I even took to marking particularly revolutionary pages with a pencil. I loved this book. I loved every unexpected stylistic leap, every syntactical success, and every wrenching dystopian detail. I loved its ambition of form. I loved its scale. I loved the dark yet accurate theme of predation. Loved. It.

– As an aside, if you enjoyed this book as much as I did, you might be interested in this website, which explores every allusion in the text at great length (ambitious, I know). I found this particularly useful re: Frobisher’s pages, since I’m pretty musically illiterate (the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?) and it was marvelous to have a whole aural database to flesh out his section for me. However, the whole site is fascinating, period. You should check it out. –

Anyway, the only aspect of this book that I found slightly chafing, as a reader, was the insinuation of reincarnation, which seemed too whimsical to fit smoothly with the otherwise gritty and powerful text; I could have done without the birthmark, or else replaced it with a hereditary feature, which would imply blood descent as a connective thread instead. To me, the mystical rebirth implications just seemed a little askew in the greater, darker context of the six worlds.

Additionally, it seemed to undermine the idea of civilization’s collapse, the looming threat at the apex of the book, by providing an odd, reassuring thread of immortality of the soul. Maybe it’s just me, but that seemed contradictory. Humanity cannot continuously engineer its own defeat and then endlessly resurrect itself. No lesson is learned; no doom awaits, with such an optimistic caveat. It just didn’t fit.

Would love to have a conversation with David Mitchell about that somehow. So many questions.

I was also v. curious about the title, “Cloud Atlas,” even before starting the book, – why “Cloud Atlas”? What the hell is an atlas of clouds anyway? – and I’m still not fully satisfied with the answers I’ve pieced together. I like the idea of the Cloud Atlas Sextet which Frobisher composes; the six soloists, each contributing a vital piece of an overarching melody, are obviously meant to represent the six respective protagonists. That bit’s easy. But the metaphor itself, the “atlas of clouds,” is more of an enigma.

“Sloosha’s Crossin’” offers up an answer of sorts. To quote the book: Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? …only the atlas o’ clouds. (308) This tells us that clouds are metaphors for souls, forming and reforming in new patterns across the sky despite changes to individual forms. In short, history has recurring patterns, and people have recurring roles. (This book review agrees.)

I’ll admit that I was depressed by this revelation, because I’d already decided that I didn’t like the book’s brushes with reincarnation and surprise: the title itself is a reference to it. (Hmph.) But I love the idea of a cloud atlas, and I think that the metaphor could have gone in a different direction entirely. SO: here is an alternate theory of a “Cloud Atlas” for you.

In my Environmental Injustices and Inequalities class, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how maps are highly political items – which I’ll admit that I’d never thought of before. (Maps are nonfictional, aren’t they?) But you can tell a lot about the power play in a society by the way a map is drawn. What information is included. What information is excluded. A map of a city doesn’t reveal things like socioeconomic disparity; crime; toxin exposure; culture; social capital; race; religion, et cetera. The agenda of the people drawing the map, whether good or bad, wholly determines what is put in and what is left out. Maps are pure political constructs.

Even maps drawn for the sake of direction reveal a lot about cultural values and objectives. GPS takes you from point A to point B under the assumption that efficiency is your priority (e.g., what’s the fastest way to get there?).

Additionally, the human-dominated world changes at such an unbelievable rate that maps have to be constantly redrawn to incorporate new cities, razed districts, new roads, blasted mountains. Mapping is an endless process.

After a while, then, you begin to realize that all maps are ultimately ephemeral: as useless, in many ways, as an atlas of clouds might be.

That says more about human mortality, to me, than it does about immortality. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”)

And while we’re still talking about it: I was playing with this imagery in my logic class this week and wound up doodling verse instead of actually paying attention to the lecture. Thought I’d post the outcome here because it sums up how I feel about the book better than longhand might.

“Reaction to Cloud Atlas”

The world: a web of tripwires and snares,
with no safe place to catch, to snag, to hold.
The flightless: long since dead, caught unawares
by appetite’s ambition, bought and sold.
All things with wings have taken to the sky,
a blemish on its mortal map of cloud.
No refuge but their stamina to fly,
they only seek an unmolested shroud.
This time shall prove. No miracle can birth
an Icarus untethered from his earth.


Julia Ray


~ by juliamray on March 1, 2012.

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