“A Multitude of Drops.”
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the Subject
between Space and Time
University of Pécs (Hungary)
Institute of English Studies
Abstract. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) presents its readers with a
“borderless world.” This borderlessness concerns space and time, with
complex and interweaving spatiotemporal planes. In this ctional world,
the subject will serve as an entity that brings together disparate spatialities
and temporalities through an intricate symbolic web that connects the
subject’s body to the world it inhabits. Numerous versions of past, present,
and future run in parallel, the actual and the virtual coexist, and the text
folds upon itself. The novel operates a constant state of liminality, a state
that will be embodied by the subject. Seemingly in a paradoxical way, the
multiple liminal states identiable in the novel convey the ultimate sense of
borderlessness. It is exactly the work’s heterogeneity, its jumps through time
and space, its interrupted chapter structure that lend it a special unity and
coherence that erases both geographical and temporal borders. The novel’s
structure goes into thematic depths and creates a bridge, a constant interplay
between form and content, captured in the metaphor of the concertina.
Consequently, Cloud Atlas creates a constantly shifting world where the
only xed entity is the subject and its comet-shaped birthmark.
Keywords: subject, borderlessness, liminality, concertina, birthmark
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) operates with a constant state of
liminality, which seemingly in a paradoxical way conveys the ultimate sense
of borderlessness. It is exactly the work’s heterogeneity, its jumps through time
and space, its interrupted chapter structure that lend it a unity and coherence
which erases both geographical and temporal borders. The novel spans through
several centuries (starting from the 18th to the 22nd century, and a post-apocalyptic
ActA UniversitAtis sApientiAe, philologicA, 11, 1 (2019) 49–63
50 Noémi ALBERT
world), guides the readers to disparate parts of the planet (either through jumps
or through the characters’ strolls), and creates a ctional world that thwarts any
considerations of a clear beginning and an end.
The current enterprise proposes to outline the way through which the subject
becomes the central entity in Mitchell’s novel, one that brings together multiple
spatialities and temporalities. The subject accomplishes this, paradoxically,
through never being centralized: the entire novel rejects the idea of a single
focus through its numerous characters, with no one protagonist, through its
structure, through the different temporal and spatial scenes it chooses for the
six disparate (and interrupted) chapters. There is no linear narrative, no true
beginning and no end, the apocalyptic moment from the book’s centre is resolved
by a counter-movement in time. Nevertheless, the subject, through the multiple
selves comprising it, becomes the titular cloud atlas: a means through which
the interconnections can be charted. The selves will show rhizomic connections
through an intricate symbolic web, one that connects their bodies, spanning time
and space, and creates a link through the comet-shaped birthmark.
The novel’s structure goes into thematic depths and creates a bridge, a constant
interplay between form and content. This interplay is reected in the numerous
interpretations circling around the structure of six stories. One gradually notices
that all interpretations are guided by the very text. The terms applied come from
the novel itself, and this way the novel presents us with a double and contradictory
gesture: it interprets itself, shows a great amount of metactionality, and at the
same time mocks itself, and ironizes each attempt at deciphering it.
One way to capture the structure and time conception of Cloud Atlas would be
through the object of the Russian doll, one that appears in two distinct scenes in the
novel. In its rst appearance, the image of this artefact is in the name of a musical
composition created by Vyvyan Ayrs, the reclusive English composer living “in the
Belgian backwaters” (Mitchell 2004, 45). His Matryoshka Doll Variations alludes
to the structure of the entire novel, where the reverse effect is achieved by the
stories being embedded in the one following them. Later on, the image of the doll
appears in the Luisa Rey-chapter as a clearly formulated theory of time:
One model of time: an innite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each
“shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents)
I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of
“now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual
future but which we perceive as the virtual future. (Mitchell 2004, 409)
Isaac Sachs proposes a theory that builds on the dichotomy of actual versus
virtual time, shedding light on the paramount importance of memories in shaping
one’s past. As he writes in his notebook, the actual past event gradually falls
51“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
into oblivion; however, the virtual past event, “created from reworked memories,
papers, hearsay, ction – in short, belief – grows ever ‘truer’” (Mitchell 2004,
408). The virtual past indubitably takes over the actual past, and, according to
Sachs, it has its inuence on one’s present and future. The result is that chance is
a constant element in one’s fate, and the multitude of virtual pasts creates a row
of possible futures that run side by side.
A further interpretation approaches time as a musical composition: an artwork,
a creation that is free, unbridled, and unforeseen. The novel’s central metaphor
also appears in the name of Robert Frobisher’s greatest musical composition
(Cloud Atlas Sextet). This title points both towards temporality (conceived as
an atlas of clouds: attempting to chart the fortuitous movement of the clouds)
and structure (the sextet reecting on the six stories that comprise the narrative).
Frobisher describes his composition as a “‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: […]
each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the rst set, each solo is
interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in
order” (Mitchell 2004, 463). This conception about the musical piece harmonizes
with the way the six consecutive narrators of Mitchell’s novel take turns to inhabit
totally disparate worlds, embodying different personas.
I agree with the interpretation put forth by Peter Childs and James Green that
“the image of Mitchell’s novel as a musical composition suggests that each of its
narratives should be understood as symphonic movements of a larger whole”
(2013, 150). This is visible in the “cacophony of voices” (McCulloch 2012,
16), in the numerous genres, styles, and media through which the different
chapters are rendered. This mixture of voices and registers may be understood
as “erasing literary and cultural boundaries,” through which we are presented
with the “nomadic journey of six interconnected or intratextual narratives,”
as Fiona McCulloch remarks (2012, 15). My investigation proposes to outline
the novel’s aspiration towards encompassing totally disparate elements, thus
creating an amalgam of voices, temporalities and spatialities, which will result
in a borderlessness that is both liberating and seemingly chaotic.
Time as a Concertina
In Cloud Atlas, everything is interconnected, and thus the novel, through its
intricate structure, reects on the multitude of temporalities and spatialities.
Past, present, and future, with both their virtual and actual manifestations,
continuously invade each other’s planes, and they comprise a distinct way of
understanding the passing of time: they create a uidity that allows conicting
conceptions of time to exist side by side, gradually revealing the concept of time
itself to be a quasi-protagonist to the novel.
52 Noémi ALBERT
Through Timothy Cavendish’s story, one can easily follow the stages of different
time conceptions as they gradually gain focus in the novel. For instance, the
cyclical understanding of time appears to be proposed as a solution to linear
time, and hence to history itself. Nevertheless, in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy
Cavendish,” one can nd a rather ironic take on cyclicality. When Cavendish
arrives at Aurora House (a nursing home he believes to be a hotel), he is certain that
“[i]n the morning life would begin afresh, afresh, afresh. This time round I would
do everything right” (Mitchell 2004, 175). But, to use Heather J. Hicks’s words,
“[i]n a parody of rebirth, when Cavendish awakes, he discovers that he will now
be treated as a helpless baby,” and his “body becomes a palimpsest of linear and
cyclical narratives, both of which can be deployed by the institutional apparatus of
the nursing home to deny him agency and to strip his life of meaning” (2016, 65).
Consequently, both linearity and cyclicality are surpassed, and a novel
understanding of time is required. For this purpose, I will borrow Fiona
McCulloch’s term of “space-time compression” (2012, 152) in order to capture
time’s movement inside the story. Cavendish’s story shows how both approaches
to time prove decient, when, upon entering Aurora House, he remarks: “My
watch was stuck in the middle of last night” (Mitchell 2004, 171). The measuring
of time itself is doomed to failure inside this bubble, and Cavendish realizes: “I
was stuck in Aurora House all right. A clock with no hands” (Mitchell 2004, 372),
words through which he re-enforces the metaphor of the clock as representative
of a new understanding of time.
Cavendish, who starts off from the remark that “Time’s Arrow became Time’s
Boomerang” (Mitchell 2004, 149), after a stroke suffered in a nursing home,
revises his theory, claiming: “Time, no arrow, no boomerang, but a concertina”
(Mitchell 2004, 369). With both the arrow and the boomerang proving decient,
Cavendish’s imagery of the concertina starts to fascinate some of the critics
(O’Donnell 2015, 95; De Cristofaro 2018, 247).
The concertina as a metaphor for time requires our closer investigation of
the instrument itself. It is made up of “two hexagonal or square wooden end
pieces, which carry the reeds and the buttons that control them, […] linked by
folded cardboard bellows” (Montagu 2002, qtd. in De Cristofaro 2018, 249). Time,
envisioned as this musical instrument, becomes malleable: at once linear and
cyclical, or something completely different from both of these, but it will never
be exactly the same as before. As time’s boomerang fails to return to the exact
starting point, the novel reveals the changes, the mutability of time as its central
interest. I agree with Diletta De Cristofaro, who claims that “the concertina as a
model of the novel’s structure suggests that what goes on between [the beginning
and the conclusion] is not the repetition of the same, as in eternal recurrence,
but repetition with difference” (2018, 250). With the help of this metaphor, the
novel’s intricate symbolic web can also be positioned in the new time conception.
53“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
Furthermore, De Cristofaro also reects upon the novel’s claims regarding the
The concertina-like structure articulates a critical temporality as it resists
a telic closure, warps the deterministic linearity of apocalyptic history and
of traditional plots, and links the various recurrences of the will to power
in the novel, foregrounding the dystopian implications of apocalypticism,
from colonialism to the future neo-colonial biopower of corporations and
anthropogenic environmental crises. (2018, 247)
She articulates throughout her interpretation the anti-apocalyptic structure
of the novel, an observation that might seem paradoxical at rst glance, but
it is exactly the novel’s structure that allows us this realization. Although the
apocalypse as catastrophe is denitely featured in Cloud Atlas, it does not signify
any kind of ending or closure whatsoever. Despite the post-apocalyptic story of
Ha-why (future Hawaii), the structure of the novel thwarts all attempts at closure:
the chapters start to gradually unfold again. Furthermore, the existence of each
story is facilitated and preserved through characters encountered in the following
chapter. Hence the novel transcends the apocalyptic theme and ultimately
unravels a different kind of temporality.
Oceans and Clouds
This new compressed time the novel operates with sheds light on identity as a
central concept for Cloud Atlas. Consequently, the main question around which
the present enterprise builds is how the subject is explored by the novel as
creating a bridge between disparate spatiotemporal planes. At the end of Adam
Ewing’s story, we read the following:
‘He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature
must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only
as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to
no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? (Mitchell 2004, 529)
The following unit purports to analyse this concept of identity in its numerous
manifestations in Cloud Atlas. The above quote, which introduces the issue of
identity, is a representative one: at rst glance, the choice might seem paradoxical
since the passage can be found at the very end of the novel, and thus it functions
as a conclusion; however, Cloud Atlas abandons the linear narrative, and the text
54 Noémi ALBERT
opens up to numerous possibilities in tracing its interconnections. Adam Ewing’s
chapter is both the rst and the last one, a starting point and a return but never really
an ending. These nal words are tightly connected to the entirety of the novel, and
through them one circles back to previously voiced denitions of identity.
The symbol of the ocean is linked to another nature metaphor, namely that of
the cloud, which is central to the novel. The image of the cloud atlas highlights
the mutability, incomprehensibility, just as Cavendish’s lament voices it: “What
wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?
To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds” (Mitchell 2004, 389). This metaphor
captures and preserves more the individuality inherent in the hectic movement
of the clouds. And what further emphasizes the uniqueness pertaining to the
phenomenon is an artwork, a musical composition bearing the title Cloud Atlas
Sextet. The instruments, the sounds stand for the individual characters, leading
separate lives in the distinct chapters but also interlinked through a symbolic web.
In a representative scene, Zachry, the main character of “Sloosha’s Crossin’,”
interprets the clouds as the metaphors for souls, while he witnesses his native
tribe being slain by the enemy:
I watched clouds awobbly from the oor o’ that kayak. 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 Sonmi the east an’ the west an’
the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds. (Mitchell 2004, 324)
His wish echoes that of Timothy Cavendish, and at the same time it reinforces
the realization that fate is unknowable, an eternal mystery, but this is ultimately
what prompts actions, ghts. In an interview, Mitchell himself explains the
novel’s title, and through it a central motif: “the ‘cloud’ refers to the ever-changing
manifestations of the ‘atlas,’ which is that xed human nature, which was
always thus and ever shall be” (2007, n.p.). Furthermore, Hywel Dix recognizes
in this quote the implication that “islands and civilizations, like people, have
life cycles that arise, mature and become obsolescent” (2010, 119), a remark that
ties this central symbol back to time as rendered in the novel. However, while
Dix emphasizes the nality that lurks in the scene, in the nature of clouds one
may recognize the possible futures, too. Clouds reect souls and their innite
mutability, and thus we can interpret the entire novel as building around the
transmigration of souls; however, I agree with Patrick O’Donnell, who claims that
this “is to be distinguished […] from any simple […] concept of the reincarnation
of a singular identity across centuries since the ‘migration’ inevitably takes place
intermittently, sporadically, as the consequence of chance contact or circumstance
across multiple identities” (2015, 80).
55“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
The text presents several instances when some fragment of consciousness is
shared by two very distinct characters. In a rst instance, Frobisher, while lying
in bed with his lover “[…] dreamt of a … nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but
underground, with no way out. I’d been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all
had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music
in the café was’—he wagged an exhausted nger at the MS—‘this’” (Mitchell
2004, 80). This dream represents a milieu where two distant spatiotemporal
planes are united through music: through that composition that encompasses the
creation of the novel’s world (Cloud Atlas Sextet). Frobisher unwittingly dreams
about Papa Song’s, the futuristic fast food restaurant, where Sonmi~451 works
and imbibes Soap with the other fabricants of Nea So Copros.
In the following chapter, Luisa Rey, who reads Frobisher’s letters written to Rufus
Sixmith, cannot help but feel that there is a deep connection between her and
Frobisher: “Luisa has reread Sixsmith’s letters a dozen times or more in the last day
and a half. They disturb her. […] It is […] the dizzying vividness of the images of
places and people that the letters have unlocked. Images so vivid she can only call
them memories” (Mitchell 2004, 121). Her sense of connection is further re-enforced
when she reads about Frobisher’s birthmark: the same shape as hers. Furthermore,
although she only wants to get Cloud Atlas Sextet for investigative reasons, when
she unwittingly hears the music in the shop, she describes it as “pristine, riverlike,
spectral, hypnotic… intimately familiar,” and she is convinced that she knows that
music (Mitchell 2004, 425; emphasis in original). Luisa’s connection to Frobisher
is palpable. A nal example would be the moment when she receives the last
letters of the exchange between Frobisher and Sixmith, a moment when she asks:
“Are molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand, dormant in this
paper for forty-four years, now swirling in my lungs, in my blood? Who is to say?”
(Mitchell 2004, 453; emphasis in original). All these characters, belonging to very
different ctional worlds, are connected, and they share visions and sensations
that travel across disparate spatiotemporal planes.
Art, human creation, is the bridge that brings together not only past, present,
and future but disparate temporalities and spatialities together with very different
identities. As Gerd Bayer remarks, “the novel resorts to music, lm, literature, and
biography to explain how humanity manages to bridge time through the creation
of timeless values” (2015, 348). The different chapters all present us with several
artistic manifestations, such as Ewing’s diary, Frobisher’s music, Luisa’s thriller,
or Cavendish’s movie, and all these comprise a link through which one artistic
expression helps the succeeding character, at times bridging several chapters and
worlds. Consequently, I cannot agree with Shanahan’s following remark:
Zachry’s carved icons, the dendroglyphs Adam Ewing stumbles upon, and
the people, religions, ideas, technologies, and media forms that repeatedly
56 Noémi ALBERT
go up in ames over centuries in Cloud Atlas, even Frobisher’s ethereal
music, all stand in the end as mere proxies to be seen through on the way
to apprehending more permanent because disembodied glimpses of souls
as clouds in time. (2016, 139)
Contrary to this view, it seems that these artistic products are the only ones
that can really form a strong enough link capable of bridging both actual and
virtual temporalities, of bringing together ction inside the ction with “mere”
ction, and ultimately creating something lasting. As Bayer claims, “Cloud Atlas
presents art as existing outside of time, in the very realm traditionally reserved for
religion and, later, enlightened science” (2015, 348). Its power and timelessness
comes from the fact that “it touches some aspect of [the characters’] humanity”
(Brown 2016, 88). The Cloud Atlas Sextet, as the central artistic manifestation,
is echoed throughout the novel, through several centuries and lives, bringing
characters and readers alike to the reassuring rhetorical question: “Yet what is
any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (Mitchell 2004, 529).
After detailed considerations of the symbolic web in the novel, I will turn to
the most embedded symbol: the comet-shaped birthmark. It is a minor sign that
can be found on the body of one particular character from each story. It is rst
mentioned in Frobisher’s letters, who writes to Rufus Sixmith about his new
lover playing with the birthmark (Mitchell 2004, 85). Conversely, Luisa, while
reading the correspondence, recognizes the mentioned naevus and tries “to get
a clearer view of a birthmark between her shoulder blade and collarbone. […] it
is undeniably shaped like a comet” (Mitchell 2004, 124). Besides these two, the
reader will learn about a similarly shaped distinctive mark being on the bodies
of Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi~451 and Meronym, the Prescient visitor living in
This birthmark works together with the novel’s temporal conception to bridge
characters that otherwise could not have a palpable connection among them.
As De Cristofaro claims: “[t]he birthmark engenders a sense of spatiotemporal
compression and extension that can be pictured through the contraction and
expansion of concertina folds and encapsulates the way in which the teleology
of apocalyptic/narrative logic is warped and subverted in the book” (2018, 249).
This claim leads to the realization that the novel is constantly open for both
contraction and expansion: it is like an ever-changing organism. Consequently,
what the birthmark expresses is this ineffable thing that is the world (past, present,
future, particular and universal, etc.). Possibly the most accurate grasp of this
57“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
duality and uidity is O’Donnell’s kōan: “everything is always the same; nothing
is ever the same” (2015, 70) since, as Berthold Schoene remarks, “humanity is
invariably the same, but different” (2009, 119), and the novel represents the
whole of humanity. Although the birthmark bears a unifying power on the
characters, it also emphasizes their differences and spatiotemporal distances. No
homogenizing or centralizing tendencies can be recognized in this concertina-
world Mitchell’s novel evokes. I agree with Fiona McCulloch, who claims that
the novel rejects the Cartesian identication with a central character, and thus it
decentres “the subject in a Braidottian non-linear nomadic resistance to unied
self, time or place” (2012, 147). The birthmark ultimately comprises the identity
as situated temporally and spatially, at the same time opening up towards and
Cloud Atlas’s comet-shaped birthmark brings together the individual and
the universal and reinforces the concertina-like conception of time and space.
However, the birthmark’s corporeal signicance should not be sidestepped since
ultimately the body housing the birthmark will comprise the link between self
and world. O’Donnell terms the mark “a vestige or remnant that suggests how
the past corporally resurfaces in the present and the future” (2015, 70). Possibly
the most evocative instance may be found in Sonmi’s story since she, despite
being a fabricated clone, has the same sign as the novel’s other characters. In
this case, the sign points towards her inclusion not only in a universal pattern,
in the ocean where she is one of the multitude of drops, but in the context of the
world she inhabits; the birthmark adorns her with uniqueness, with difference:
another clone calls it “Sonmi~451’s stain” (Mitchell 2004, 205). Through this
character, the relationship between mind and body is polarized in the novel since
the birthmark in the end proves to symbolize her ascension and, through it, a
clash between her cloned body and “human”-like intellect: it functions – to use
McCulloch’s term – as a “genetic tattoo” (2012, 153) that helps her surpass her
clone self and be part of humanity. Nevertheless, to her, the clash is solvable.
When at university, a pair of students marvels at her communicative skills:
“It must be hell,” said the second, “to have an intelligent mind trapped in
a body genomed for service.”
I had grown as attached to my body as he had to his, I responded. (Mitchell
The birthmark can function at once as a bridge and divider between body and
mind, between the particular and the universal. Sonmi becomes a unique being
who is an integral part of the constant mutability of the novel’s world. To cite
McCulloch: “Linked by a birthmark, each character charts a journey across time
and space,” through which the novel “epitomises this transpositional mobility
58 Noémi ALBERT
through nomadic subjects who interweave the past, present and future of
humanity’s inuence on Earth” (2012, 149).
Bodies, their states, their existences occupy a signicant place throughout the
novel even if they do not have the symbolic birthmark. To start with, we rst
get acquainted with Adam Ewing as he catches a man gathering teeth on the
beach. The new acquaintance is Henry Goose, who claims: “In days gone by this
Arcadian strand was a cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged
themselves on the weak” (Mitchell 2004, 3). This remark perpetuates a powerful
principle throughout the novel, namely: “The weak are meat the strong do eat”
(Mitchell 2004, 508). Cannibalism, although usually relegated to the distant past
and to uncivilized tribes (starting in a similar way through the presentation of
the Maori and Moriori tribes), in Mitchell’s work gains both actual and symbolic
meanings that pervade the entire world of the novel.
The same motif reappears in an accentuated way in the 22nd-century state of
Nea So Copros, whose very mechanism requires constant consumption. This is
the ultimate capitalist society where Catechism Seven states that “[a] Soul’s value
is the dollars therein” (Mitchell 2004, 341), and “[u]nder the enrichment laws,
consumers have to spend a xed quota of dollars each month, depending on
their strata. Hoarding is an anticorpocratic crime” (Mitchell 2004, 237). So, body
and soul in this future world are reduced to mere physicality, and nally they
are robbed of this as well. A great part of the society is dying: they inhabit cities
and spaces that “reek of waste and sewage” (Mitchell 2004, 331), people there
have “skin enamed by prolonged exposure to the city’s scalding rain” (Mitchell
2004, 331), or they are “migrants with enceph or leadlung” (Mitchell 2004, 332).
These migrants are in constant search of a liveable land, all in vain. The terrain
is poisoned beyond repair: “malaria, ooding, drought, rogue crop genomes,
parasites, encroaching deadlands” (Mitchell 2004, 332) paint a picture of a world
unstoppably approaching utter destruction. This is the ultimate Untermensch,
destined for death: “Every conurb […] has a chemical toilet where the city’s
unwanted human waste disintegrates quietly, but not quite invisibly” (Mitchell
2004, 332). This world represents the epitome of liminal existence, where
people are rather dead than alive, where the land is hostile, where the majority
of the population lives under abominable circumstances. Hence, consumption,
the destruction of the weak is complete through this symbolic representation.
However, it is this very same chapter that tackles the issue of actual cannibalism
as well, through processing fabricants for food and recycling them for future
fabricants and purebloods alike.
59“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
The birthmark becomes the symbol of the disparateness of the characters but
also of their connection. As McCulloch formulates it, “Mitchell’s multi-layered
narrative […] level[s] and equalise[s] the space between through the umbilical
birthmark of panhuman relations” (2012, 149). This panhumanism is a powerful
motif running through the artwork; however, I cannot agree with McCulloch’s
further claim that this gesture would reject “unied individualism” (2012, 149).
It is exactly the duality of individualism and universality that is celebrated by
the novel, through a birthmark that ultimately does not assume any sort of actual
soul crossing but the intricate web of connections among different identities
scattered across time and space.
The temporal vistas and intricacies have already been touched upon, but how
does space interact with the individual and, more importantly, how does it affect
the identity? It is Sonmi~451 who remarks: “I understood one’s environment is a
key to one’s identity, but that my environment, Papa Song’s, was a key I had lost”
(Mitchell 2004, 238). This quote, beyond signifying the ascension of a clone into
knowledge and into the world, with its attendant dangers and her fears, seems
to focus on a state gradually gaining more and more ground in Western societies.
The place we call home is often lost, supplanted by transitional places, more and
more time spent in those non-places Marc Augé denes, in a state of nomadism.
McCulloch’s remark accurately captures the novel’s gesture when she states:
“[b]y transpositioning each section that spans from the 1850s to a post-apocalyptic
future, Mitchell resists the territorial xity of Western hegemony and presents a
philosophically nomadic text of border crossings” (2012, 142).
The world as mapped out in Mitchell’s novel could very well be grasped through
psychogeography, dened by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and
specic effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised
or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” (2006a, 8). According to
this denition, psychogeography captures the effect the environment has on the
psyche. Mitchell’s novel consciously employs settings that further deepen the
text’s complexity. For instance, the places the characters inhabit serve, on the one
hand, as a distinct type of characterization; on the other hand, they themselves
get to be characterized by the people through whom we encounter them. What
the reader witnesses in the novel is the mutual effect the environment and the
subject exert upon each other. Another aspect of their complexity lies in the
interconnections the novel abounds in: it seems that although we are dealing
with six disparate stories with their own protagonists, all of them scattered
across a large spectrum (further sliced by the chapter interruptions), there is
nevertheless a pattern discernible, with some repetitive schemas that further
60 Noémi ALBERT
highlight the dualism inherent in Cloud Atlas: the dichotomy of the individual
and the universal, spiced with a cyclical design.
Possibly one of the most striking examples of such a play can be captured
through the island chain of Hawaii, situated in the Pacic Ocean. I believe it
cannot be accidental that, although the novel purports to focus on the entire
planet, it still resorts to a repetitive pattern in its setting. Hawaii appears in
three of the novel’s chapters. Chronologically speaking, the rst instance would
be “The Pacic Journal of Adam Ewing,” in which the Prophetess transports
Adam to Honolulu, where, with the help of Autua, his life is saved from the
progressive poisoning by Henry Goose. For him, the island of Oahu serves as a
haven, and also as a quasi-resolution to Adam’s story and journal. The second
instance is presented in the world of 22nd-century Korea, where (and when)
clones working in Papa Song’s after twelve years of service are promised to be
taken to the paradisiacal island of Hawaii. However, as Sonmi~451 realizes, the
ship meant to transport the fabricants is nothing more than an abattoir recycling
the clones. Finally, the post-apocalyptic tribe of the Valleysmen (Zachry’s
people) lives on Hawaii, the island that becomes one of the few still inhabited
places on Earth, housing peoples reverted to a primordial lifestyle: the result
of losing knowledge and memory of essential skills. It seems thus that this
particular island is meant to re-enforce hope, to stand for a place that can still
function as a haven in a world lled with people with murderous intent, a
society that inhabits a rapidly dying world: “Nea So Copros is poisoning itself
to death. Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies
riddled with rogue genes” (Mitchell 2004, 341).
Beyond or despite discernible repetitive symbolic patterns enmeshing
this ctional world, and seemingly reducing it, it is still borderlessness that
characterizes this world. To return to psychogeography, Debord captures
in one of its principles the people who just let “themselves be drawn by the
attractions of the terrain and the encounters they nd there” (2006b, 62). I agree
with O’Donnell’s observation that the journeys taken by the novel’s characters
are rhizomic (2015, 6). Beyond the patterns that can be charted subsequent to
the novel’s ending, there is great emphasis laid on chance and, conversely, on
no one paramount centre. The symbolic charge of the title is meant to further
emphasize this aspect. Furthermore, we cannot forget about Isaac Sachs’s theory
concerning virtual and actual temporal planes, whose very existence testies to
the randomness that must be inherent to the world of Cloud Atlas. The future
each character gets is one of the numerous possible futures laid in store for them.
Consequently, this novel proves to be akin to a living organism that constantly
shifts and changes, just like the clouds in the sky.
In light of these considerations, Sonmi’s previously analysed imagery of the
key that she lost, beyond the denotative meaning, also possesses the prospect of
61“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
a new world, new sites opening up to her. As McCulloch remarks, “she realises
the benets of nomadically crossing intellectual and physical thresholds in
transposing subjectivity beyond the familiar so that she no longer recognises that
naive self” (2012, 152). As a result, a constant rapport is created between the self
and the surrounding world, this requiring the self to capture “the outside world by
making itself receptive to the totality of an assemblage of elements, in an almost
geographical or cartographic manner” (Braidotti 2008, 145). Just as Rosi Braidotti’s
cartographic approach, the novel’s cloud atlas invites readers to chart and map the
complex web interspersing the novel (characters, places, symbols, etc.), but it also
reects upon identity as the ineffable that, nevertheless, one constantly attempts
to capture. McCulloch aptly interprets Braidotti’s conception of identity when
she claims: “Rather than traditional notions of unied identities, transpositional
philosophical nomadism offers resistant subjectivities that are multiple, mutable
and decentred, yet simultaneously coherently patterned” (2012, 141).
The comet-shaped birthmark brings not only disparate characters together,
creating invisible links among them, but it also enhances the connection between
self and the space it inhabits. The distinct selves come together to highlight the
interplay between the individual and the entire cosmos, just as it is embodied
by Meronym, Zachry’s Prescient visitor: her name denotes “part of something
but which is used to refer to the whole of it” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.p.). This
character, together with the others, contains in miniature the entire world she
inhabits; she stands for the environment that is ltered through her body, through
her birthmark. She, together with other selves inhabiting different spatiotemporal
planes, is both the part and the whole, the individual and the universe.
In lieu of a conclusion, let me return to Adam Ewing’s nal words: “Yet what
is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (Mitchell 2004, 529). This question
reinforces the formal and thematic complexity of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
The novel’s structure, with the interrupted narratives folding upon each other,
is closely aligned with the intricate symbols enmeshing these chapters. To
use Berthold Schoene’s words, this novel materializes “our consciousness of
humanity’s global being-in-common by writing onto the body of his protagonists
the mysterious actuality and endurance of history” (2009, 116). It accomplishes
this by a constant in-betweenness: emanating both insecurity and a different kind
of assurance. The multitude of drops paints the picture of endless stories running
in parallel, sometimes overlapping, always coexisting. Cloud Atlas paints a
world where the virtual takes over the actual, where pasts overwrite each other
and several futures coexist, but this world is never chaotic. Through the symbolic
62 Noémi ALBERT
web, with the comet-shaped birthmark in its centre, all possible pasts and futures
are ltered through the self. The subject, through the multiple selves, unites all
the threads and creates a web where spaces and times can meet.
The subject of Cloud Atlas is not one unied entity: it is the multitude of
subjectivities, shattered identities that maintain their singularity and also unite
in this borderless, endless world. Actual and virtual are interchangeable in this
ctional realm, pasts and futures fold upon each other and reveal ever-new
narrative threads. The novel consciously does away with all sorts of nality: there
is no beginning and no ending, the apocalypse is not the end but a moment, one
fold on the concertina. The subject, exactly through the multitude of subjectivities
appearing in the novel, unites these spatiotemporal planes, celebrating the
coexistence of singularity and multiplicity.
Despite signs of a cyclical conception of time working as a determining
mechanism, it is more accurate to build our reading of the novel around the
concept of the concertina. This musical instrument opens up the ctional space:
it enables the text to juggle several spatiotemporal planes, so much so that the
omnipresent comet-shaped birthmark (meant to symbolize a sort of transcendence)
can appear on two separate characters with crossing timelines and, going one
step further, characters inhabiting different ctional worlds. Furthermore, the
concertina gradually becomes a symbol of music and, on a more encompassing
level: art itself. Starting from musical compositions as “Eternal Recurrence” (by
Vyvyan Ayrs) and, more importantly, Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, music not
only reects on the novel, but it enriches it, complements it, and nally soothes
it. With the unavoidable ephemerality, there is also the promise of something
surviving: in the music, in the birthmark, in the self.
Bayer, Gerd. 2015. “Perpetual Apocalypses: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and
the Absence of Time.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction vol. 56, no.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2008. Transpositions. Cambridge: Polity.
Brown, Kevin. 2016. “Finding Stories to Tell: Metaction and Narrative in David
Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.” Journal of Language, Literature and Culture vol. 63,
no.1 (April): 77–90.
Childs, Peter and James Green. 2013. Aesthetics and Ethics in Twenty-First
Century British Novels Zadie Smith, Nadeem Aslam, Hari Kunzru and David
Mitchell. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
63“A Multitude of Drops.” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas...
Debord, Guy. 2006a. “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” In
Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, 8–11. Berkeley, CA:
Bureau of Public Secrets.
2006b. “Theory of the Dérive.” In Situationist International Anthology, ed.
Ken Knabb, 62–65. Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets.
De Cristofaro, Diletta. 2018. “‘Time, No Arrow, No Boomerang, but a Concertina:’
Cloud Atlas and the Anti-Apocalyptic Critical Temporalities of the
Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary
Fiction vol. 59, no. 2: 243–257.
Dix, Hywel. 2010. Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain. London:
Hicks, Heather J. 2016. “‘This Time Round:’ David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the
Apocalyptic Problem of Historicism.” In The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the
Twenty-First Century. Modernity beyond Salvage, 55–76. New York: Palgrave
McCulloch, Fiona. 2012. “‘Around We Go’: Transpositional Life Cycles in David
Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.” In Cosmopolitanism in Contemporary British Fiction.
Imagined Identities, 141–163. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mitchell, David. 2004. Cloud Atlas. London: Sceptre.
2007. “‘Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell.’ Interview by James Naughtie.” Book
Club. BBC Radio 3 June. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007mdcg (Last
accessed 6 August 2018).
O’Donnell, Patrick. 2015. A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell.
New York: Bloomsbury.
Oxford Dictionaries. 2010. Oxford University Press.
Schoene, Berthold. 2009. The Cosmopolitan Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
Shanahan, John. 2016. “Digital Transcendentalism in David Mitchell’s Cloud
Atlas.” Criticism vol. 58, no. 1 (Winter): 115–145.