Reality and Perception in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

by Mark Woodring

Exposition:  the working of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.  The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.  Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction – in short, belief – grows ever “truer.”  The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + and ever more problematic to access + reconstruct:  in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent (Mitchell 392).

This bit of exposition is provided by the somewhat minor character of Isaac Sachs almost a third of the way through David Mitchell’s postmodern exploration of perception and its influence on reality, the story within a story (within a story…) Cloud Atlas.  Mitchell combines six distinct narratives in an interlaced storyline, nesting each section within the others, each section directly referencing the one preceding it while also hinting those that lie ahead.  The novel directly references this nesting technique when composer Robert Frobisher discusses the planned arrangement of his musical score Cloud Atlas Sextet in the “Letters from Zedelghem” section:  “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.  Revolutionary or gimmicky?” (Mitchell 445).  Whether revolutionary or gimmicky, this presentation of intertwined narratives demonstrates that human reality is not determined by actuality or factuality, but rather by the perception of events and how those perceptions are presented and interpreted.  Resisting the ability of the traditional novel to properly interpret, Cloud Atlas exercises what William Spanos calls “the mockery of the canonical literary forms of ‘official’ culture” (Spanos 20) to make its point about the relationship between perception and reality.  By taking what might otherwise be coherent texts and cutting them up and rearranging their remains as he sees fit, Mitchell makes good use of the postmodern format to illustrate the fluidity of reality, what Spanos refers to as the “disorienting mystery, the ominous and threatening uncanniness of being that resists naming” (Spanos 24).  The nested format provides a vehicle to further inject doubt and allow interpretation as to what is actual reality as opposed to perceived reality within the novel.  This brings into question the relationships between the sections and the characters in each, along with the events presented.  Cloud Atlas clearly demonstrates the fragility of reality, which is manipulated both by perception – eyewitnesses – and by time, and the accuracy of Sachs’ musings are evident throughout the novel.

            Opening with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” Mitchell presents events while simultaneously casting doubt on them:

“Mr. Walker, Ocean Bay’s sole taverner, is also its principal timber merchant & he brags of his years as a master shipbuilder in Liverpool.  (I am now versed enough in Antipodese etiquette to let such unlikely truths lie)” (Mitchell 4).

Here, Adam Ewing encounters a version of reality which he believes to be untrue, yet he does nothing to unmask it, but instead merely accepts it.  This example of not questioning a presented version of reality sets the tone for the entire work.  Mitchell then continues this idea during the discussion of the Maori and Moriori conflict:

The origins of the Moriori of Rekohu [. . .] remain a mystery to this day.  Mr. Evans evinces the belief they are descended from Jews expelled from Spain, citing their hooked noses & sneering lips.  Mr. D’arnoq’s preferred theorem, that the Moriori were once Maori whose canoes were wrecked upon these remotest of isles, is founded on similarities of tongue & mythology & thereby possesses a higher carat of logic (Mitchell 11).

When confronted with these two possible versions of the founding of the Moriori tribe, Ewing tries to determine the truth, but cannot, aside from the aside that the second theory has a more logical base.  This selective acceptance of information demonstrates another method of crafting the events of the past to our liking.  The abrupt ending of this section links the otherwise unrelated sections of the novel together and allow the reader to begin the process of reading into and interpreting the events and ideas shared between the various storylines.

            In a letter to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher mentions finding half a book titled The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing in his bedroom at the Chateau Zedelghem that ends precisely where it ended in the text of Cloud Atlas.  Here, even Frobisher begins questioning what is real and what is not in the letter:

Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true – but who would bother forging such a journal, and why? (Mitchell 64)

Already we see that even the central figure of this segment is unsure of what is true and what is not.  The apparent inability of Frobisher to distinguish between truth and fiction is odd considering the many versions of truth he presents in order to earn his lucrative position as scribe to the great composer Vyvyan Ayrs.  In justifying his own flight from England he considers what forced his hand:   “Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irrevocably” (Mitchell 44).  This passage shows that Frobisher’s point of view has influenced how the gambling incident occurred.  He attempts to alter the past with a rationalization that he is somehow blameless in his current situation.  While being questioned during his interview for the position with Ayrs, Frobisher acknowledges that he “Answered truthfully, though I veiled my expulsion from Caius behind an obscure malady” (Mitchell 51).  Here Frobisher makes another deliberate attempt to adjust history in an effort to affect a more desirable future than the one in which he finds himself.  As the section moves along, Mitchell presents another bread crumb of continuity between segments that will carry through the remainder of the novel:  the now famous birthmark.  While writing of his affair with Ayrs’ wife, Frobisher notes “She plays with that birthmark in the hollow of my shoulder, the one you said resembles a comet” (Mitchell 85).  This birthmark will provide ample opportunities for the reader to link the various storylines together, but as I will demonstrate, this link is tenuous at best.

As Luisa Rey, the central character in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” reads the letters between Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher, she makes the following discovery:

It is not the unflattering light they shed on a pliable young Rufus Sixsmith that bothers Luisa but the dizzying vividness of the images of places and people that the letters have unlocked.  Images so vivid she can only call them memories.  The pragmatic journalist’s daughter would, and did, explain these “memories” as the work of an imagination hypersensitized by her father’s recent death, but a detail in one letter will not be dismissed.  Robert Frobisher mentions a comet-shaped birthmark between his shoulder blade and collarbone.

I just don’t believe this crap.  I just don’t believe it.  I don’t (Mitchell 120).

The reader understands that Luisa Rey has a birthmark like Frobisher’s, but she refuses to believe in anything that might be inferred from such a coincidence.  Though Luisa Rey herself acknowledges the piece of information “will not be dismissed,” she refuses to believe it.  This ability to accept or ignore pieces of information as they relate to individuals is a uniquely human trait, one on which shows up throughout Cloud Atlas.  In actuality, Cloud Atlas does not explicitly state that Louisa Rey shares this birthmark, but we simply assume this to be true.  Separate from this consideration, we also see Luisa deny any perceived connection with Frobisher and Zedelghem, even though she established the link on her own.  She denies the connection she alone created, which is perhaps the worst possible act of personal perception overwhelming reality.  While trapped in an elevator with Luisa, Sixsmith asks about how her father, once a police officer, became a celebrated journalist.  Luisa’s inner monologue is very revealing when she thinks “You asked for it.   The story is polished with each retelling” (Mitchell 92).  By “polishing” the tale, rough edges removed and weaknesses reduced by the perception of the person presenting history, and thus the presenter reduces the actual history, morphing it into something else:  an idealized version of events designed not by fact, but by desire.  This is another instance of how reality alters through the continued retelling of it, What Jean-Paul Satre asserts in his novel Nausea, when the character of Roquentin states that “everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change on one notices…things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense” (Sartre 39-40).  Later, as Luisa makes her first investigative visit to the Swanekke reactor site, she encounters Isaac Sachs, an engineer who worked with Rufus Sixsmith.  Here again Luisa makes a decision to alter her reality, and thus Sach’s:

                        “You must be Megan.”

                        Why be contradictory?  “And you are?”

                        “Isaac Sachs.  Engineer.”

                        [. . .  After being identified as Luisa Rey by Fay Li]

                        “You’re not Sixsmith’s niece?”

                        “Excuse me, but I never said I was” (Mitchell 105-106).

By not correcting Sachs’ incorrect belief of her identity, Luisa alters reality, this time to her professional advantage as opposed to simply playing to family pride as in the previous instance.

As her story progresses, Luisa visits with protest leader Hester Van Zandt and learns a powerful lesson about perception and reality as it applies to her investigation:

The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers.  They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up (Mitchell 124).

The idea that an individual’s perception can be made to change by forces outside of themselves, regardless of how much time elapses between the event and the individual perceiving it, is both a powerful and disturbing one.  The idea is very explicit here:  what we see, or hear, or read, is always what we get, but may not be what actually was.  When our interpretation of the world is dependent on information not directly ours, we must accept that the resulting perception of reality is not accurate.

            In another opportunity to link the novel’s sections with one another, we see Luisa place an order at a rare music store for a copy of Robert Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet (Mitchell 119).  She learned of Frobisher the composer through Sixsmith’s letters after his death, but Cloud Atlas presents another twist here:  as Luisa does not receive the “second” batch of letters until well after she orders the Sextet, there is no way in which she could have known the name of the work.  Frobisher did not give it a name until near the end of the sequence of letters to Sixsmith (Mitchell 460).  The fact that Frobisher does not name his work until the second set of letters, but Luisa seems to know its title anyway is another means to force a reevaluation of the perception of these events.  Additionally, we receive yet another unexpected twist of perception when Luisa and Joe Napier venture to Sixsmith’s yacht.  As they pass by a sign reading:  “CAPE YERBAS MARINA ROYALE / PROUD HOME OF THE PROPHETESS / BEST-PRESERVED SCHOONER IN THE WORLD!”,  Luisa:

[ . . . ] is distracted by a strange gravity that makes her pause for a moment and look at its riggings, listen to its wooden bones creaking.

“What’s wrong?” whispers Napier.

What is wrong?  Luisa’s birthmark throbs.  She grasps for the ends of this elastic moment, but they disappear into the past and the future (Mitchell 430).

The reference to the Adam Ewing segment of the novel through the Prophetess links us to a reality not directly related to the current one, and thus forces us to look again at how we perceive events.  With the additional inference of the birthmark, which Adam Ewing does not have, Mitchell leads us further into the consideration of actual and perceived events.  The use of the phrase “elastic moment” reinforces the idea of the fluidity of time and perception, and the idea that the “ends” disappear “into the past and the future” is another method of shifting our perspective.  Here, the past and future that are the beginning and ending of the novel, both adrift on a ship in a more primitive time than those eras related between them.  By completing this circle of time and events, the “ends” of time disappear into one another, which drives us to examine the cyclical nature of the realities of the novel.

            Continuing forward through the Cloud Atlas timeline, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” opens with the title character recounting an attack.  Instead of admitting the shameful truth – that three teenage girls mugged him – he admits to us that he “had already amplified the truth and told her my muggers were five louts with swastikas shaved onto their skulls” (Mitchell 145-146).  Again, we see human willingness to alter a past event in order to protect a present or future, or even something so basic as ego or pride.  We see reality yet again as a malleable aspect of human perception.  Cavendish cannot even go back and correct his modification of history:  “You can’t go changing what you’ve already set down, not without botching things up even more” (Mitchell 146).  Consistency is essential if humanity is to complete the presentation and acceptance of this altered past.  It is important to note that that even when Cavendish uses an ambiguous phrase like “You probably spotted it pages ago, dear Reader” (Mitchell 175), it is simply a clue to force the reader to look back and reconsider what was PERCEIVED to be reality as opposed to what is ACTUALLY reality.  After a night of drinking, Cavendish describes how “time’s arrow became time’s boomerang” (Mitchell 147), as his perceptions became unreliable and stretched.  Later, after his stroke, Cavendish considers that time is now “no arrow, no boomerang, but a concertina” (Mitchell 354).  The image of the concertina opening and closing, stretching and condensing shows the nature of these “elastic” moments, when perception is reduced or eliminated, along with the ability to put together what is perceived.  Also, Cavendish finds himself lost between his “real” world and the “virtual” one presented in “Half-Lives,” as he tries to understand that his stroke:  “A stroke?  Two-stroker?  Stroke me?  Margo Roker had a stroke.  Margo Roker?” (Mitchell 354).  Here Cavendish references a character in “Half-Lives.”  However, Margo Roker did not suffer a stroke, but was instead nearly beaten to death but eventually recovered.  This is simply another example of reality flexing and realigning itself due to outside forces:  in this case, Cavendish’s altered mental state.

            We see more on the transitory nature of human perception further along during Cavendish’s recovery after his stroke.  As Cavendish begins to regain his senses, he realizes that that his memory is irreparably damaged:  “How many days have I lain here?  Pass.  How old is Tim Cavendish?  Fifty?  Seventy?  A hundred?  How can you forget your age?” (Mitchell 354).  This loss of even the most basic elements of his identity demonstrate the fragility of perception as it relates to reality.  The ongoing struggle for Cavendish to regain himself is a monumental undertaking:

Putting Timothy Cavendish together again was a Tolstoyan editing job, even for the man who once condensed the nine-volume Story of Oral Hygiene on the Isle of Wight to a mere seven hundred pages.  Memories refused to fit, or fitted but came unglued.  Even months later, how would I know if some major tranche of myself remained lost? (Mitchell 354)

Cavendish presents us with a microcosmic example of Mitchell’s idea of perception and reality.  Just as Frobisher expressed his doubts about the authenticity of Adam Ewing’s journal (Mitchell 64), here Timothy Cavendish shows us the doubts about himself and his own identity.  If he questions what elements of himself may still be lost, how can we know if the Cavendish represented from before the stroke is true?  Even if the events recalled are true, he cannot be sure that he reassembled them in either the proper order or under the proper circumstances as they actually occurred.  Clearly, then, the entire Cavendish section is thrown into doubt, as the narrator himself is compromised by circumstances that force a massive “editing job” on his own history.

            To make matters even more difficult in deciphering the reality of the novel, Cavendish reveals his discovery that the author of “Half-Lives” is a man who has no link to the events in the story (Mitchell 387).  This revelation forces a complete re-examination of that portion of the novel.  If “Half-Lives” is indeed a work of fiction, then “Letters from Zedelghem” and “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” are also fictional, as they exist solely in “Half-Lives.”  The conclusion is that that the birthmark presumably shared by Frobisher and Luisa Rey is also a piece of fiction.  For while Cavendish also has a birthmark, which he describes as “I, too, have a birthmark, below my left armpit, but no lover ever compared it to a comet.  Georgette nicknamed it Timbo’s Turd” (Mitchell 357), the birthmark is not claimed to be identical to the others.  Cavendish himself dispenses with the idea that his birthmark is in any way related to Frobisher and Luisa’s.  Again, it is for to us to perceive the connection between these birthmarks, even though Cavendish has just negated the first two individuals that bear it through the revelation of their fictional nature.  This revelation also forces us to reevaluate the appearance of a birthmark on Sonmi-451 (Mitchell 198), since the reduction of its relevance given the revelations of the Cavendish section only serves to validate the idea that it is the reader that gives it its importance in the first place.  We are then given another red herring designed to lead us into the next section of the novel when Cavendish comments on his train ride past Cambridge:

Cambridge outskirts are all science parks now.  Ursula and I went punting below that quaint bridge, where those Biotech Space Age cuboids now sit cloning humans for shady Koreans (Mitchell 168).

Here we see the first reference to a future event in the novel:  the clone occupied Korean society of “An Orison of Sonmi-451.”  By cross-referencing the novels storylines in a way differently from what has gone before, we must shift our perception yet again in an attempt to make sense of what we are experiencing.

In “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” Mitchell presents a bleak future in which cloned workers called fabricants perform various undesirable tasks for humanity while being kept in a mentally oblivious state designed to keep them from questioning the system in which they serve.  Sonmi-451 is one such clone who attains consciousness and is turned into a revolutionary by the system in order that an example can be made of her (Mitchell 347-48).  During an interview with an archivist prior to her execution, Sonmi defines perfectly the relationship between memory and reality:  “Fabricants have no earliest memories, Archivist.  One twenty-four hour cycle in Papa Song’s is indistinguishable from any other” (Mitchell 185).  Because their owners control the clones memories, they rob them of unique experiences, leaving them with no past and with only hope for a future.  That future is solely dependent on what the masters of their society grant to them and is based solely the information provided by them.  When pressed by Sonmi about his role in the charade that is her trial, it is the archivist who ironically makes the most telling declaration yet about the fluidity of perception and history:  “A duplicitous archivist wouldn’t be much use to future historians” (Mitchell 189).  The young archivist never stops to consider that an archivist could be loyal to something other than the truth of an event.  This is the fallacy of recorded history.  Since future history is dependent solely on what is recorded in the present and on its recorder, how can we believe anything, much less know it, to be accurate?  Sonmi-451 explains the contradiction that the ruling society finds itself in concerning history:

On the one hand, if historical discourse were permitted, the downstrata could access a bank of human xperience that would rival, and sometimes contradict, that taught by Media.  On the other hand, corpocracy funds your Ministry of Archivism, dedicated to preserving a historical record for future ages (Mitchell 234).

This is a catch-22 by any definition.  History must be recorded for future use by the ruling class, but such recording becomes a record that cannot be changed when convenient.  Or, to phrase the question more succinctly, what should the ruling class save accurately and what should be discarded or changed during the recording process?  Timothy Cavendish has already told us:  “You can’t go changing what you’ve already set down, not without botching things up even more” (Mitchell 146).  We must take special care to ensure that which is set down is as accurate as possible, even if it works to the detriment of the recorder in the present.

Isaac Sachs again expresses this phenomenon in a clearer and more simplistic way:

The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will.  Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past.  (He who pays the historian calls the tune.) (Mitchell 392-93).

The winner of any conflict controls History.  The entity that controls History controls reality, as we see in Cavendish’s revelation concerning his own regained memories.  Reality is only as solid as what it is based on.  The foundation of the present is based what has been set down as having gone before.  Later in the same journal, Sachs asks “Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows – the actual past – from another such simulacrum – the actual future?” (Mitchell 393).  Both Timothy Cavendish and Sonmi-451 have shown us that there is no difference.  If a past is “virtual” but no one knows it to be false, then it is, for all intents and purposes, the “actual” past.  Therefore, the present based on this past is as genuine as any other.

As Paul de Man postulates in his essay “Autobiography as De-facement,” the idea of Sonmi-451 dictating her autobiography as a historical record comes with problems:

By making autobiography into a genre, one elevates it above the literary status of mere reportage, chronicle, or memoir and gives it a place, albeit a modest one, among the canonical hierarchies of the major literary genres (de Man 919).

What de Man is saying here is that there is no way to separate a supposedly fact-based narrative from any other aesthetic-dependent literary genre.  And, although Sonmi-451 is dictating rather than committing her story to paper, it nonetheless leaves itself open to intrusion by modification for purely aesthetic purposes.  Here, again, we see an example of perceptual modification, forcing the reader to question the events.  If history is, indeed, written by the winner, then the loser’s story must also be taken with some skepticism, as not only will it be altered by the historian, but by the participant as well.  Additionally, de Man further defines the difference between autobiography and fiction:

Autobiography seems to depend on actual and potentially verifiable events in a less ambivalent way than fiction does. It seems to belong to a simpler mode of referentiality, of representation, and of diegesis.  It may contain lots of phantasms and dreams, but these deviations from reality remain rooted in a single subject whose identity is defined by the uncontested readability of his proper name (de Man 920).

The idea that the major difference between a work of fiction and an autobiography is the more limited narrative style in an autobiography is disturbing, especially considering de Man’s assertion that simpler meanings are assigned or assumed to the text.  Or, as he put it:  “It appears, then, that the distinction between fiction and autobiography is not an either/or polarity but that it is undecidable” (de Man 921).  Further, he poses the following question:

“but is it possible to remain, [ . . .] within an undecidable situation?  As anyone who has even been caught in a revolving door or on a revolving wheel can testify, it is certainly most uncomfortable, and all the more so in this case since this whirligig is capable of infinite acceleration and is, in fact, not successive, but simultaneous” ( de Man 921)

This “whirligig” of reality and uncertainty is at the heart of Cloud Atlas.  The longer we read and attempt to determine what is real and what is not, we accelerate ever faster around the idea that, as de Man says, we are simultaneously in both a real and an unreal environment.  We cannot know with certainty that any of the events are real at any given time, and thus, like Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both alive and dead inside its sealed box, the events contained within the cover of Cloud Atlas are at once real and unreal—true and untrue—even to each other.

            By the time we reach “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,” we have reached the absolute end of the timeline Mitchell has constructed for us:  not in Zachry’s tale, but in his son’s recounting of it.  He reveals the question that Mitchell is asking:  what can we believe and what can we discard?  “Do I b’lief his yarn ‘bout the Kona an’ his fleein’ from Big I?  Most yarnin’s got a bit o’ true, some yarnin’s got some true, an’ a few yarnin’s got a lot o’ true.  The stuff ‘bout Meronym the Prescient was mostly true, I reck’n” (Mitchell 309).  But even here, at the end, there is doubt, and that is what remains.  We have already placed doubt on Meronym’s birthmark, as it falls into the same category of unlikelihood of the other birthmarks.

Again, according to Sachs:

Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up – a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.  This virtual future may influence the actual future, as in a self-fulfilling prophesy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today.  Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone. (Mitchell 393)

Cloud Atlas presents us with a complete spectrum of possibilities as to what is the actual past and what is the virtual past.  The actual past that is Adam Ewing’s journal, read later by Robert Frobisher and relayed to Rufus Sixsmith and then to Luisa Rey.  Only in Timothy Cavendish’s story do we learn that this virtual past is merely the creation of Hilary V. Hush (Mitchell 387), and is a complete fabrication.  There remains no choice but to realign our suppositions concerning reality.  Further muddying the water, Mitchell references forward in time through by Cavendish’s “prophesy” of Korean clones (Mitchell 168).  While the existence of the “Biotech cuboids” is an indicator of the “virtual” future, the “actual” future that follows does, as Sachs suggests, eclipse the virtual one, as no one could have foreseen the outcome of the creation of cloned humans.  The Utopia that all societies hope to achieve exists only as an idea, living among the virtual past and future, but becoming lost among the actual.

            Clearly, then, what we see in Cloud Atlas is an interrogation of the accuracy of reality, specifically due to man’s tendency, consciously or unconsciously, to mold it to conform to his current needs or expectations.  As a result, no version of reality is able to function as anything but a story which may or may not be accurate to any significant degree.  This inherent limitation in any recorded event renders it almost completely useless.  How can we know what has gone before us, or even after us?  Mitchell asks that question and gives us the answer:  we cannot.  The question we must ask ourselves is the one Isaac Sachs asks:  “Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows – the actual past – from another such simulacrum – the actual future?” (Mitchell 393).  Or put more simply: “does it matter?”  That answer can only be:  no, for regardless of the reality in which we find ourselves, virtual or actual, it is the reality in which we find ourselves, and is thus the reality in which we must live.  Fenced in by perception’s assumptions and assertions, we can only act on what we believe we know.  All other action is irrelevant.




Work Cited

de Man, Paul.  “Autobiography as De-facement”.  MLN, Vol 94, No. 5.  Comparative Literature (Dec 1979), 919-930.

Mitchell, David.  Cloud Atlas:  A Novel.  New York:  Random House, 2004.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Nausea, trans Lloyd Alexander.  New York:  New Directions Publishing Corp.,1964.

Spanos, William V.   Repetitions:  The Postmodern Occasion in Literature and Culture.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State UP, 1987.