Cloud Atlas 04 - Letters from Zedelghem

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Another anachronistic story, but I enjoyed it more than the Pacific Journal. Despite its anachronistic tone it reminded me of a season of some reality TV show, like say Big Brother, where all the contestants are not very admirable. While I appreciate that comedy is about laughing at people who, like ourselves, deserve the bad things that happen to them, I wouldn't hang out with these people. This is when I started to wonder if Mitchell (the author) was a bit of a misanthrope, or if he was just trying to tell it like it is. I didn't really come to a conclusion about this, but thinking about it I wondered if telling it like it is is might reveal more about the speaker's local world than the world as such.

I di think there were a couple of NPCs here that I would enjoy playing as GM

Comments

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    I quite liked this one. I found all the characters convincing. I didn’t like them on a personal level but I was interested to hear what happened to them. I think life is dull of such struggles. I’m having one of my own within my family. I less sure about how this story fit the overall theme of being taken advantage of. It seemed like everyone was getting just what they needed and giving the minimum in exchange. Such a system can only last so long until it breaks down, and it did in this story.
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    edited September 12

    I'm with @Apocryphal in that I liked the story, but unsure how close it was to the book's theme. The characters were interesting and somewhat sympathetic, even if they weren't nice people. Frobisher's improving his composing skills while selling Ayrs's books; Ayrs rekindles his work; Jocasta gets a toy boy. It's difficult to see who was being oppressed. Even Frobisher's disinheritance is prompted by his profligacy.

    Back to @BarnerCobblewood point of the purpose of the story: I treated it more as a "slice of life" tale than one with a great point. It highlighted the effect of WWI, changes in sexual attitudes, the hypocrisy of public respectability and private affairs, and a few other bits.

    But yes, a good story.

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    Most of all, surely, it introduces the music which threads through the entire book? And in parallel with the musical themes and motifs which (one imagines) undergird the Sextet, there are ideas here which connect through to the other stories, in particular the dream of Ayres which I mentioned elsewhere in which he imagines Sonmi's workplace.

    I think, also, that one of the themes here which resonates elsewhere is the role of the outsider and/or radical. Frobischer is radical in his music as well as his sexuality, and in this context is pushed to suicide. In the earlier 19th century strand, Ewing takes a radical stand concerning slavery, and is told that his life will be difficult because of it. And so on - there are always personal consequences of making a stand in this book, but the specifics vary from one frame to the next.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    I think, also, that one of the themes here which resonates elsewhere is the role of the outsider and/or radical. Frobischer is radical in his music as well as his sexuality, and in this context is pushed to suicide. In the earlier 19th century strand, Ewing takes a radical stand concerning slavery, and is told that his life will be difficult because of it. And so on - there are always personal consequences of making a stand in this book, but the specifics vary from one frame to the next.

    A good point, but how does it mesh with the polemic at the end of Ewing's journal? That's all about struggling for a world that transcends tooth & claw, where the riches of the Earth and its Oceans are shared equitably. How does Frobisher's sexuality and music fit? Is he trying to make the world a better place? I don't think so.

    And Cavendish isn't a radical (he's content to keep the status quo in his own life) but is a victim of the regime on Aurora House.

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    @NeilNjae said:

    @RichardAbbott said:

    I think, also, that one of the themes here which resonates elsewhere is the role of the outsider and/or radical. Frobischer is radical in his music as well as his sexuality, and in this context is pushed to suicide. In the earlier 19th century strand, Ewing takes a radical stand concerning slavery, and is told that his life will be difficult because of it. And so on - there are always personal consequences of making a stand in this book, but the specifics vary from one frame to the next.

    A good point, but how does it mesh with the polemic at the end of Ewing's journal? That's all about struggling for a world that transcends tooth & claw, where the riches of the Earth and its Oceans are shared equitably. How does Frobisher's sexuality and music fit? Is he trying to make the world a better place? I don't think so.

    And Cavendish isn't a radical (he's content to keep the status quo in his own life) but is a victim of the regime on Aurora House.

    I suppose (and thinking aloud here, so it may well not work on reflection) we see a variety of people who (barring Cavendish, who I'm currently struggling to fit into the picture) want to take a radical stand. In some cases that emerges in personal issues (eg Frobischer), in others, social ones (Ewing, Sonmi). I am wondering if Mitchell is trying to say that the impulse to stand against prevailing social habits and attitudes can be worked out on many different levels?

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    Ewing is taken advantage of on a personal level, but is socially quite successful. Frobisher is, if anything, is socially disenfranchised and must rely on relationships with others, but seems more that willing to play the game. Del Rey lives in a time and place of opportunity, but uses that to expose people who are taking advantage of society as a whole. The Cavendish story features age discrimination, but is that what the story is really about? Somni is used both personally and systemically, and in the last story we have a character who is subject to violence as a result of political change, but has no issues with his home society. So is there really an overarching theme? Are they all really the same story?
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    Overnight I had a thought about this. It seems to me that one common theme is not so much exploitation, but being trapped in one of several ways.

    In the 1840s section, Ewing is trapped by the doctor, but also the Moriori are trapped by the Maori (on both social and personal scales), and the missionary families are trapped by their own decisions and circumstances.

    Frobischer is trapped by family expectations, and then by both Ayres and Jocasta. Sonmi is probably the best single example, with all kinds of entrapment around her. And so on, through to the remnants of human society being trapped by the encroaching natural and man-made disaster. So is the book about the variety of responses that people can make to the experience or feeling of being trapped?

    In passing, we have not mentioned Mitchell's choice of name Jocasta, who classically was the wife of Laius and mother or Oedipus. Frobischer certainly wants to kill off Ayres in a musical sense (and toys with the idea of doing it for real with the gun, but then decides to kill himself rather than the 'father'), and he certainly gets to have sex with Jocasta. So is this portion presented very directly as a retelling of the Oedipus tale, set in a historical era when said tale was being reunderstood in psychological terms as an inner experience rather than a slightly gruesome legend?

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    @Apocryphal said:
    So is there really an overarching theme? Are they all really the same story?

    Mitchell said of his book:

    Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark ... that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself Cloud Atlas, the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context ...

    Whether that comes through to us readers is another matter. I pretty much agree with @Apocryphal that the theme is too diffuse for the task of tying the stories together.

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    Phrasing it as Predacity is easier to understand.
    Ewing by Goose, Moriori by Maori
    In the Frobisher story, they mostly prey in each other. It’s more like an ecosystem.
    Del Rey, the plant preys on society. Smoke is the hunter and several characters are prey.
    In Cavendish, I suppose it’s the home that is preying on the residents.
    Somni is obvious, but is she also a predator at the end?
    In the last story, people are victims to the invaders.
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    I found @NeilNjae 's quote confirmation that there is a misanthropic aspect to the book. Mitchell thinks there is a fixed human nature, which cannot be changed. This is strong (and hateful) moral stance with which I strongly disagree.

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    Something that the book made me wonder a lot about was music - and when he's joined us I'd appreciate any thoughts that @clash_bowley might have on this. Or that of any other musicians amongst us.

    A classical symphony or concerto consists of several movements, usually three or four, sometimes more. The individual movements vary in tempo, mood, key changes and so on, yet are (once you listen to them a few times) unmistakeably part of the same overall piece of music. They fit together in a way that the same number of randomly selected and ordered pieces of music by the same composer would not.

    Now, I don't know enough music theory to know what it is that a composer aims for in order to achieve this overall sense of belonging together. But I am certain that this is what Frobischer was attempting to do (fictionally) with the Sextet in the book, and I suspect that DM was trying to do something like it in written form. Hence the themes and threads that interlink the stories, without making them exactly parallel or exactly sequential.

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    I think you're right in the importance of the musical form as the text's explanation of itself. Music of course has no conceptually objective content, unlike narrative, but music (for people educated in the particular tradition) elicits emotion and coveys meaning without explicit reference to particular objects. Rhythm and rhyme convey significance even if we do not understand the content, as does melodic voice. They create their own context that stands beside their conceptual content.

    I was taught to understand musics as languages, and just as varying levels of linguistic skill enable more or less depth of understanding when listening to a dialogic community, likewise varying levels of musical skill enable more less understanding while listening to a piece of music. And just as different languages articulate different phonemic distinctions within themselves, musics make different distinctions within tone, rhythm, etc. If you are not educated into the distinctions, you often can't even hear them, let alone reproduce them, and may not understand the responses that musics elicits in others.

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    Out of interest I searched through my kindle version for "sextet" and turned up some interesting stuff.

    1) The first mention of the Cloud Atlas Sextet is when the Lost Chord music store clerk repeats Luisa's enquiry for it and promises to get a copy for $120 (a serious amount of money back in her day).

    2) Timothy Cavendish listens to a sextet playing jazz at the momentous night of the Lemon Prize awards, but their music doesn't seem to have anything to do with Frobischer's Sextet.

    3) There's a New Year festival called Sextet talked about a lot in Sonmi's time but that seems to be just a bit of authorial fun on DM's part as there is no music referenced as part of it.

    4) Luisa picks up the ordered record from the music store and is entranced by its "pristine, riverlike, spectral, hypnotic... intimately familiar" sound, which against all rational probability she already knows on some visceral level.

    5) Finally in the second half of Frobischer's tale we get some description of the piece itself: "a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky: Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late... lifetime's music, arriving all at once... violin note, mis-played, hideously - that's my sextet's final note... showed [the policeman] the clarinet cadenza. He was unnerved at first by its spectral and structural peculiarities... Echoes of Scrabin's White Mass, Stravinsky's lost footprints, chromatics of the more lunar Debussy, but truth is, I don't know where it came from".

    It would be a fun exercise to try to decide which of the main characters is each of piano... violin - presumably the violin, playing the final note, is Zachry of Sloosha's Crossing (unless you take the linear sequence and reckon it's Ewing and the closing words of the written book). Suggestions on a postcard...

    One can also see how the "overlapping soloists" idea would motivate the film presentation of the story, where the six stories repeatedly overlap and interrupt each other, as opposed to the "two sets" idea with winding up the unwinding approach of the novel.

    I am assuming that the twice repeated description "spectral" is a play between the idea of a spectre - the ghost that successively reanimate the various characters - and the more mathematical idea of a spectrum (as in a spectral decomposition of a wave form) - the one story is split as though by a prism into six compositional parts.

    In short, I am more convinced than ever that DM has the imagined music of the Sextet at the heart of his conception of the book, and tried to work that out in written form.

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