Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
The Story So Far . . .
The third of our six nested stories in Cloud Atlas is the first that reads like a novel, not a true-life account. It’s a third-person, mostly omniscient, and present tense narrative. It also starts with the most direct link to the previous story of all of the narratives, beginning, “Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony…” (p. 90). Sixsmith, of course, is the recipient of the letters written by Robert Frobisher in part 2. It’s 1975, 44 years after those letters were written, and Sixsmith is an old man and eminent scientist who meets a 26-year-old journalist named Luisa Rey when they get stuck in an elevator together.
Luisa is the daughter of admired cop-turned-Vietnam reporter Lester Rey, who recently died. She’s cutting her teeth as a gossip columnist for Spyglass magazine and hoping for an opportunity to write about something real. Sixsmith is harbouring a secret that might get him killed, and passes along just enough information to get her interested. They talk for an hour and a half, the duration of the blackout that has trapped them in the elevator, trade stories (she tells stories about her dad, and about interviewing Hitchcock, he talks about his beloved niece, Megan), and Sixsmith remarks that “I feel I’ve known you for years, not ninety minutes” (p. 96).
Freed from the elevator and arriving home, Luisa finds 11-year-old neighbour Javier has broken into her apartment again. She lets him crash with her whenever his mom is out all night, which apparently is often. Tonight he is also sporting a welt on his face, from a “friend” of his mom’s. Not a great life this kid has, it seems. She grants him the security of sleeping on her sofa for the night. The next morning at a pitch meeting at the magazine, Luisa listens to the veteran reporters making up tabloid stories, alleging drunken presidential antics and man-eating piranhas living in sewers. Luisa pitches Sixsmith’s story: that Seaboard, the tenth largest corporation in the country, has covered up serious design flaws in its new nuclear reactor just off the coast of Buenas Yerbas, California. Seaboard already has one reactor running and is about to unveil its second, with plans for a third. Her boss scoffs at her and tells her she can only run the story if she has hard evidence to back it up, a stipulation he didn’t require from the male reporters’ stories.
Driving out to Swannekke Island, the reactors’ home, Luisa is welcomed to the facility by Fay Li, the publicist. Luisa claims that Spyglass wants to raise their editorial standard and run a day-in-the-life-of-scientists piece because of the new reactor’s grand opening. She’s immediately spotted by Joe Napier, head of security who is not far from retirement, and who ruminates on the eleven scientists he and Seaboard’s security team were able to intimidate into “forgetting” a nine-month inquiry into the design flaws of the power plant. The twelfth scientist, the one they couldn’t silence, is, of course Rufus Sixsmith, who is in hiding after writing a damning report about the reactor’s lack of safety.
Luisa sits in on the grand opening speech made by CEO Alberto Grimaldi. Grimaldi hands over the podium to Federal Power Commissioner Lloyd Hooks. The two exchange muttered unpleasantries beneath their big smiles for the cameras. Luisa slips out and finds Sixsmith’s office, where she meets scientist Isaac Saachs, who assumes she is Sixsmith’s niece, Megan. He demands to know where Sixsmith is hiding, and then Fay Li comes in and removes Luisa. Luisa plays dumb, claiming that she’d met Sixsmith ages ago and had an appointment to chat with him while she was on Swannekke.
Sixsmith, meanwhile, is watching the ceremony on TV as he calls Megan. An unfamiliar male voice answers and tells him to get out of the country because “they” are coming for him. He takes the call seriously, goes to the airport, deposits the Sixsmith Report in a locker there, and mails a package to Luisa that contains the key to the locker. He then books the first available flight for England, which departs the next day. He takes a hotel room to wait for the flight, where he looks over his most prized possessions: a bundle of letters from “his unstable friend, first love, and if I’m honest, my last,” Robert Frobisher (p. 111). These are, of course, the letters of part 2. They are deeply worn and well read, and Sixsmith knows them by heart. He reads the first nine in the series and takes the rest with him to read at the hotel restaurant over dinner. Returning from his meal, he lays down on the bed, and is promptly murdered by the Seaboard-hired assassin Bill Smoke, who shoots him in the head and leaves the gun and a typed suicide note at his side.
Luisa sips her morning coffee at her usual diner and is shocked to read about Sixsmith’s “suicide.” She immediately assumes he was murdered, and goes to the hotel to investigate. Accused of being a “ghoul” who is just after a story, she claims she is Sixsmith’s bereaved niece and is given the only thing left in his room, the packet of nine letters. The omniscient narrator tells us she passes within ten yards of the locker in which Sixsmith hid his report. She goes back to work, is chewed out by her boss for going to Buenas Yerbas to pursue the story, and bargains her way into a stay of execution: she has until the following Monday to deliver the hard facts to back up the story or she has to drop it.
An interlude occurs from the point of view of a used record store employee, taking a call from Luisa, who has read Robert Frobisher’s letters and is looking for a copy of his musical work Cloud Atlas Sextet. The employee tells her Frobisher was a wunderkind who died young, and that only five hundred pressings were made of the music but that he can probably track it down for her—for a price.
Bill Smoke watches Luisa and learns where she lives. She, meanwhile, reads and re-reads the Frobisher letters, totally disconcerted by them: “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” (p. 120). She is further disconcerted by the mention of the comet-shaped birthmark between Frobisher’s shoulder blade and collar bone, a birthmark identical to her own. She claims she doesn’t believe in “this crap,” but clearly she’s thinking reincarnation. She is seeing the Frobisher letters in more detail than she should.
Luisa goes back to Swannekke, this time to talk to the encampment of protesters outside the power plant. She talks to Hester Van Zandt, whom she refers to as “Doctor,” and who is a leader of sorts for the protesters. Hester tells her that the land they’re using belongs to Margo Roker, a woman who refused to sell her land to Seaboard and who was horribly attacked in her own home by “burglars” who didn’t happen to take a single thing after beating her unconscious. She remains in a coma, and Hester all but says the burglars were Seaboard assassins, especially since a front corporation owned by Seaboard is now offering Margo’s relatives four times what the land is worth.
Next, we get to see the story through the eyes of the evil Alberto Grimaldi, CEO of Seaboard. Grimaldi has a briefing with Fay Li, Joe Napier, and Bill Smoke, to talk about how much of a threat Luisa is. Dismissing the other two, Grimaldi and his assassin Smoke have a tete-a-tete. Grimaldi congratulates Smoke’s excellent work with Sixsmith and points out that accidents should be ready for both Lloyd Hooks and Luisa Rey.
Back within the power plant for her fictitious day-in-the-life piece, Luisa is reintroduced to Isaac Sachs, who Sachs insinuates that he might be able to get her the report, but that he is afraid to do so. They make plans to get together the next morning, but instead of Isaac, Luisa is met by Napier, who claims Isaac had to go to Three Mile Island at the last minute to work. He shows her around in Sachs’ place, and we glimpse a surprising fact. Joe clearly knew Luisa’s father from his cop days (and is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Luisa might need to be “dealt with”): “Of all the professions that lippy little girl could have entered, of all the reporters who could hae caught the scent of Sixsmith’s death, why Lester Rey’s daughter? Why so soon before I retire? Who dreamed up this sick joke?” (p. 135).
Meanwhile, Fay searches Luisa’s hotel room for the report or any clues to its whereabouts. Fay has cards up her sleeve, too: she’s not looking for Luisa’s knowledge of the report for Seaboard but because she wants to sell the report to a rival oil company, who will pay handsomely in order to discredit atomic energy. Later, the two women go to dinner, where Fay tries to bond with Luisa over the chauvinism they face as professional women in the 70s. Fay hints that she might have information to pass along. Though curious, Luisa doesn’t trust her enough to take the bait.
Later that night, Luisa’s awakened by a long-distance call from Isaac, who tells her that he’s given Garcia a gift for her. She understands after a moment; during their drinks together, she told him her VW Bug’s name is Garcia. He must have put the report in her car and is afraid the conversation is being recorded. Sure enough, she finds the report in a garbage bag in the trunk, and upon hearing Napier calling out her name, makes a break for it. Smoke instructs the gatekeeper to allow Luisa off the island. On the open road, he rams into her car with his own, forcing her through the barrier and into the sea, where he assumes she will die.
This section is said to most closely resemble an “airport novel,” a quick and cheap paperback that you buy at the airport, read on a plane, and toss when you land. The present tense seems out of place in the genre to me, and the reading and language level is somewhat higher than the average pulp book. That said, Mitchell creates some wonderfully overwrought phrases that match the genre well, such as “Wednesday morning is smog-scorched and heat-hammered” (p. 112). The characters are stereotypical and larger than life in many cases, including the villainous Alberto Grimaldi, the smooth and cold Bill Smoke, and the eighteen-months-to-retirement Joe Napier, who of course just happens to know our plucky heroine. The stakes are also higher in this story than the previous two–we’ve moved from the small, personal problems of Adam Ewing and his Ailment or Robert Frobisher’s debts to safety concerns that could rain nuclear winter down onto America’s west coast, all in the name of money.
The theme of predacity is apparent on a number of levels in this story. We have Seaboard ignoring hard scientific fact and the possible loss of countless lives in order to make a lot of money. We have the individuals within Seaboard, specifically Alberto Grimaldi and, at his orders, Joe Napier and Bill Smoke, menacing scientists into silence. Less lethal but no less dishonest are the journalists at Spyglass, making up stories about serial murderers in order to frighten people and entice them into buying the magazine, of course. And in the most individual example in this section, we have poor Javier, who is often abandoned by his mom and who is threatened and beaten by the men his mother knows. We also have willful neglect, with several characters quite happily turning a blind eye to bad deeds in order to save themselves or at least to avoid hardships.
But just as important, to me, is the flipside of predacity: compassion. Luisa has no real reason to take care of Javier. She is in no way connected to him or his mom except for the fact that they live next to each other, but she takes care of him anyway because she is a compassionate person. Or, when Isaac talks about how afraid he is to go into detail about the Sixsmith report, Luisa tells him to do “whatever you can’t not do” in order to save lives or preserve the truth (p. 133).
In the third straight story are many examples of systemic prejudices. Though the racism here is not quite as blatant as in the first two sections, it’s nonetheless there under the surface, for example when the journalist Jerry Nussbaum is telling his “heroic” tale of escaping a mugging by “six dreadlocked freaks of the negroid persuasion” (p. 107). But much more prominent than racism in this section is sexism. Luisa’s male co-workers constantly ask her if she needs help or advice, in a disparagingly paternalistic way, or making blatant sexual statements to her, such as when she tells Nussbaum to kiss her ass and he replies “In my wettest dreams…” (p. 100), causing her to be “torn between retaliation—Yeah, and letting the worm know how much he riles you—and ignoring him—Yeah, and letting the worm get away with saying what the heck he wants.” Fay Li expresses similar issues to Luisa, talking about an engineer who propositioned her: “What would you do? Dash off some witty put-down line, let ’em know you’re riled? Slap him, get labeled hysterical? . . . Do nothing? So any man on site can say shit like that to you with impunity?” She laments that perhaps one day women will live in a liberated world, but the world they’re in now is nowhere close. For someone like me, pushing thirty and having never had deal with this kind of blatant bullying, this belief that I am inferior simply because of my gender, it is mind-boggling to think that this kind of attitude was pervasive around the time I was born.
Stories within stories within stories are happening here, and subtle connections are made backward and forward within the book. The fictional Buenas Yerbas, where much of this story takes place, is in California at a time of the flourishing of atomic energy, and links quietly back to Adam Ewing, who is also from California at the time of the Gold Rush. Questions of authenticity become murkier in this section. This seems quite obviously to be a novel, from the subtitle, “The First Luisa Rey Mystery” to the tone. (Indeed, the title itself is something I adore, half-lives referring of course to radioactive, to the way these characters might not be living complete lives, and also to the way we’re only reading half of each story.)
So this is a work of fiction in which the character Luisa is reading the nine letters we read in part 2, in which the character Robert Frobisher read a journal written by Adam Ewing. This certainly muddies the idea of what is “real” and what isn’t within the framework of Cloud Atlas. Or is this a novel based on real events, as shown by the existence of Robert Frobisher’s almost-forgotten music? That so few examples of his music remain match eerily the comment he makes (posted at the end of Part 2 of the readalong) that a composer is but a scribbler of cave paintings, and that no lasting immortality should be sought through music.
This question of immortality, and an echoing of Ayrs’ hopes for his music, is seen in Luisa’s assessment of Alfred Hitchcock: “He spoke in bons mots like that, not to you, but into the ear of posterity, for dinner-party guests of the future to say ‘That’s one of Hitchcock’s, you know'” (p. 95).
And, with regard to immortality, we also get the question of rebirth, of lives lived and re-lived, of mistakes made and re-made, in the fairly pronounced suggestion that Luisa is Robert Frobisher reborn. Even as she should be hurt by her ex-boyfriend’s appearance, instead “her mind walks the passageways of Zedelghem chateau,” a place she has never been but memories of which have somehow been evoked by the letters of a man who died before she was born, and with whom she shares the same comet-shaped birthmark (p. 122).
What do you think of this section? Did you find it faster paced? More interesting? Less well written? What do you think of the shift to fiction from true-life first-person narratives? What do you think of the omniscient point of view, and of all of the extra detail we get about other people’s lives here, including Luisa’s mom and ex-boyfriend? Does Javier play an important role? What are your thoughts on Luisa Rey’s mystery?
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