Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)
Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem (first half)
Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (first half)
Part 4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (first half)
Part 5: An Orison of Sonmi~451 (first half)
Part 6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (whole story)
Part 7: An Orison of Sonmi~451 (second half)
Part 8: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (second half)
Part 9: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (second half)
The Story So Far . . .
We last saw Luisa Rey as her car plunged into the icy waters around Swannekke Island, forced off the bridge by the nefarious assassin Bill Smoke, who works for Seaboard CEO Alberto Grimaldi. As she fights her way clear of her seatbelt and struggles to open her window to escape the car, she sees that the Sixsmith Report is ruined, hundreds of pages swirling through the dark water, and she fears she has “paid for the Sixsmith Report with her life” (p. 392).
The scene changes. Isaac Sachs is on a plane with Alberto Grimaldi. He is musing about the nature of time and memory: is the actual event that happens in the past superseded by the collective memory of what we think happened? As people who were on the Titantic die, are we left with a different version of the Titantic‘s sinking, a “virtual past” that is malleable and based upon the whims and beliefs and hearsay of the present? Does the flipside exist, a malleable “virtual future” based upon our daydreams and beliefs of what the future will hold? He proposes:
“One model of time: an infinite 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.” p. 393
Finally, he concludes, he has fallen in love with Luisa Rey. And then his plane explodes. Bill Smoke has switched allegiances and has taken out Sachs and Grimaldi for Presidential Energy Guru Lloyd Hooks.
Luisa, meanwhile, has survived and been taken in by nuclear protester Hester Van Zandt. Hester fixes her up, lends her some clothes, and sends trusted friend Milton to get a truck to take Luisa to safety. Milton immediately rats Luisa out to Joe Napier, giving him the details of Luisa’s whereabouts and plans in exchange for cash, and telling him that Napier is the only person getting this information—though we get the feeling the “trustworthy” Milton might be making a few more calls on the subject, too.
Luisa arrives home and discovers Javier hanging out with her “Uncle Joe”: Napier is in her home, but does his best to dispel her fears, telling her his secret. It turns out that he was a cop with her father, Lester Rey. Lester saved his life during the botched operation at Silvaplana Wharf (the one Luisa told Sixsmith about in the first half of this story). He’s repaying the favour by warning her away from her Swannekke digging. He tells her that Smoke killed Sixsmith and is coming for her. Luisa takes Napier’s advice and says goodbye to young Javi, who takes a moment to philosophize about the nature of time, too: If you can see into the future, does that mean the future is fixed? Luisa says that while the far future might be fixed by the actions of others, what happens in the next minute is made up by what you decide to do. Can you change the future? Luisa can’t say.
She goes to her mother Judith’s house, just in time for a big fundraiser. Luisa comes from a wealthy, socialite background, and her mom wants to set her up with one of the dreamy triplets she’d previously mentioned on the phone. Luisa dresses up and trades barbs with old society “friends” who are shocked she’s not married yet. Bill Soke arrives and sweet-talks Judith. Clearly Milton called him, too. As Luisa has never met him in person, she doesn’t know the man her mother is trying to set her up with is in fact Sixsmith’s killer, out to tie up loose ends with her. Luisa does her best to ignore him, fixing her gaze at the TV instead. She is horrified when the news reports the crash of Grimaldi and Sachs’ plane.
Back to work Monday morning, and the news of the day is that Spyglass has been bought out by a big conglomerate. More or less out of hiding, Luisa goes to pick up the copy of Robert Frobisher‘s Cloud Atlas Sextet from the music store. The curious clerk is actually playing the album when she walks in, and without knowing what she’s listening to, she realizes that she knows the music but can’t figure out why. Back at the office, Luisa finds out that she’s the only one who has been fired. She asks the owner, K.P. Ogilvy, and her editor, Dom Grelsch, if Seaboard happens to own the conglomerate who bought out Sypglass. Neither will answer, but their silence says enough for Luisa to know the truth, and to understand this means she really is on the trail of a massive story.
Meanwhile, Napier is ushered into a meeting with WIlliam Wiley, Vice-CEO of Seaboard, and Fay Li. He is offered a handsome early retirement package. Seeing it for what it means—favour has shifted and he is now a liability and not an insider—he takes the deal. Riddled with guilt and paranoia, he leaves Swannekke Island and heads to his fishing cabin. He stocks up on supplies and makes it all the way to the woods. But can’t sleep, plagued by fear that every sound he hears is the tread of an assassin. He reflects on his role in the Margo Roker assault: he was told by Bill Smoke that the old woman was not going to be at home and that they were just going to steal her files. Instead, as he stood watch, he heard her scream and found Bill Smoke clubbing her nearly to death in her own bed, implicating Joe as an accessory to the assault and making it impossible for him to go to the authorities. He decides in the present that he can’t let Lester Rey’s daughter keep putting herself in danger, and heads back into Buenas Yerbas.
Luisa reads about Lloyd Hooks’ move from Federal Power Commission to CEO of Seaboard. Back to her usual breakfast joint, the Snow White Diner, Luisa runs into Grelsch. Turns out it’s his usual breakfast spot, too, but she’s never seen him there because he leaves an hour before she arrives each morning. He explains why he allowed her firing to happen: his wife has leukemia, they’re about to lose the house because of the medical bills, and the new owners have agreed to pay for everything, including reimbursement of previous bills, if Grelsch stays on and keeps quiet about Luisa and the Sixsmith Report. He says he’s not ashamed of putting his own family’s needs first. Then again, he’s also not above putting Luisa in touch with another newspaper editor, just in case that story she’s working on happens to go somewhere.
Luisa picks up her stuff from the office, including a letter that was sent to her, which includes a key and a note from Sixsmith: the key is to a safe deposit box in a nearby bank, where Sixsmith has deposited a copy of the report. Luisa goes straight there, but not before Fay Li, still on the hunt for the report for her own purposes, arrives with two henchmen. Fay confronts Luisa and takes the key from her before instructing her goons in Cantonese to do away with Luisa quietly. But as Luisa is taken down the hall, she’s thrown to the ground by an explosion: it’s all a set-up. In a double- (or triple-, now?) cross, Bill Smoke has rigged the report to a bomb, and Fay dies in the explosion.
Dazed, Luisa is aware of someone trying to manhandle her into a car, but that someone is taken down with a baseball bat by Joe. He’s returned to save her, and they make a break for it on foot, Smoke and his two goons in hot pursuit. They duck into a warehouse, where they’re confronted by a Mexican woman claiming no illegal workers are on the premises. They go past her, farther into the building. Behind them, Smoke and his men appear in the building, and one of the men shoots the Mexican woman’s dog and calls her a “wetback” when she doesn’t answer immediately about Luisa and Joe’s whereabouts.
Luisa and Joe find themselves in a sweatshop, the dog-killer right behind them. Just as they think there’s no escape, the Mexican woman appears and clubs the killer into unconsciousness, in revenge for both the death of her dog and the racism. Joe suggests she tell the other assassins that he is the one who did that damage.
Safe for now, Joe takes Luisa to see someone who has flown in from Honolulu to see them: Sixsmith’s niece, Megan . Megan asks if her uncle was murdered, rather than having committed suicide, and Luisa confirms it. Megan tells them that Sixsmith had a yacht called Starfish he never told anyone at work about, and that most likely a copy of the report can be found there. Joe and Luisa go, finding the yacht moored near the Prophetess, a restored schooner, and of course the ship that Adam Ewing sails on in the first and last sections of Cloud Atlas. And Luisa once again feels a “strange gravity” as she passes the ship; her “birthmark throbs. She grasps for the ends of this elastic moment, but they disappear into the past and the future” (p. 430).
Inside the yacht, they locate the report, but Bill Smoke finds them before they can leave. He shoots Napier, but Napier manages to shoot Smoke, too, feeling that his debt to Lester is at last repaid. Both men die. At exactly the same moment, Margo Roker awakens in the hospital to find Hester Van Zandt beside her: perhaps their ending will be happier than Napier’s.
The story jumps forward a bit, to find Luisa reading about the aftermath of her scoop in the newspaper, the one Grelsch referred her to. She’s blown the story wide open, Lloyd Hooks has forfeited his $250,000 bail and fled the country, five Seaboard directors have been charged, and two have committed suicide in the wake of the scandal, Swannekke is being scrapped, and the country is safe from nuclear explosions and corporate corruption. Luisa is pleased that the story is now out of her hands and that she has a new job, and also that she has a letter from Javi: his mother has moved them into a nice house with a new man, and he sounds like he’s doing well. Also good, Megan has responded to Luisa’s request and sent her the second half of Frobisher’s letters. And now, safe, respected, and enjoying breakfast at her favourite diner, she settles in to read the next letter from Zedelghem.
Again, I’m reminded of how chameleonlike David Mitchell can be. For some reason, the differences in writing style are striking me even more on the way back out of the stories than they did on the way through the first halves. Perhaps this is because I now know what to expect from each subsequent section, rather than being surprised as we move from one tale to the next.
After a deeply suspenseful ending on the first half, we’re once again back into Luisa’s world of double- and triple-crosses. No one’s allegiance can be trusted, and none of the secondary characters is safe from murder (although Luisa, of course, escapes unscathed). The imagery is heavy-handed, with gems such as,”Water vapor rises from the Swannekke cooling towers like malign genies. Pylons march north to Buenas Yerbas and south to Los Angeles” (p. 396). The characters are almost entirely archetypal and cliched: the cop/security/guy/what-have-you who is only X months from retirement (Napier), the cool-as-ice assassin who takes great pride in the art of his deaths (Smoke), the grizzled-but-fair news editor (Grelsch), the turncoat who gets it in the end (Li). It’s got exactly the feel of a pulpy thriller that hasn’t yet had an editor help tone it down, going hand in hand with the Cavendish section to make us doubt what is “real” within Cloud Atlas and what is fiction.
Also heavy-handed in this section are the hints that Luisa is both Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher reincarnated. Unlike in other sections, where the connection is fairly tenuous and sometimes not there at all, in this case Luisa’s birthmark “throbs,” and she feels a strange sense of import when she sees the Prophetess and when she hears the Cloud Atlas Sextet: Hilary V. Hush, the “author” of this section, obviously wants us to draw these lines in a way that David Mitchell, pulling the strings above Hush, isn’t as interested in doing in other sections.
There are some interesting inconsistencies of plot in this section, which I think have been put here to make it all the more obvious that we’re reading an unedited manuscript. Why, for example, would Fay Li bother to have a picture of Javi to threaten Luisa with, when she then immediately orders Luisa’s execution? The dun-dun-dun of Luisa’s death knell is just too pulpy for Hush to resist. Why would Bill Smoke go to the trouble of either breaking into a safe deposit box (and not just taking the report out), or setting up a safe deposit box with the oft-mentioned vanilla-coloured binder inside to make Fay or Luisa think they have the real report and then wire that report up to a bomb? Way too flashy, too time-consuming, and too messy when Smoke has already proved himself adept at making deaths look like suicides. Further, the package to Luisa arrives in the khaki envelope described in the first half, but in the first half Sixsmith mails her a key to an airport locker, one that the omniscient-ish narrator reminds us that characters walk right by without ever realizing its contents. So…is that a plot error? Did Smoke somehow intercept that package, switch keys, rewrite the letter to Luisa, and then send it on to set her up at the bank? Mitchell, I think, has deliberately riddled his “bad airport novel” with bad plot twists that make no sense, for the sake of suspense and cheap thrills.
Several characters wax poetic about the nature of time in this section, and Luisa herself makes a similar observation to Timothy Cavendish’s “lives crisscrossing” sentiment (p. 163) when she says “It’s a small world. It keeps recrossing itself” (p. 418). Coincidence? Tim putting those words in his own mouth as he writes his memoirs long after he first reads Half-Lives? Or something more?
Though Mitchell has gone out of his way to cast doubt on the validity of Half-Lives as a “true” story, the existence of the “Swannekke” people in Zachry’s time, and mentions made of Buenas Yerbas, do suggest that at least the geographical places exist within the future “true” stories. We certainly have a few interesting points of connection backward and forward outside of the very obvious Prophetess and Cloud Atlas Sextet references. Luisa’s mother Judith lives in Ewingville—named for Adam Ewing, perhaps? Megan Sixsmith is a radioastronomer in Honolulu. Perhaps she works in the temples of the Old’s that we see at the height of Mauna Kea in Zachry’s time. And the sweatshop that Luisa and Joe escape through is eerily reminiscent of the fabricants in Sonmi’s time, toiling away without adequate pay or working conditions, tucked away where society doesn’t have to think about their existence, doing the crap jobs that no one wants to do (and no one wants to pay proper money for). There isn’t a lot of difference between these illegal aliens and Sonmi’s sisters, at least in terms of their lot in life and the role they play in society.
Our theme of predacity is, of course, prominent here: Seaboard goes after Luisa very personally, corporation against individual. Many individuals actively hunt other individuals, Bill Smoke and Fay Li being the most prominent. Greed at the individual and corporate level abounds as well, in the form of Milton selling out Luisa to almost certain death in exchange for a payout, and of course in Seaboard’s insistence on going forward with the Swannekke project in spite of its dangers. We also have more of society’s inherent judging and distrust of others not like themselves: Fay Li invokes latent racism in the bank guard when she gets by him by speaking in “her most intolerable Chinese accent” (p. 420) and flashing ID the guard doesn’t even look at because it’s in “Chinese ideograms.” The Mexican woman physically strikes back against the man who calls her a wetback (and shoots her poodle). Luisa faces down mysogyny as people in her mother’s circle try to marry her off, express shock that she’s not married, and proclaim her a “bull dyke” when she rejects their advances.
As we talked about in the first half of the Luisa Rey story, the use of the limited-omniscient narrator is a departure from the other stories, because we get to see more of Luisa’s life and world than is evident in the other tales: the wealth of her family, the society world her mom lives in where snagging a husband is much more important than having a successful career, for example. We get to cheer for Napier as he makes the decision not to just retire into obscurity but to help Luisa; we get to see Grelsch justify putting his family’s immediate health before the possibility of nuclear disaster. We even get to see the happy ending of Hester and Margo, as Margo awakens from her coma at last. Because this is very obviously a novel and not excerpts from a journal or an interview, we get a much more finished picture. The bad guys get what they deserve. The good guys win. Who can say how much of this is “true”? We can’t ever know.
So what do you think about Luisa Rey’s tale? Do you buy all the of the plot twists? Do you think it’s “real,” or at least based on the truth?
You might also like: