Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cloud Atlas, The Book (2004)

Because I hit the maximum character length on Goodreads, I decided to put my review of the Cloud Atlas book here, which will make it easier to find and compare to the movie review which will follow -- as soon as I see the movie!

[contains SPOILERS]

I thought this book would be about reincarnation. Which means, I expected the process of reincarnation to figure into the story's plot and, as characters became aware of its role in their lives, eventually factor into their development and become a catalyst in their meeting with destiny. Instead a flimsy reference to reincarnation is used as a very thin thread, which loosely links 6 disparate short stories.

The author, David Mitchell, is very talented in creating not only diverse narratives, but different worlds, sometimes complete with new languages that are delightful to decipher and interpret. What he clearly couldn't do was tell a compelling, novel length story. So, what we get is themes bookending short tales, rather than an extended plot.

For the most part, the reincarnated souls don't share common personality traits or ethics. They don't learn from past life mistakes. They don't inherit karma. Basically, all they share is a comet shaped birthmark on the left shoulder blade. In a lurid violation of the "show us don't tell us" rule, that's how we are able to identify them as the supposedly same person, from story to story.

In case you get through 75% of the book without realizing its transparent structure, Mitchell helps you along by having one of the reincarnated protagonists, a music composer, spell it out, by using the outline for his symphony (helpfully titled Cloud Atlas Sextet) as an unneeded metaphor for the book as a whole:

"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists'" piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each soli is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" Unfortunately, the answer is NEITHER.

While "gimmicky" would not be a compliment, it might require more complexity in the interweaving or overlap between stories than actually exists here.

The series of six begins with ADAM EWING, an American notary from San Francisco (during the Gold Rush era) who handles various estates and is traveling home, from abroad, on a ship that stops at various ports on "uncivilized" black islands being overrun by Anglo-Saxon missionaries and fortune seekers, both seeking to exploit the local tribes. They imprison and kill them, steal their resources, and/or strive to convert them to a code of ethics that is more modern than theirs, but, in the end, no more moral or less savage.

If the natives aren't killed by outright oppression, then it's the foreign diseases that the white ships bring, for which the tribes have no immunity. They are dying off in droves, a fact which those invading their lands care nothing about. Adam distances himself from the tribes people, but also empathizes the more he sees them victimized by his peers. Religious without hypocrisy, Adam tells his shipmates that they should be civilizing the natives, not killing them and is told that the best of the blacks is not too good to die like a pig.

Back aboard ship, Ewing seems strangely enchanted with the beauty of a young shipmate, Rafael. In the end we learn that Rafael is being raped by the more seasoned sailors and ultimately commits suicide to Ewing's horror. I had begun to wonder if Ewing was in love with Rafael himself. He only mentions him sparingly in his narrative, but in a way that suggested that Rafael was more often in his thoughts than in his journal. Ewing's fate is also intertwined with a stowaway', Autua, he is a runaway aboriginal slave. While on shore, Ewing saw the youth being beaten. He only made eye contact with him briefly, during the whipping, but when they did, Ewing saw recognition in the youth's eyes and "uncanny, amicable knowing."

Now, reading this during the first pages of the book, I thought we would experiment more with how kindred spirits are drawn together over time and over different lives, by the sub-conscious connection they're fated to have throughout incarnations, but it's a subject that's not really visited. Moreover, other than the shoulder birthmark, there is nothing in the personality of the characters or that experiences, together or alone, that would help you identify them as the same souls in the other stories. Except for the person who is described as having the birthmark, we don't recognize the other people with whom he/she interacts from one story to the next as being a continuing presence throughout many lives. So, if Ewing and Autua were reunited in future centuries, it's hard to infer that with certainty.

Furthermore, if Ewing seemed so fascinated by Rafael because he's known him before or will know him again -- it's not clear who plays the "Rafael" role in the other stories. Also, how are the Autua and Rafael roles different? Are Autua and Ewing always the characters who rescue each other and co-exist from lifetime to lifetime? Is Rafael always the soul that Ewing fails to save, because he understood and gave too little, too late?

We eventually learn that Ewing is being poisoned by the ship's doctor, Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. Does the soul of this same villain return in the other stories or, sometimes, is life itself the villain? Perhaps, Ewing's life lesson is that he shouldn't have trusted Goose based only on his station in life. When Autua rescues Ewing from the death Goose had planned for him, Ewing vows to dedicate the rest of his life to the abolitionist movement, realizing that no race is superior to the other in intellect, compassion, evil or brutality.

The next hero is ROBERT FROBISHER. I found his (and later Zachry's) one of the two most compelling stories in the sextet. Frobisher's story is told through letters to his friend and sometime lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Even though we don't actually "meet" Sixsmith in this story, he's just an addressee, the depth of his feelings become so clear based on nothing more than offhand references by Frobisher, that by the time Sixsmith is actually introduced to us as an older man in the next tale, he already seems fully-fleshed and our stake in his outcome is a firmly vested.

Frobisher is the black sheep of a rich British family. He's a genius, gifted composer, but a bankrupt and lecher, using both men and women for his pleasure and his financial security. He's been disinherited by his disapproving father and gallivants through Europe, skipping out on hotel bills and concocting a web of lies that allow him to infiltrate the homes of the wealthy long enough to steal and fence their valuables, before they find out his checkered past and chuck him out the door.

We meet him in 1931, when he weasels a position as apprentice to a wealthy, older composer, Ayrs who is living off of his laurels, his creativity having dried up. Frobisher is able to translate Ayrs' stunted compositions to music in a way that revitalizes the elder's dying brilliance. But they're at a stage in their lives, where Frobisher actually has more to teach Ayrs than learn from him. Ayrs steals Frobisher's work, confident that Frobisher's has sunk so low on the social status pole that there is nothing Frobisher can do, except grin and bear it, grateful to have Ayrs' generous roof over his head.

Aware that his hands are tied, Frobisher grudgingly defers to Ayrs, but secretly works on his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, careful not to let it fall prey to Ayrs' plagiarist instincts.

Meanwhile, Frobisher is sleeping with Ayrs' wife who is becoming more possessive all the time. Frobisher happens upon a half-finished diary in Ayrs' library: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. It fascinates him and he longs to find the rest of the document. Even half-finished he can easily tell that Ewing is being poisoned by his physician Henry Goose. Perhaps Frobisher is able to divine this so quickly due to what he has learned between lives, but overall, he seems less wise and evolved than Adam Ewing. Plus, unlike the other reincarnates, Frobisher is uniquely self-centered, his altruistic leanings quite few.

Has his soul reverted because Ewing naiveté and faith only caused him harm? That would be hard to say, because it was AFTER he was poisoned by Goose that Ewing decided to help others, even if it cost him personally.

Ayrs reveals that he's known Frobisher was sleeping with his wife all along and will actually use that fact to contribue to Frobisher's permanent ruin, unless Frobisher quietly continues to let Ayrs' pass Frobisher's work off as his own. Frobisher has a "meet cute" with Ayrs' daughter Eva, as they hate each other at first site. However, when the young lady softens towards him, Frobisher believes that she has fallen in love. He soon comes to requite those feelings, only to find that he was mistaken. Eva is engaged to someone else and knowing that he has slept with her mother and been shunned by her father, is quite contemptuous of him. Frobisher contends that he is not broken-hearted, but fell out of love as quickly as he fell in it.

Still, once he finishes the Cloud Atlas sextet, he shoots himself. The end is jarring since Frobisher's tale has been a humorous and irreverent one. Yes, he was restless, but we didn't glimpse that he was dissatisfied or depressed. We don't know why he never returned to Sixsmith, the love of his life. For these reasons, his suicide seems quite genuine causing the real life shock and regret you have when you lose someone vibrant who had so much to live for and you (& Sixsmith) would have done so much to save, had you only realized he needed salvation. Only learn later in his tale does Frobisher elaborate about his brother Adrian who was killed in the war. He resented Adrian whom their father always held up as an example to whom Robert Frobisher could never compare. But after his death, he wonders about those aspects of his brother that Robert never knew and Adrian will never get to be. He goes to leave flowers on Adrian's grave, but can't find it among all the headstones of fallen soldiers. He leaves them on the grave of another "F," hoping that maybe the unknown deceased had crossed paths with Adrian, at some point.

We are left to conclude that Adrian, who never played a real part in Frobisher's story, was a big role in his death. After leaving Adrian's grave, Frobisher is in a car that hits a pheasant. Frobisher kills the wounded bird to put it out of its misery, his motive being far gentler than the act itself. I suppose the same can be said of Frobisher's suicide.

In his last letter to Sixsmith he informs him that not only does the universe move in a cycle, not only do patterns repeat, but actual lives do. Literally. They will meet again at the same place they met before and "ten years later I'll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter ..." this belief fascinates me, because I not only believe in reincarnation, but also think (hope?) that I will relive THIS life again too and reunite with people I've lost, in our same roles, only maybe I'll appreciate them more the next time around.

Frobisher's view on this subject comes as a surprise, as there has been nothing in the preceding narrative that suggested he entertained such notions. While it's a nice plot point surprise, it also reflects a weakness in character consistency. Plot-driven stories are usually frustrating, but especially so when there are six mostly unconnected ones.

The next story is Silkwoodish & takes place in the seventies. Sixsmith is an aged scientist who discovers that a nuclear reactor being reacted in a small American community is actually a hazard to everyone, a secret that no one affiliated with the reactor wants to get out. Sixsmith is murdered as he is about to go public with his findings, but not before telling his secret to an intrepid reporter, LUISA REY (the reincarnated Frobisher) to whome he instantly feels a connection. Rey pursues the story, putting her own life in jeopardy to do so. She is finally aided by a would-be assassin who recalls how her father (a police officer) saved his life decades earlier and believes he owes it to the dead man to rescue his daughter. So we have karma and we have Luisa willing to forfeit her own life to save others (in keeping with what Ewing was prepared to do in the end) & we have Sixsmith, but other than that, there's no true connection between Luisa, Frobisher and Ewing -- oh, except for her comet birthmark and fascination with Frobisher's Sextet, which she's sure she heard somewhere before!

TIMOTHY CAVENDISH is next on board. He's a London book editor. He seems to be another reverted soul. Not only is he not saving others, as Luisa did, but he's vaguely racist, which Frobisher did not seem to be. Of course, no one said that Mitchell believed in the Buddhist theory of reincarnation where the soul rises to different levels of consciousness and higher thinking over time, until it finally graduates to Dalai Lama heights. But if you aren't carrying the wisdom of past lives with you into the new ones, what's the point of reincarnating at all?

Cavendish's business is a failing one. One book comes across his desk, Half-Lives: The first Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish scoffs that the book contains a suggestion that Luisa Rey is Robert Frobisher reincarnated, but Cavendish writes that off as rubbish. After all, he also has a birthmark below his left armpit. So what? We aren't familiar with the book's writer, Hilary V. Hush (surely a pseudonym), nor are we advised of her connection to Luisa, but Luisa came into contact with mediums, new age spiritualists, maybe she reached the reincarnation conclusion herself, after we left her. His mild interest in Half-Lives is a recurring one but his story takes off when one of his writers is involved in a murder scandal, the sensationalism of which sparks book sales. With the writer himself dead, his heirs accuse Cavendish of pocketing money that should be theirs. They hire thugs to threaten him. His brother sends him to a "safe place" that turns out to be an old folks' home -- actually, prison. We never learn why his brother sends him there. At least we were told that Dr. Henry Goose's schemes against Ewing were mercenary, but why is Cavendish victimized? He had an affair with his brother's wife once, but is what happens to Timothy meant to be his brother's retribution? God's? David Mitchell's?

Traveling to what he expects to be his haven, Timothy encounters many mishaps. In between them, he is riding in a cab when he thinks the driver calls him "Zachary" he replies that that isn't his name (but will be the name of a friend of his, someday). The cabbie responds that he said "exactly," not "Zachary." I sustain a concussion being hit over the head by such heavy foreshadowing.

Once signed into the elder care facility, Cavendish is not allowed to leave. His cruel guards (the nurses, administrators and facility staff) use physical force to detain him, strapping him down, whipping him like a child, even drugging him. It's like a Cuckoo's Nest for the elderly and Cavendish has his own vengeful Nurse Ratched. Trapped there on Christmas, Cavendish sees a documentary on Ypres a once beautiful town subjected to war atrocities. He wishes he had appreciated the joys in life before they were all obscured by clouds. He should have mapped the clouds' location to make the pitfalls easier to recognize. "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?"

Cavendish and 3 other inmates plan and execute a fumbling, funny escape. He uses the experience to write his own book, which becomes a bestseller and is made into a movie.

The next story takes place hundreds of years in the future in Nea So Copros, what was once Korea. Instead of enslaving other humans, people have taken to growing artificial beings, known as "fabricants" and using them as slaves. The fabricants feed on "soap" which keeps them in a robotic, semi-conscious state, preventing them from forming memories or independent thought. They only recite the lessons they have been programmed, serving humans without question. This futuristic world has its own language derived from ours. Sunrise = yellow up. TV = ADv. All movies are disneys. All handheld computers are sonys and our reincarnated heroine works for the evil Golden Arches. It's not called McDonald's, but its employees do wear scarlet and yellow uniforms! Their biggest holiday is Sextet Eve. I am not sure this is an ode to Frobisher's music or not.

Sonmi 451 is one of the fabricants. Not only are their senses dulled by the "soap" they are fed, but they are brainwashed in a cult like environment, where they are ordered to follow the word of leader Papa Song, if they want to reach paradise. They are subjected to daily sermons, rituals and videos that reinforce their servitude.

Sonmi lives this robotic life like the others until an unusually aware fabricant, Yoona 939 opens her eyes. Sonmi worked and slept in her dorm room with other fabricants. They lived in a soap-induced coma, not unlike the imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, only they were not even aware they were prisoners. Sonmi knew no other life outside of work and sleep until Yoona woke her up when everyone else was sleeping and began to show her the secret world that humans inhabited after the fabricants were put to bed. Yoona plotted an escape and was killed in the process. After that Sonmi's own eyes were opened and she began to sense the world around her. Her knowledge grew and she only pretended to go through her old robotic motions. She thinks her newfound sentience is concealed from the world of humans (or purebloods) but she is caught in the act of sneaking around her workplace at night, when she is supposed to be asleep and is recruited by a member of an underground Unanimity, an organization seemingly dedicated to freeing fabricants.

"Free" in a sense, for the first time in her life, Sonmi devours human knowledge, learning everything from Plato to Hollywood era films. The flick or "Disney" that really captures her is about Timothy Cavendish. Ugh! This is such a heavy-handed and unrealistic link between the stories that it tells us more about the book's overall weakness than it serves as proof of the reincarnation.

The more embedded into this underground union Sonmi becomes, the more she learns about the atrocities committed against fabricants, while dew drugged purebloods (cosmetically altered so that they never age) live off of the fabricants' unending toil.

She learns that they are used by college students, much like lab rats on which they run experiments and write papers on their findings, oblivious of the harm, even death, they inflict on their subjects. She learns that tiny fabricants are created to serve as living dolls for the purebloods. Since there are fees levied to deactivate a fabricant, once pureblood are tired of playing with their "dolls" their parents just callously kill them rather than disposing of them in a more "humane" fashion. Finally, Sonmi learns about the biggest lie told to the fabricants: the promise that they will live in paradise after 12 years of service. She watches as fabricants with 12 years of service are taken to a room (expecting to be transported to beautiful retirement homes on a luxurious ship) and violently beheaded and mutilated. Their bodies are turned into the same "soap" that is fed to the living fabricants and also used in the food that the Golden Arches restaurant where Sonmi once worked served to purebloods.

Sonmi is stricken by one cold truth after the other. She sleeps with Hae-Joo, her union guide, Hae-Joo. The sex is joyless and mechanical, but at least it is an act of the living. When the Unanimity tells her they want to use her in their cause to free all fabricants, though their mission will be very dangerous for her, she readily agrees. She writes a manifesto for the union, declaring human rights for all fabricants. Then, she is arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death, all of which comes as no surprise.

She tells her story to an archivist and reveals that she knew that Hae-Joo and the Unanimity were working against her all along. She was a willing martyr. Their goal was to set her up as an example so that purebloods would recognize the threat posed by all fabricants if allowed to usurp their place. When Yoona was killed by humans, they falsely said it was because she posed a threat to a young pureblood boy dining in the restaurant where she served, teaching the humans that unless they kept them enslaved, the fabricants would murder and overthrow them. Similarly, Sonmi was used to spread a moral of the harm that would befall purebloods if other fabricants ever acquired knowledge and coalesced. Sonmi knew she was a tool, but did not believe the Declarations she offered would go to waste.

They were converted into catechism, to teach fabricants and those who would aid them submission, but Sonmi knew that it would inspire rebellion in some and inspire them to fight or die for freedom. She learned from the greatest and recalled, "As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor." Her narrative concluded, Sonmi tells the archivist to turn off his recorder. She is ready to march to her death in the Light House, but not before she finishes the Timothy Cavendish movie, her last request!

Sonmi realizes that for every rebel who is killed, multiple rebels will take her place, not unlike a many-headed snake, like the Hydra (the name of the nuclear reactor in Luisa's story) and it's the same conclusion that Ewing reaches when he realizes that his efforts on behalf of evolution are just one drop in the bucket, but that many drops create an ocean. The characters ponder similar concepts occasionally, but don't share common, or even derivative, goals and outlooks.

Finally, we meet Zachry (a name that Cavendish recognized as referring to him, centuries before his reincarnated Zachry was actually born). Zachry is a primitive islander, not unlike those Adam Ewing encountered on his sea voyage. He and his valleysmen worship the God Sonmi and fear the devil, Old Georgie.

As a youth, savage tribesmen from another village saw Zachry running to where his father and brother were and followed him. Zachry fell and was hidden from them, but they killed his father and enslaved his brother Adam. Zachry never told his family that he led the killers to the lost Adam and Pa, but he lived with the guilt for the rest of his life.

Sometimes Zachry's island was visited by an advanced ship inhabited by people with special "smarts" and technology that far surpassed Zachry's society's. These foreign visitors, called Prescients, would often trade goods with them, but their stays were brief and Zachry's people learned little about them. Then, one year a prescient woman, Meronym, said she wanted to stay and study the villagers. She offered to help out in one of the homes and give them goods, in exchange for an opportunity to witness life on their island directly. The villagers were suspicious and did not want the strange woman in their home with her unknown magic, so they nominated Zachry's family to play home to her, when they were absent at a village meeting.

Because Meronym worked hard and seemed kind, everyone soon took to her, but not Zachry. He thought she planned harm for his people and didn't like the way she was constantly studying them, learning all of their secrets, without divulging any of her own. He knew she possessed advance knowledge, but she would never reveal it, speaking in Zachry's language and acting at his stage of advancement, although he was sure she knew science and technology well beyond his range of understanding. He spied on her, following her to a cave where their family history was kept and accusing her of keeping secrets. Meronym replied that he had secrets of his own [I still don't know how she knew that or if she was just bluffing] and once went into her room and found her "orison" a small computer-like device (dare I say an ipad?) with video and sound. He saw a shimmering woman speaking in words he could not understand and was entranced, but the woman was quickly obscured by a gruff man who appeared on the screen (facetime, I presume), called Zachry by name and yelled at him. He quickly put the device down and ran out of the room, but he knew that Meronym knew he had snooped. He was even more wary of her after that, but when his sister fell ill, he called upon Meronym to help her. At first Meronym resisted. She was there as an explorer. It was not her place to change the course of their primitive lives or anything else. And she could get in trouble if she did so. He would never tell anyone what she'd done, if she would only help. Zachry told her about his role in Adam and Pa's death. It was a shameful secret he'd never divulged to anyone and she could use it against him, should he ever reveal hers. She takes pity on him and gives him the pill that will save Catkin's life. After that, he senses a bond with Meronym.

When she wants to explore forbidden areas of the island which the villagers believe to be cursed, Zachry, though frightened, decides to accompany her. They forge through dangerous jungle and finally come upon spectacular modern buildings full of advanced technology, but vacated. Meronym reveals that she is part of a small group of survivors who lived after the rest of humanity destroyed itself through greed (much like the Lost City of Atlantis). Only the untouched regions of the world like his island tribes still survived. Her civilization advanced to astronomical levels, but fought and destroyed the world, in their quest to kill and conquer each other. She has been traveling to find the few places where the survivors from her civilization can live and procreate. After her revelations, Zachry has visions from Old Georgie telling him to kill Meronym, but he listens to messages he has received in his dreams instead and actually saves her life during their journey, bringing her back to his village safely.

Not long after that, the village is taken over by marauding Kona tribesman, who rape and kill many villagers and take the rest as their slaves. Zachry is captured, but Meronym saves him on horseback, rather than running as he did when Pa and Adam were overtaken, Zachry is determined to return home to see if his mother and siblings could have survived the Kona attack. His home is empty and his possessions either stolen or left in a pile of rubble. Everything they built or spent lifetimes achieving and learning was destroyed in a matter of hours. What had it all been for? He doesn't know what has become of his family and not knowing is worse than certainty of their deaths. His young sisters would have been raped, but what about his aged mother? He sees the corpses of other villagers and the wisest man in his town has been beheaded. His rotten head now rests upon a spike on what had once been his front yard. Zachry has no words to describe his despair and the way Mitchell paints the scene for us, makes these the most moving and heartbreaking passages in the book.

To his surprise, Zachry finds a drunken Kona man sleeping in his bed. Delirious from his looting, he must have passed out and fallen behind the rest of his savage tribe. Zachry remembers a dream vision which warned him about this moment and cautioned him NOT to kill this man. He also knows that he will pay for taking a life. He shouldn't kill the slumbering villain. But he does. He later tells Meronym what he's done and she says nothing, casting no judgment. On the run, Zachry and Meronym become closer. He notices the comet-shaped birthmark on her shoulder. She tells him that the woman he saw on her orison is really his beloved Sonmi, not a God. She was a martyred fabricant from long ago whose archived history had become a mantle for freedom. Knowing that shimmering woman from the video was Sonmi did not make Zachry believe in her any less. What did Meronym believe in? Nothing she answered. Well, what does she think happens when we die? Meronym simply believes that when we die, we are gone. There is no afterlife.

She reveals the whole truth to him, her prescient kind is dying out due to a plague and they had intended to come and settle in his village, make it their territory so he had been right to suspect her. At this point, Zachry doesn't care. After what the Kona from another village just like his own did to him, why should he think that outsiders would be any worse. If they were like Meronym he would welcome rather than fear them in his world. She shows him her orison and she and her prescient leader invite him to leave with Meronym on one of their ships. He says that he must try to help his family, though far outnumbered by the Kona and not even knowing if his family members survived, any rescue attempts on his part would surely be a suicide mission. He vows to escort Meronym through the island that is unfamiliar to her, to get her safely to the spot where her mother ship has been docked before taking off to follow the Kona. On their way to the ship they are surrounded by Kona. There's a bridge they can use to get away, but remembering one of his dream visions, Zachry insists that they cannot cross it. Sonmi told him not to Meronym angrily denounces his dreams and superstitions, "An' did Sonmi know we got a furyin' swarm o' Kona on our tail?" she sarcastically demands. But in the end she gives in and believing in Zachry's word and instinct alone, she does not cross the bridge, but their attackers do. When they run across it with their horses, they prove too heavy and the bridge falls, they drop steeply into the water below where they are killed or maimed to grievously to survive. Meronym and Zachry survive, but his leg is injured and there are other Konas who will follow after them. When Zachry lapses into unconsciousness, she makes the decision to take him onto her ship. Woozy, a bleeding and drained Zachry floats on the water looking at the sky and marveling that clouds are like souls. They change form and color, but are still clouds as they drift across the ages, just as a soul is still a soul. No one can say where the cloud will blow from or where it will go, except God and the atlas o' clouds. (eye roll)

We don't know what life is like for Zachry outside of his village, but we learn that he went on to father children who retell his story with some skepticism. Interestingly, even though Meronym took Zachry to her island, his children speak in his dialect, suggesting that he was somehow reunited with villagers of his own kind. His children acknowledge that their dad was a weird old guy, but they believe in the orison, because they still have it. They found it among Zachry's remains and they still play the mesmerizing Sonmi video, even though they do not understand her language, her soothing image helps to put their children to sleep at night. As for the rest of their father's tales, they have to admit he was a little strange. After all, he came to believe that Meronym was Sonmi reincarnated. How crazy is that?

So, the sextet of stories is presented. I look at the pairings to see if there have been soulmates over time. Autua and Ewing, Frobisher and Sixsmith, Sixsmith and Luisa, Zachry and Meronym. In addition to the brother who betrayed him for reasons we can't guess, Cavendish had 3 friends who helped him break out of the institution, but he wasn't emotionally close to them exactly. He just reached out to them in his despair. Sonmi had Hae-Joo, but he betrayed her, so he was more her Dr. Goose than her Autua. All in all, the destined relationships that one usually explores in reincarnation stories isn't emphasized in this one. It's hinted at, a sense of deja vu, a flash of recognition, and instant sense of camaraderie, but the closest we get to examining a true bond is Zachry and Meronym. If there are links that are supposed to move forward from one life to the next, they don't. Many of the reincarnates are shaped by those they have lost: Frobisher's brother Adrian whose grave he could not locate; Luisa's father; Zachry's father and brother Adam (who shared a name with Adam Ewing, although Zachry is not a reincarnate himself, I think his losses impact Meronym's too); Sonmi's fabricant friend Yoona. Then both Adam and Meronym were separated from family. Meronym had a son who may have died in the plague that was killing prescients. But she did not know his fate and had to struggle with the uncertainty, which is just what Zachry had to do, when he did not know how or if his villagers survived the Kona attack. Most of them had to love and grieve without answers, but that's one of life's burdens in general, not something unique to this incarnated soul.

In sum, what have we learned? What has the reincarnated character learned from Ewing to Zachry? Though centuries apart, the primitive worlds that they knew were not dissimilar. But the same cannot be said of the reincarnated. Yes, Sonmi can be recognized as Ewing, perhaps Louisa can too, but Cavendish and Frobisher are not like any of them nor like each other. Like Ewing, Cavendish and Frobisher are victimized by wily oppressors, but that doesn't ultimately make them concerned with man's inhumanity to man. They grow crafty, but don't evolve. Zachry grows from boy to man, coward to fighter and he's connected to his ancestors and the past. It's his subconscious mentor. So, I suppose we have to accept him as the culmination of the five lives he has lived before. But while the story makes it clear that the world's patterns recycles, the universe grows, learns, collapses under its own weight of greed and evil, and is then reborn, it is not as easy to chart the character cycle of reincarnation. Autua in the first story could be Zachry in the last. Yes, Ewing could be (is) Meronym too, but who and why were all the people they became in between those first and last incarnations? One life does not impact and shape the other, except in passing, not in substance.

Even Sonmi the fabricant we knew is very unlike the Sonmi god that Zachry believes in. Sonmi 451 was not Zachry's patron saint who healed the sick and took the dead to a new womb to be reborn. Of course, legend recreates fact and it is reasonable to believe that the real Sonmi was converted into something different, higher than the fabricant flesh she actually was, just as Jesus Christ may have been. But even if Sonmi becomes mostly fairy tale over time, the reincarnations are supposed to be real. Why aren't they meaningful? What's their point? This is not a story about one soul over time. It's a collection of six narratives, connected to one author, but not to each other. Cavendish and Sonmi's paths inform each other far less than Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Darcy's do, so why label them reincarnations?

No comments: