cloud atlas, by david mitchell

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another reread from when I was eighteen years old. This book isn’t as forthrightly enjoyable as Number9dream, which was this headlong surge into urban surrealism and ultraviolence and rivening familial loss and the travails of being a lovelorn story-tinkerer in an immense and alienating metropolis. Cloud Atlas is a very self-consciously thinky project that constantly calls attention to its own fictiveness. Same’s true of Number9dream, except in CA the tale-spinner’s an even more pronounced presence, isn’t he? CA’s also got what an academic might call a transculturalist agenda badge stuck dead-center on its chest. This novel is a card-carrying pluralist. It is organizing food drives and handing out flyers outside of the central subway station. Which, fine, that’s wonderful — so glad to see D. Mitch pushing progressive values in his fiction. I really admire his panache and determination in constructing a novel about the rise and demise of all of human civilization, for cripe’s sake, and one that pivots on a critique of predacity and xenophobia. As an politically aware young person I basically erupted into thunderous applause on reading the last two pages.

On an aesthetic (and perhaps superficial?) level, my problem with his message is not that his message is stupid or naive or unworthwhile; rather, I feel a little cheated that it’s made so repeatedly, unsubtly, and predictably. As someone’s who read basically everything Mitchell’s ever written — except the latter half of Thousand Autumns, which I couldn’t put myself through because LOL TOO RIDICULOUS — I’m used to having to guess at what Mitchell’s got hidden up his tricksy little sleeves. But in this book he suborns his own imagination in service to the pluralist cause. The faces in the candlenut tree! Luisa Rey and Joe Napier’s escape from the sweatshop factory, facilitated by [redacted]. Adam Ewing’s own savior. So that’s a bit disappointing.

But I like the conceit of each chapter, which is essentially one of individual agency rising against the status quo — the status quo tending towards imperalist actions, repression if not outright extermination of weaker races, and appropriation of public goods for private profit, all of which is then reinforced by the manufacture of ideological or religious dogma; and individual agency tending away. It’s heartening, and meant to be. It’s also very anti-another-David, Mr. Simon.

Frobisher, Somni, and Cavendish part II were my favorites. Thematically, the Frobisher section seems rather out of place. Nowhere in it do we get an idealistic young person pitting himself against an institutional machine; or an idealistic young person making friends with someone that his/her society has designated as the perjorative Other; or an idealistic young person thinking thoughts about the nature of selfishness and evil. There’s some stuff about the first World War but it’s not central to the storyline. Even in Cavendish we get the sort of insight — there concerning the crabby and thoroughly racist old cynic — that plays into Mitchell’s broader themes. If you guys see how this section ties into the others, please do enlighten me with your thoughts. As it stands, Mitchell is obviously channeling his own feelings about the creative process into the character of Frobisher, who does to himself what he does to himself not out of unrequited love — for god’s sake people, his true love TTLY reciprocates, plz to read more carefully — but because he’s completed his magnum opus and his life is thereafter ~forever bereft~. It feels very romanticized, in a way. But of course I was moved by the deep and abiding love between Frobisher and his epistolary partner.

Relished Somni. Easily the most horrific section of the book. The peak of that story (novella?) had me smacking my forehead in DUH (click through, or don’t, for spoilers).

Cavendish is pretty involving. I liked the whole OCTOGENARIANS ON A HILARIOUS CAREENING ADVENTURE! aspect. Interesting to note that the thing that saves Cavendish in the end — violent tribalism, though it’s enacted on a comic scale, and instigated by an autistic Scottishman — is the very thing that Mitchell has spent his entire book taking to pieces. Also like his take on age:

“Middle age is flown, but it is attitude, not years, that condemns one to the ranks of the Undead, or else proffers salvation. In the domain of the young there dwells many an Undead soul. They rush about so, their inner putrefaction is concealed for a few decades, that is all (387).”

Luisa Rey is a weirdly shallow rendition.  Too many characters, too much action. It’s like, gonzo noir or something. Mitchell can do much, much better than cartoony villains, although granted quite a few of those show up in Ghostwritten (evil Mongolian KGB agent), Number9dream (evil Mongolian KGB agent/ruthless Yakuza), and this book (the good doctor/evil corporations/ruthless politicians).

Other notes:

  • Lots of fun connect-the-dots afterschool activities: Cloud Atlas the musical piece has six solo sections, just like Cloud Atlas the book; the eating of soap in Ewing’s or Frobrisher’s unsettling dream is literalized in Somni; everything takes place in Hawaii; sodomy and comet-shaped birthmarks abound; the Maori/Moiriri and Valleymen/Kona bookend the novel and are perfect reflections of one another; etc, etc.
  • Literary vs. genre fiction: for about the hundredth time, we see how easily this categorization breaks down. Mitchell is so, so, so into plots. That is also his great strength. Am sad to say that when he slows down, as in Thousand Autumns, my enjoyment of his work correspondingly decreases.
  • The recourse to story-telling as an analgesic, a way to reaffirm conviction or a method of making sense of traumatic events: Somni requests the Cavendish movie as her execution approaches. Za’chry tells his story to the younger generation. Cavendish resorts to novel-reading to keep his mind from “scratching itself raw” while cooped up in Aurora House. (Here’s Mitchell on his philosophy of storytelling.)
  • The title comes from Cavendish’s reference to the attempt to fix or transcribe the ineffable (and what is this: happiness? meaning?) — which is also the project of the author, composer, painter, and poet.

Enjoyable outtakes:

“People are obscenities. Would rather be music than be a mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.”

“…Hot glass buildings where the blooms of youth harden into aged cacti.” DON’T LET THIS BE U, KIDS

“Why fight the ‘natural’ (oh, weaselly word!) order of things? Why? Because of this–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

…If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.”

Sigh. Mitchell, you are so dreamy.

ETA: After a few days, I have come to resent this book a little for its ostentatious cleverness. The whole thing registers as weirdly insubstantial in the head.


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