Thursday, May 12, 2005

Book 6: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (Infinite Feast XVII)

Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (August 17, 2004)

Too often, we end up looking at modernity’s complexities as being especially unique. This ignores the trajectory of history and puts the past into a nostalgic and simple framework, an altogether unfair categorization. But all time is composition of intricate proportions. History speaks in a babel of tongues, so perhaps it is best interpreted by a myriad of voices. For an author to capture all of time, past, present, and future in a single novel, he or she would have to be the ultimate ventriloquist. David Mitchell proves in Cloud Atlas that he is such a magician.

It is erroneous to call Cloud Atlas a book, at least in the traditional sense. Comprised of six distinct narratives set in dramatically different eras, at first glance Cloud Atlas would appear to be closer to a collection of novellas, than a solitary novel. But just as the crimes of one century overlap and bleed into the others, so too do the themes and characters of Mitchell’s novel reappear in each section, the passion of the prose and virtuosity of language on display leaving the reader nothing short of breathless.

Cloud Atlas is like a buffet of only the signature dishes from New York’s finest restaurants. Each section creates a singular world so engaging that the mind becomes lost amidst the pages. Starting with the early 19th century journal of an American notary stranded in the South Pacific, the novel jumps mid-sentence to the Oscar Wilde like meanderings of an aspiring English musician who has traveled to Belgium during the World Wars. Then the scene moves to 1970s California, in what the New York Times review accurately described as a sub-Grisham detective story involving nuclear fallout and government conspiracy. Next comes contemporary England and a book publisher wrongly (or so he thinks) imprisoned in a retirement home, then to a not to distant Korea and a Huxley-esque dystopia showcasing a privileged class of humans exploiting a race of worker drones (not that exploitation is unique to the future). And then finally, the narrative concludes in a future Hawaii, when corporatism has destroyed the majority of the world, and human beings once again live in warring tribes. Mitchell manages these diverse genres masterfully, manipulating language to illuminate the plights and suffering we inflict upon one another. Each section can and does, stand on its own. At one point, while describing a musical score in the Belgium based section, Mitchell also self-consciously reflects on his experimental style and its effectiveness at conveying an emotional capacity, as his character states, “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.” Such an inference is not only humorous, but a keen insight into all innovative literature.

Cloud Atlas bears a lot of similarities to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Both works delve into mankind’s seeming obsession with violent self-destruction and the cyclical course of human history. McCarthy ends his novel ambiguously, the possible redeemer killed by evil incarnate. Mitchell, in contrast, offers a chance, however slim, that humanity will stop viewing one another as predators and eventually realize the futility of perpetual cruelty. In one of the novel’s many endings, this occurring in the section set in a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, the civilized Meronym explains to the more primitive Zachry, “List’n, savages an’ Civ’lizeds ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or mountain ranges, nay, ev’ry human is both yay…Some savages what I knowed got a beautsome Civ’lized heart beatin’ in their ribs…Not ‘nuff to say so their hole tribe, but who knows one day? One day.” It is the promise of this one day that we as readers are left with. The one day may never arrive, but Mitchell offers this as the only olive branch we have to cling on to. For some reason, humanity survives century after century despite itself.

And thus emerges the dominant idea flowing through Cloud Atlas’ myths. Violence seems the most elementary aspect of human nature, the factor we can not eradicate from our souls. But as Mitchell plays this motif out over centuries of wars, he parades a litany of concurring thoughts as well. One of the most prevalent is the power of words and literature, as the only factor connecting the narratives are the novel’s other narratives. In each segment, a character happens upon the book, journal, memoir, etc, that comprises another section of Cloud Atlas. This begs the question of whether any of these stories are supposed to be “real” – or if this even matters. For we may pass violent aggression on from generation to generation like our genetics, but when we die, all that truly survives us are the written accounts of our lives. This notion goes as far back as Homer, but Mitchell makes the importance of oral and written traditional freshly relevant.

Cloud Atlas is my favorite of the many incredible selections Danny and I have read for “Infinite Feast”. In Mitchell’s adeptness at adaptability, his impersonation of lesser writers only highlights his skills all the more. At times poetic and touching, at others as harsh as the violence he depicts, his prose is always controlled and luminescent. Through his forgery of other genres and existences, Mitchell is able to create something truly original.

Cloud Atlas’ final passage, the conclusion of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, is perhaps the finest demonstration of Mitchell’s prodigious ability to capture all of human life in his prose. He writes:

“Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things? Why? Because of this: - one find day, a purely predatory world shall consumer itself…for the human species, selfishness is extinction. If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & 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. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Mitchell stares at the reality of human nature with a frank determinism, saying I’ve seen your worst, but I will continue to try to better this world, come what may. As individuals we may just be tiny drops, but united we are an ocean. Cloud Atlas asks if one day we will have the courage and selflessness to make the world more than just potential, more than unfulfilled wishes. He elicits hope without being either too uncomplicated or sentimental, just one of his many talents. Mitchell and his characters show us it’s not enough to be a drifting cloud – you have to be the whole sky. Perhaps that will happen – one day.

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