Tuesday, January 6, 2015

David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas": Book Review

I'd been meaning to tackle this over the past decade; I wanted to see the adaptation by the Wachowski siblings released in late 2012. In of all places Park City, Utah (home of Sundance), in the off-season, Layne and I missed it and so opted for "Argo" (cheap ticket) in an exurb faux-Western mall. I tried that Christmas to rally my family after we bickered over Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained and I held down my paternal foot as I wasn't in the mood for either to celebrate the mythical birthdate of the purported Prince of Peace. We chose neither, settling on On the Road. Rarely do I venture into a theater these days, grousing as I do at people. prices, popcorn and promotion, but when I do, I want to see a spectacle enhanced by the big screen. I'd heard that ambitious adaptation of a sprawling narrative was met with bewilderment or annoyance; I'd reckoned the po-mo structure of the Booker Prize finalist (not for the first time for this 2004 entry) would baffle viewers as it did some readers. I left it unseen and still shelved.

Then, investigating "Buddhist Fiction," I found UU World nominated it for its shortlist. Dozens of copies (credit post-Matrix buzz!) were checked out of all L.A. and Pasadena libraries, but South Pasadena had it. I grabbed it. I took it along on too-brief an out-of-town trip, and I enjoyed it. Not sure if I loved it. The uphill climb for its first half is more rewarding: the challenge invigorates you to keep going. It accelerates into the curve, and through its central section. Out of that turn, it's downhill. The novel's easier to read, moves rapidly, but there's a sense of anti-climactic ennui. That may fit well the nature of David Mitchell's investigation of repetition and reincarnation, all the same.

This entry covers the passages explicating the themes I found most intriguing. It doesn't delve into the "Russian doll"-structure inspired by Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (as I suspected long before learning Mitchell in 2010 via The Paris Review credited that novel I loved thirty years ago) for the 1-2-3-4-5-6 then reversed arrangement--as this is now common knowledge. 

"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" features a Melville tone: Typee is mentioned later on. South Seas are visited by an American notary from the new city of San Francisco as the Gold Rush erupts. Afflicted by a worm entering his brain carrying a mysterious malady, Adam falls into the care of one Dr. Henry Goose on the voyage on the Prophetess. The style flows easier than much of (the later) Melville: "As Henry & I ate supper, a blizzard of purplish moths seemed to issue from the cracks in the moon, smothering lanterns, faces, food & every surface in a twitching sheet of wings." (39) We later find a typically casual recurrence of an image in the central story on the Big Island of Hawai'i: "Papery moths blowed thru her shimm'rin' eyes'n'mouth too, to'n'fro, yay, to'n'fro." (264)

"Letters from Zehelgem" might have been penned by John Banville or Julian Barnes. It's the type of contemporary novel that's shortlisted for a Booker Prize--as Mitchell a two-time nominee may know well. In the early 1930s, composer Robert Frobisher flees Cambridge, debtors, and justice by presenting himself in Belgium as an amanuensis to his elderly counterpart, and soon rival of sorts, Vyvyan Ayrs. Frobisher's flight from apprehension to Calais sums up his spirit: "Dover an utter fright staffed by Bolsheviks, versified cliffs as Romantic as my arse and a similar hue." (46) 

The tattered book he finds in Ayrs' manse, or half of it, is Ewing's journal, published by his son. In turn, "'Half-Lives': the First Luisa Rey Mystery" continues the saga as the recipient of Frobisher's letters back to England, Rufus Sixsmith, returns at the age of 66. He's a successful nuclear physicist in the late 1970s in California. But he's restless in Buenas Yerbas (a reversal of an early placename for S.F., by the way.) "West, the Pacific eternity. East, our denuded, pernicious, enshrined, thirsty, beserking American continent." (89) His career and his stance on this energy does not please a sinister (naturally) Seabrook corporation. Out of this, one "Hilary V. Hush" generates a pulp thriller, full of chases and conspiracies.

"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" takes us to that middle-aged, put-upon middle man, in contemporary England, who runs a feeble "author partnership" press: in its slush pile lands the first Luisa Rey mystery. He deals with the aftermath of a cause celebre where the writer of Knuckle Sandwich meets sudden notoriety, and the attention generates fame and profits for Cavendish. Flush with the proceeds, all seems it will go well, until it doesn't.  Kingsley or Martin Amis might be at home here. Consider this look as Timothy must flee from London: "you sly toupeed quizmaster, you and your tenements of Somalians; viaducts of Kingdom Brunel; malls of casualized labor; strata of soot-blackened bricks and muddy bones of Doctors Dee, Crippen, et al.; hot glass buildings where the blooms of youth harden into aged cacti like my penny-pinching brother." (161) 

On his journey north, Cavendish raises a theme common to Mitchell's characters: "we cross, criscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters." (163) His story stops suddenly (as do others), and we leap into an indeterminate post-apocalyptic future where a Korean superstate dominates a blighted planet. "An Orison of Sonmi-451" in the fashion of Haruki Murakami or Philip K. Dick follows an engineered fabricant's entry into sentience. Escorted out of her climate controlled confines, she confides to her listener the strangeness of a natural reality: "Trees, their incremental gymnastics and noisy silence, yes, and their greenness, still mesmerize me." (202) In such phrasing, the beauty of Mitchell's observations freshen the familiar. 

"Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" occupies the core around which the other stories are mirrored in two, or tucked into. Zachry's telling recalls the altered language of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, as well as the dialect and the quest of Huck Finn as one society's fragility is shattered by the arrival of tension, disruption, and unsettling values and ideas. These, filtered via Meronym from an enclave beyond the insular Valleymen, force Zachry to come of age in a brutal clash of cultures and enemies. The Valleymen are visited by Meronym, and Zachry learns why they have ventured so far across the ocean. What has happened after the demise of Nea So Corpros as the Korean hegemony is little understood; Meronym and a few Prescients guard a few factual or mythic gleanings against predators and plague that roil the globe and the miniscule remnants who've survived Earth's collapse.

The Old 'Uns have died off, and ignorance is their legacy to the stragglers who struggle after the meltdown. "Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’humans, yay, a hunger for more.” (272) Civilization vs. savagery tears apart the survivors: it's as if delayed gratification eliminated the consumers and capitalists, the warlords and the masses unable to wait and think before rushing to buy, spend, fight, grab, grasp. "Old 'Uns got the Smart o' gods but the savagery o' jackals an' that's what tripped the Fall." (303)

The novel then proceeds to wrap up Zachry's chronicle and propel us back the same way we came in. Although Cavendish sniffs: "As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.'s in postmodernism and chaos theory." (150) Of course, such devices long predate what was my own long slog through this at just this time in grad school and my own collegiate reading in and out of class. Mitchell applies these through such images as the moths cited earlier. It's not that difficult a novel to follow as some grousing readers and critics lamented; anyone who can read Calvino's tale can handle this. The second half, however, moves rapidly and feels often somewhat less engaging as the puzzle-pieces neatly snap together in turn. 

One device that audiences apparently needed a visual guide and a screenplay reboot for in the (unseen as yet by me) film version was the comet-shaped birthmark used by Mitchell to suggest reincarnations or rebirths of protagonists.  On pg. 85, Frobisher introduces his; Luisa finds this
and matches it to her own despite "I just don't believe in this crap" (120) and she tries to talk herself out of it as a coincidence. (122)  Zachry sees on Meronym her "whoahsome wyrd" one just below her shoulder blade in the light of Lady Moon (303); Cavendish reasons such an image "will have to go" if the Luisa Rey "young-hack-versus-corporate-corruption-thriller" will succeed on its potential. "Far too hippie-druggy-New Age"--a sentiment I've found echoed by some resenting the storyline as a novel or a film. (357)

Given as the UU World site and its counterpart study include this on a list of "Buddhist fiction," and granted the Cambridge-trained, now County Cork resident writer married to a Japanese woman and immersed via his fiction in Asian settings, there's no escaping placement of this novel into this niche. Yet, it rests there lightly. 

In "Orison," Sonmi hears from an Abbess (this rank continues among the Valleyman's cult of ancestor worship by icons in barrows on the Big Island) from the ranks of "recidivists" in a cave hidden as a safe house for her and other "tapeworms" who huddle off the corporacratic grid. For "fifteen centuries," nuns have persisted there. A stone figure (resembling of all people Cavendish) named Siddhartha "is a dead man a living ideal." (330) Little is known of the man; his "names" tellingly as well as his doctrine have been forgotten, after the Abbess's elder mentors had been eliminated when "non-consumer religions were criminalized." (The prediction made by the Buddha that after 2500 years his own message would gradually fade comes to mind; the rule of the Corporation-State forming around us may presage "Maitreya" ending the next span of five thousand years as the Buddha's successor. But such speculation lies outside the margins of Mitchell's ambitious narrative.) Sonmi manages to wish for reincarnation in the "colony" and on departure, the Abbess promises to relay her wish to Siddhartha. Later, Zachry will unlock an orison brought by Meronym that reveals Sonmi, whose cult will spread until she has been elevated to a goddess status by the Valleymen.

Progress, these shifts in belief and power, and earthly fate concern others in this novel. Earlier, Frobisher remarks on an aquatint of a Siamese temple. He compares its lore as it's relentlessly ornamented and improved: it will one day be equal to "its counterpart in the Pure Land" (81). Then, humanity's purpose fulfilled, Time will conclude. Frobisher offers an alternative analogy. Like Ayrs, the edifice rises upon the backs of ignorant and anonymous labor, and civilization claims its resplendence through those statesmen and artists who take the credit for themselves, as "architects, masons, and priests."

In the fittingly titled "'Half-Lives': the First Luisa Rey Mystery" Isaac Sachs contemplates the actual vs. a virtual past. The Nietzschean will-to-power enters Vyvyan and Robert's verbal sparring, and by this later section, the Sixsmith Report of Frobisher's correspondent stands for the threat to this humanist resistance against the machine men and women build (like that Siamese temple?). Sachs proposes a virtual past (as in the legacy in story of the Titanic outlasting the memories of its "real-time" survivors) and wonders how corporations and governments will co-opt this. 

Sachs continues to sum up the greater novel he's part of unwittingly. "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 future." (393) Naturally, comparison of this structure to a Buddhist (or post-modern) conception of impermanence and instability within the stories we tell and which we tell of ourselves opens this up to a neat critique***.

A few pages later, Luisa and a boy, Javier, discuss what if one could see the future. Javier asks: would you want to? Luisa hesitates, wanting to know if the future so seen could be changed or not. (401) She ruminates that acting now in the expectation of what the future holds may trigger that future scenario. "What happens in a minute's time is made by what you do." She leaves the conversation wondering inside her head about this "great imponderable." "Maybe the answer is not one of metaphysics but one, simply, of power."

Necessarily inconclusive, this novel of ideas in its last segment, a reprise of "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" deals with civilized incursions across the globe, and how power forces change and alters presents and futures. "Ships bring disease dust here," Mr. Wagstaff observes to Ewing as they land at a Christian settlement on Rataoia in the newly named Society Islands. The natives die off, slaves are imported from other islands, and the natives decline in fertility as religious fervor does not inspire fecundity. "To kill what you cherish & cure," Wagstaff smiles, "that seems to be the way of things." (486)

Countering the missionary endeavor and its social Darwinism with humanist reasoning, Adam denies any rules in history. He affirms only outcomes. "Vicious acts and virtuous acts" spur results. (507) These acts emerge from belief. To fight "the 'natural' order of things," confidence in human qualities beyond selfishness impel idealists such as Ewing. He vows to become an Abolitionist (we glimpse this cadre in Sonmi's fearful realm), and he vows to become a force for change, even if but "one drop in a limitless ocean." (509) With that promise, we place back the novel's last nestled doll, or its first. 

(Amazon US 3-5-13 in shorter, depersonalized, slightly rewritten version. ***I've expanded the Buddhist and post-Buddhist, Marxian and anarchistic associations spun out of the encounter between Sonmi and the Abbess about Siddhartha in comment #2 replying to "A Spectre Is Haunting Buddhism: Give Marx Some Credit," by Glenn Wallis at Speculative Non-Buddhism on 3-7-13. I extended that into more countercultural contexts on 3-9-13 in comment #11 and virtual realm applications on 3-8-13 in comment #6,)

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