Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

"The weak are meat the strong do eat." - Henry Goose in "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"

I watched the movie first, and to me it was nonsensical--not the least because of Tom Hanks's character's incomprehensible pidgin English. I wasn't sure, what the story tried to tell me: the same actors played different characters throughout different events in history (it seemed), and the main point appeared to be that every generation has a hero, who acts as a catalyst to save oppressed people. It seemed pretty heavy-handed, especially with some of the white actors doing a total yellow face act in a futuristic Korea. Brrrr!

I'm glad I read the book.

I'll do my best not to spoil any details. After I have written and published this, I might finally go and read what other people have thought of the novel--the novel unravels in weird ways, so I did not want my experience to be ruined by other interpretations. So I will definitely not be offended if you stop reading right here and go pick up the book yourself.

If you are unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas, it is laid out in multiple, abruptly ending stories spanning from the late 1800s onward until the heart of the story is reached in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Once the heart story is over, the book begins to go back through the previous stories, each continuing from where they were abruptly ended before.

Whereas the movie seemed to be partly a white guilt fantasy, the book offered two strong themes: tropes in fiction and the power of knowledge. Cloud Atlas is a prime example of metafiction: the movie concentrates heavily on reincarnations of individual characters and their more visible actions, but the book refers to characters reading, editing, or doubting what they read as real, because the story seems either too fantastical or too formulaic to believe. Only I, the reader, am real, as I am reading another person's adventures, whose adventures are read by another person, whose adventures are viewed on video by another person, and so on. The feeling is akin to reading The Neverending Story as a kid: who will read my story?

In various parts of the individual stories, the characters slyly imply that you are not reading anything more than calculated fiction. This is most evident in "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery", when a minor character, out of nowhere, scribbles exposition rules in fiction into his notebook--and then "Half Lives" follows the rules. This definitely made me want to revisit Joseph Campbell's stuff on hero myths to see, how well all these seemingly completely different characters did fulfill human storytelling tropes. This is why I didn't get the feeling of reincarnation as strongly from the novel as from the movie, although many of the characters share a similar birth mark. After all, the majority of them are fictional characters in the Cloud Atlas universe, some even more explicitly than others: one character, an editor, even ends up copyediting a manuscript he has become obsessed about--and that manuscript is the story we had just read before his!

I'm also a sucker for smart-assery in writing. A minor character refers to the structure of the entire novel within the story he appears in while writing down notes:

"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." - Alberto Grimaldi's notebook in "Half lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"

The second big theme seemed to be power of knowledge: not only were these characters intrigued, even obsessed by what someone else in a previous generation had produced--whether fictional work, letters, music, videos--they often were the ones with secrets or skills that would help exposing a larger truth of the world they were living in and in some cases, even save lives.

At least three of the stories have characters explicitly discuss the power that knowledge can have in both societal success and its downfall. In some cases, the premonitions from one story are echoed in the reality of another, as seemingly unavoidable truths about human greed for power and the desire to subjugate others. Quite depressing, actually!

As a linguistic bonus, the evolution of English language and the final pidgin product in a world where written word is all but gone did not only make sense in an evolutionary sense, but was also easier to understand than when it was barked by Tom Hanks.

I am now ready to watch the movie again to see, what I missed the first time around. Also, I did hear that Cloud Atlas makes numerous references to characters and stories in Mitchell's other novels--guess I know what I'll be putting on hold at the library next.

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