Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell)
My first encounter with this author was in a Christchurch Youth Hostel: I could not sleep so went down to the small collection of books available for exchange. Ghostwritten looked the newest, so I started reading, and read some more, and then some more – I got through most of the 450 pages in a single night and, I must confess, stole the book when I left. It was nine connected stories, about different narrators in different places (such as a young record store worker clerk in Tokyo, a Hong Kong based expat investment banker and, the one that is still most clear in my mind, an old noodle seller stuck half way up a holy mountain in China) with something to connect one to the other. Over on Salon, Laura Miller has described the underlying thread as “a somewhat half-baked scenario involving a manmade super-intelligence grappling with humanity's self-destructive tendencies”. She criticised the segments for bringing to mind other writers (Murakami and Hornby in particular), but I wonder if that was not his point.
Her final comment is that it was the sort of book an eccentric genius with a fiercely individual vision would write, but that Mitchell had not quite got there, but he might: “It may be bubble-gum DeLillo, but it does prove one thing: under-ripe maximalism beats under ripe minimalism any day of the week”. In the meantime, he has written Number9Dream, a book which somehow came and went without me ever buying a copy. That one follows a single young fellow in search of his father (albeit through a disjointed world) and is “flawed but stylish” according to the Guardian.
Before getting to Cloud Atlas, there is one other thing to say about Laura Miller’s review: she says that in the late 1990’s, any new writer would take on the task of writing “a tale of family distress -- divorce, say, or cancer -- told in stoic, stripped-down prose that shied away from any hint of excess” and it was against that background that Mitchell introduced his works. In this, he seems to have jumped back 70 odd years: lots of realistic novels were being written, and Mitchell’s acknowledged hero, Thornton Wilder, came along to disrupt that trend with the Cabala and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which uses five narrators of the same event to illustrate that there can be no realism).
So, in 2004, Cloud Atlas came onto the scene and was hotly tipped to win the Booker Prize (it did not – that honour went to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty). Mitchell has retained the style and central concern of Ghostwritten – mankind’s self destructive behaviour. He uses six narrators, five of whom tell half their story in the first five chapters, then there is the central chapter followed by the conclusion of the stories of the other five. Each narrator is connected: the first, Adam Ewings, writes a diary which is then found by the second, Robert Frobisher: he composes some music which the third narrator has a great desire to hear. She tracks down a copy and goes to the music store to get it – I love her experience when she gets there:
Of course, she is listening to the very music she has gone in to purchase. The Guardian has noted that Mitchell’s stories and techniques make him “sound an annoyingly tricksy writer, and it's true that his critics have him down as a bit of a clever clogs, too ambitious for his own good”, but Mitchell himself has pre-empted that criticism. He has Frobisher say of his Cloud Atlas Sextet:
The music in the Lost Chord Music Store subsumes all thoughts of Spyglass, Sixsmith, Sachs and Grimaldi. The sound is pristine, river like, spectral, hypnotic…intimately familiar. Luisa stands, entranced, as if living in a stream of time. ‘I know this music’, she tells the store clerk, who eventually asks if she is okay. ‘What the hell is it?’
‘I’m sorry, it’s a customer order, not for sale. I shouldn’t really be playing it.’
‘Oh.’ First things first. ‘I phoned last week. My name’s Rey, Luisa Rey. You said you could find an obscure recording for me by Robert Frobisher, called Cloud Atlas Sextet. But forget that for a moment. I have to own this music too. I have to. You know what its like.’
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 colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until its finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the 1st thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J. is in my bed. She should understand the artist lives in two worlds.
Another comment from Cavendish is:
As an experienced editor I disapprove of backflashes, foreshadowings and tricksy devices, they belong in the 1980's with MA's in Postmodernism and Chaos Theory.
Each of the narrators has his or her “own language of key, scale and colour”, appropriate to the time and character involved. So, for example, Ewing’s diary is consciously in the style of Melville because it is a diary of a maritime adventure in the mid 19th century. As we move into the future, Mitchell’s playing with the language becomes more interesting. Sonmi ~ 451 is a “fabricant”, a cloned being designed purely to serve and genomed to have no linguistic ability beyond that needed to work at the 22nd century answer to McDonalds. She is a special case, however: she undergoes ascension and has to pass as a pureblood, which involves a mastery of the contemporary language. Its main features seems to be that many of today’s brands have taken over as descriptive of entire product lines – fords and sonys prevail – and there is some simplification of the spelling rules.
Finally, we are in some remote valley in “Ha-Why” – the language has undergone a severe shift but its meaning is still obvious and it has a curious charm. Zachry tells the story of his first child:
Goaters had a spesh rep’tation for hornyin’ up the girls. See, if a girl got a throb for a goater she could just follow our whistlin’ to where no’un was, an’ we’d just do it under the sky an’ no’un see ‘cept the goats, an’ goats never say nothin’ to Old Ma yibber. I planted my first babbit up Jayjo… I was twelve, Jayjo’d got a firm’n’eager body an’ laughed, twirly an’ crazy with love we both was, yay…
This ain’t a smilesome yarnie, but … these is the mem’ries what are minnowin’ out. The babbit’d got no mouth, nay, no nose-holes neither… Its eyes never opened, it just felt the warm of its pa’s hands on its back, turned bad colours, stopped kickin’ an’ died.
I think my favourite bit from Zachry’s tale is after he volunteered to accompany Meronym, an outlander, up to the highest peak on the island: it was believed that “Old Georgie”, the devil, lived up there and no-one would ever return with their soul. So, he’s a bit of a hero at this point, and the trip was certainly arduous, taking about a week, during which he does encounter the devil. Here’s his return home:
Old Ma Yibber spread the news that the Zachry what came down off Mauna Kea weren’t the same Zachry what’d gone up an’ true ‘nuff I s’pose, there aint no journey what don’t change you some. My cuz Kobbery ‘fessed that mas’n’pas thru the Nine Valleys was warnin’ their daughters ‘gainst frolickin’ with Zachry o’ Bailey’s ‘cos they reck’ned I must o’ bis’nessed with Old Georgie to ‘scape that shrieky place with my soul still in my skull, an’ tho’ that weren’t the hole true, it weren’t the hole wrong. Jonas’n’Sussy didn’t mick with me like they once did. But Ma got weepy to see us home and hugged me, My little Zachaman, an’ my goats was gladsome…
I just love that: “my goats was gladsome”.
Behind all of these stories is an indictment of humankind: because of mankind’s will to power, to violence and its greed, we are doomed. Simple as that, really. Somni ~ 451:
It is a cycle as old as tribalism. In the beginning there is ignorance. Ignorance engenders fear. Fear engenders hatred, and hatred engenders violence. Viloence breeds further violence until the only law is whatever is willed by the most powerful.
Or, as someone says to Frobisher:
‘Another was is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions and the borders of states…. The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever it shall be. War, Robert, is one of humanity’s two eternal companions.’
So, I asked, what was the other?
The reduction ad absurdum of MD’s view, I argued, was that science devises ever bloodier means of war until humanity’s powers of destruction overcomes our powers of creation and our civilization drives itself to extinction. ‘Precisely. Our will to power, our science, and those v. faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Homo Sapiens…