Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

  • Exposition:  the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well-known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.  The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.  Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction--in short, belief--grows ever "truer."  The actual past is brittle, ever dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
  • The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will.  Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past.  (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)
  • Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up--a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.  This virtual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today.  Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.
  • Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows--the actual past--from another such simulacrum--the actual future?
In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell has the audacity to attempt to write about Justice and Humanity in a universal way.  He realizes this ambition, and presents to the reader a puzzle-box of a novel--six short stories, five split in the middle.  Thus, the first story ends halfway and the second story starts.  It, in turn, ends halfway and the third story starts.  And so on until the sixth story, which runs all the way through.  Then we return to the fifth story, which ends, to the fourth story, etc. etc. etc.

Such stylistic flourish is necessary because Mitchell is telling one story, with six different iterations.  The different iterations show the universality of this one story, which repeats over and over, through time, like an endless cycle that is the story of humanity.  Thus, our first story is in the 1800s, and the last story is in some post-apocalyptic future.  

What is the one story?  It is a story of two dueling narratives about humanity.  This passage encompasses both:
What precipitates outcomes?  Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
 What precipitates acts?  Belief.
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 . . . . You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds.  What if it consciences itch?  Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy?  Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why?  Because of this:--one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.  Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost.  In an individual selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
So, insofar as Cloud Atlas is a theory of humanity, the theory is a dichotomy: altruism v. self-interest.  If we, as a species, choose self-interest, humanity is doomed to failure.  If we, as a species, choose altruism, humanity will flourish.  One might call Cloud Atlas the anti-Rand.

The altruism/self-interest debate is age-old, of course.  What makes Cloud Atlas special, though, is its genuine interest in approaching this topic from the perspective of humanity, rather than from an individual point of view.  Of course, Mitchell tells this story through individuals, but the individuals are presented as mere examples of a universal phenomenon.

This was a second reading for me.  Like Winter's Tale, I re-read this novel because I recommended it to someone and he did not like it as much as I thought he would.  (Evidently, I'm 0-2 on recommendations this year.)  Like Winter's Tale, this book re-read even better than my original reading.  Interestingly, both books were recommended to me by one person around the same time in my life (around when law school ended).  And both books have a thematic similarity: an attempt to present Justice from a literary perspective.  I can't help wondering if timing had something to do with my interest in both novels.

With all that said, I loved this book.  My friend faulted it because it lacked the "greatness" I've discussed in reviews earlier this year.  I'm not sure I agree.  Specifically, my friend felt that the writing is not beautiful in the way the Great Writers write beautifully.  I would agree on this point.  I remember reading somewhere that Nabokov never trusted any writer with an ulterior motive in his writing--Cloud Atlas certainly reads as though it has an ulterior motive.  Namely, spelling out a theory of humanity.  The writing itself may not be as great as Nabokov's, but the novel has much to offer.  I'm going to let it sit in the back of my mind a couple more years before deciding what I think about it.

With all that said, if nothing else, it is a really good novel.  Thus, I recommend it to anyone.

But for the love of God, do not go see the movie (only the movie adaptation of Winter's Tale was worse).


Christopher said...

I enjoyed this but I liked Black Swan Green even more. I've heard Jacob Zoet is his best.

Brent Waggoner said...

Zoet probably is the best. It's pretty amazing. BSG is the underrated gem in his catalog.

Marlene Detierro said...

After a few years of my son urging me to read this book, I finally did . wow! Definitely worth pulling an all nighter. I was transported so many times to so many places. My final observation:evil is constant; only the coat changes.

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