Thursday 18 March 2010

A game beyond the game

I've just finished reading David Mitchell's crazy, brilliant, beautiful novel Cloud Atlas for the second time. My god, it was even better the second time around, which I would not have thought possible. I saw many more of the connections between each section this time and appreciated the brilliant writing - and the shocking fact of Mitchell's ability to write in many (at least 6) different styles brilliantly was constantly brought home to me as I made my way through Adam's, Robert's, Luisa's, Timothy's, Sonmi's, and Zach'ry's tales.

What I love about this novel is - well, one thing I love about this novel - how the line between what seems real and unreal is constantly destabilized and shifted, so that everything ends up seeming hyper-real and shimmery, like a dream or a strong memory, at the same time. Good god, I can't talk about this book! I won't even try to write a "proper" review of it. It makes me feel like my brain and heart are both going to explode, in the way only perfect, once in a lifetime books can. Instead, here's an interchange between my cyberspatial friend Kevin and me. I think what we say raises as many, if not more, questions than it can possibly begin to answer about Cloud Atlas. This is apropos, I think; Mitchell's work opens things up in a way literature should.

As you will see, all the good stuff below is Kevin's.
Dear C, know how you form a hunch about a book, its structure, theme, and purpose, only to have your hunch change as you read, or even after you finish the book entire, months or years later?

Well, here's my hunch about Cloud Atlas. Tentative as it may be.

It's largely plotless by art and design because that's the best way for Mitchell to establish his primary theme, which I take— my idea's tentative! — to be this: Something there is that eternally recurs.

In the fullness of time, language, culture, and even the biosphere change, like so many ever-shifting, white-to-gray-to-pink cumulus, cirrus, and stratus clouds, yada yada yada.

But something there is that stays the same, namely, a desire for autonomy, identity, and self-understanding. Think Somni ascending!

Because we're weak, paltry yearning wills, we cleave to the experiences of others, their letters (Frobisher), stories (Cavendish), interviews (Somni-451), and oral yarnin' (Sloshin').

What better way to show eternal recurrence at play than by creating mighty gaps in the temporal and narrative arc of a plotless novel?

Without these negative spaces, how could one yarn about that which doesn't change?

That's Mitchell's genius in Cloud Atlas, I think.

Anyhow, I'm not entirely satisfied with what I've said. After all, there is a plot of sorts, in the very loose sense that the motives and actions of characters in one story influence the motives and actions of characters in another.

Without Sixsmith and Bill Smoke, there's no Fall.

Without Sonmi-451, there's no Zach'ry the goatherd invoking a mythology to puzzle over it all.


I like what you've said, a lot.

I've been trying to get at something similar but I keep being distracted by/inspired by Mitchell's references, flagged and otherwise, to other books. He mentions, for example, Orwell and Huxley in Sonmi but Bradbury and Zamyatin and Miller, Jr. and Wyndham are there too. And I'm sure he wants us to see them! For me, this is somehow connected to how every narrative that seems "real" is questioned, overtly or otherwise - Ewing's journal seems inauthentic to Frobisher; Frobisher's letters change Luisa's view of Sixsmith; Luisa's narrative seems like hackwork to Timothy; Timothy's life is a film for Sonmi; and Sonmi is Zach'ry's sacred text!

I didn't notice the first time I read this novel how very similar Adam's diary is to Zach'ry's tale - just from different perspectives - the pacifist tribe at the mercy of their martial and ruthless brothers, and what's at stake.

I think we're both right, in other words, and that you articulated what I was seeing through textuality what you're seeing through the metaphysical - but the thing is - they're not separate!


By the by, your point about inter-textuality and the "real" and "authentic" just now reminded me of a lovely expression that Zach'ry uses in a conversation with Meronym about the Hole World and our place in it, something like the "true true is diff'rent to the seemin' true."

CA is quickly becoming one of my all time favorite novels...

God, I love this book and I love what happens to people the first time they read it. It's like we're reminded of how perfectly magical literature can be...No, I have no perspective on this novel. It is probably my favourite novel of all time; no, it is. I suspected so, but this re-read has simply confirmed.

What does one read after Cloud Atlas? I can't even imagine, right now.


Kevin said...

Hi C, I haven't finished CA yet so I'm reading your post out of the corner of my eye. What names would you give to Mitchell's six styles or genres? 1. Epistolary. 2. Thriller (not to be confused with Michael Jackson!) - detective - mystery. 3. Dystopic. 4. Post-apocalyptic. 5. Slapstick (Cavendish?) oder script writing? oder journal writing? 6. ??? Thanks for including me in your post! A book that explores intertextuality is begging for cyberspatial treatment with a riff, riff here, and a riff, riff there... K

Unknown said...

Colleen, this is getting ridiculous. Pretty soon, I won't be able to read any of your posts because I'm about to read all of the books you've just read. Just stop it now.

P.S. 'Cloud Atlas' review some time in April ;)

Unknown said...

P.S. Once again, I'd take the British cover over the North American one any day. Is it just my bias, or is this really usually the case?!

Bookphilia said...

Kevin: Genres? Yes, to everything.

But Cavendish slapstick? Not certain. It's certainly hilarious a great deal of the time but I find his sojourn in the nursing home (hope you've gotten there and I'm not ruining anything) truly nightmarish. It's a memoir of a nightmare but it's like Wodehouse peaked in and made some edits.

And don't forget "Saint's Lives" for Sonmi.

Tony: Tell me what you're reading plans are for the next little while and I'll do my best to steer clear. :)

Bookphilia said...

Tony: re: your PS. I don't know which cover is which. Is the one I posted here the North American one? I have a purple one as well.

Heidenkind said...

Hm. Have you read Giorgio de Chirico's novel, Hebdomeros? I don't know if it's similar to Mitchell's book or not, since I haven't read Mitchell, but that's another book where the line between reality and dream is fairly fluid.

Stefanie said...

Loved Cloud Atlas when I read it a few years ago for a book group. Wish I could say the group loved it but for some reason they all had trouble with the structure. I enjoyed your interchange with Kevin. It really is a fascinating novel.