Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

As a teacher I’m aware there are a variety of criteria for properly implanting knowledge in students’ minds.  It goes without saying that the more of these criteria included in the lesson, the greater the chances the knowledge has of taking root and developing into something greater in the head of the receiver.  Presentation only part of the game, examples need to be consistent with the lesson’s aim.  Writers who attempt moral pieces, face the same situation.  Profound subjects cannot be staged in helium tones if the seriousness of the message is to be fully absorbed and applied.  David Mitchell’s 2004 Cloud Atlas, a stunningly written and magnificently presented work—merits by which it can be appreciated alone—nevertheless falls victim to a juxtaposition of content and intent.

Cloud Atlas is not one, but six independent stories stowed one inside the other, or, as Mitchell himself words it: “In the 1 st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”  Decades between the stories, several threads—names, places, subjects, a birthmark, etc.—wend their way through each of the narratives to create a pictoral whole.  Otherwise, each tile in the mosaic features different characters from differing time periods.  From a notary in the Pacific of the 19th century to a clone in the late 22nd fast food business, each story has an individual theme and tone.

The first story is of Adam Ewing, an American notary traveling by ship on his way back to San Francisco via the Pacific islands.  Catching a strange tropical disease, he finds himself in need of the help of friendly Dr. Henry Goose, a man he meets scouring an old cannibal’s beach for souvenirs.  The second is of an empty-pocketed musician who travels to Bruges in the early part of the 20th century to offer his youth and musical skills to an aging composer going blind with Syphilus.  The third story is set on the California coast of the 1970s.  Luisa Rey is a young journalist paying her dues working for a sleazy magazine while aspiring for a career with more integrity.  Coming across a story that puts her education to good use, she soon discovers digging too deeply into corporate affairs can be more trouble than it’s worth.  

The fourth story is of an aging, obstreperous editor who owns his own publishing house and is set about our current times.  In debt, one of his house’s books strikes gold, and everybody comes looking for a piece of the pie.  Escaping the rush, however, may not be as easy as his bitter mind thinks.  The fifth tale is of Somni-541, a vat grown clone who works daily for an underground fast food restaurant called Papa Songs in late 21st century Korea.  Somni and her fellow waitresses’ properly dumbed down with drugs and propaganda, the escape route which magically appears to her one day is most unexpected.  But can it be trusted?  The sixth and center tale told from beginning to end in a single shot, is set at an unidentified time in the far future in Hawaii.  The world having suffered a major apocalypse, humanity has regressed to its primitive ways—a way of life Zachry takes for granted.  His life is never the same, however, when his tribe is chosen to receive a special visitor from the Prescients.

Throughout the openings of these six stories, and their closing upon the hinge of Zachry’s tale, Mitchell’s prose simply sparkles.  A true feast for those who love salient description, brilliant metaphor, and just plain dazzling wordplay, the book is a must.  Occasionally like a ten-day old bruise (a little purple and hurting a tad), most often it challenges the best wordsmiths ever to pick up a pen.  Ignoring substance, at times I found myself agog at the display of lexical wit.  Presenting a variety of forms, the book moves through the modes of: journal entry, letter, mystery novel, direct address, interview, and memoir.  Showing a firm hand in each tale, Mitchell has a Midas’ touch with words.

As stated at the outset of this review, there are problems with the book, however.  Mitchell’s exuberance of language seeming to spill out of him like a fountain, there are moments that would seem to call for a more restrained voice, particularly given the thematic material.  Yet the author steamrolls them—wit, pluck, and bravado plowing through scenes and stories that should have been delivered with more gravitas.  The musician and Luisa’s tales, for example, are narrated in a voice that simply does not fit the outcome or intent of the stories.  

Going hand in hand with the above issue is a certain lack of subtlety.  Not in the language itself, which is nearly always at full power, but with plotting.  All of the stories having been told elsewhere in one form or another, the manner in which some develop is rather simplistic—mainstream, dare I say.  Luisa, Somni, and Adam’s tales, while hitting the general target of theme, strike closer to the bull’s eye of entertainment: the evil is too evil to be realistic, the ending too clichéd, or the dovetailing of events to perfect to be plausible.  Suffice to say, had Mitchell refined his stories into capsules more insinuating than overt, the subject matter he is attempting to convey could have been more touching than sensationalism allows.  

I don’t want to knock Mitchell too hard on theme, however.  Not without its hitches, Cloud Atlas still accomplishes its mission, and with a view toward bettering humanity.  In no particular order, oppression, corruption, enslavement, ageing, love, and the survival of the fittest are discussed on a journey toward the potential for human belief.  Not a saccharine puller of heart-strings as one might expect reading such a phrase, Mitchell rises above the mundane of the contemporary by both admitting truths and challenging them.  The admission perhaps stronger than he’d like, there is nevertheless a strong attempt made to balance the tragedies with insight that shines a light on the brighter side of life.

In the end, Cloud Atlas is a gushing read that any fan of exciting, vibrant prose will want to pick up.  Apparently next in line on Mitchell’s list of criteria for the novel is the engagement of the reader.  Though all of the stories have been told before, the author breathes new life into them with stimulating prose.  The six individual stories and their convergence as a whole are very readable.  Third on the list is theme, which unfortunately, takes a backseat to the above entertainment and wordplay.  The novel needing more salt and bread than popcorn and cola, the punch of Mitchell’s theme is pulled slightly based on the oft-as-not fluffy manner in which the more tragic scenes are presented.  Had Mitchell reined in his lexical and oratory bravado to more strongly link story to theme, the novel could have been one of the greats of this century.  Given the book’s other qualities, however, it is still a very powerful book—if not for the prose alone—and more than worth a read.  There can be no doubt Mitchell’s heart is in the right place.

Jan. 24, 2013 - Having been to the cinema to see the film, I can now comment on the Wachowski brothers’ adaptation of Mitchell’s novel.  Competent is the word I would use.  The exuberance and richness of Mitchell’s style is, of course, impossible to translate to the screen.  That, the reader must leave to the page.  However, there were several things I thought the brothers did better.  Most notably was a tightening of the thematic focus.  At the end of the film I was left with a stronger feeling that each tale had tied into the other to amount to something more, whereas Mitchell’s narrative, as I noted above, is occasionally misleading or confused, slightly spoiling the stew.  Frobisher and Zachry in the film, when looked at plotwise, have a more complementary background, in turn better satisfying the endings of their tales.  If asked which was better, the book or the film, I would sit on the fence.  Each has their own qualities for better and worse.  But perhaps Mitchell’s wordsmithing would win me over in the end…

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