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Cloud Atlas

January 7, 2013

Every year Ron goes with Walker to the King’s Island Chess Tournament because I play in a symphony concert that weekend. It’s a children’s concert, so it only takes an hour and a half of my weekend and I have the rest of the time to do other things; this year I drove an hour there and back to a movie theater showing the almost three-hour-long Cloud Atlas.

I loved the movie; thought it was thrilling and scenic and funny and brilliant. I especially loved the parts where they talked in pidgin future-speak. So after seeing the movie, I decided it was time to read the novel, by David Mitchell. This is the way to do it if you want to enjoy the movie, as far as I’m concerned. I knew this movie was coming out, so had waited to read the novel until afterwards.

This particular movie was so faithful to Mitchell’s novel, though, that the main pleasure of reading it was mild amusement every time the perspective shifted and the genre shifted with it. That would have struck me as a very clever trick if I’d read the book first; as it happened, I was left admiring it in a kind of detached, academic way.

As a former 18th-century scholar, I enjoyed the way the novel begins with a fictional 18th-century journal by a man named Adam Ewing; the diction is reminiscent, if simplified (“those motley maladies which cull the darker races whene’er White civilization draws near”). And the next section–purportedly written a century later by a character named Robert Frobisher who was reading this journal and observes that “a half-read book is a half-finished love affair”—is delightful for, among other things, Frobisher’s observation that the journal “seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true.” Clever, clever David Mitchell, to make his character direct his readers in prolonging their suspension of disbelief a bit farther. That continues, to a lesser extent, in the next section, when Luisa Rey thinks “coincidences happen all the time” and then it becomes a kind of meta-commentary when the histrionic Timothy Cavendish asserts that “as an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices.”

There are parts in the book that recapture the thrill of the scenery in the movie, like when the replicant from the future, Sonmi, describes her first sight of dawn and greenery from a car window:
“to my further astonishment, the bearded passenger was dozing. Why did the entire conurb not grind to a halt and give praise in the face of such ineluctable beauty….Oh, the greenness of green: back under the canopy, our ford slowed by a dew garden between squattened buildings. Feathery, fronded, moss drenched, green. In the dinery, the sole samples of green were chlorophyll squares and diners’ clothes, so I assumed it was a precious, rare substance. Therefore, the dew garden and its rainbows sleeving along the fordway astounded me.”

I enjoyed the subtleties of the language in Sonmi’s sections in a way that I hadn’t noticed them in the movie. You see in the previous quotation that she calls all cars “fords” and she uses similar kinds of brand names for other things—movies, for instance, are called “disneys.”

Having heard the future-Hawaiian/English pidgin, it was easier and more fun to read those sections, spoken by Zachary:
“Nothin’ there…’cept for a plump lardbird snufflyin’ for grubs, jus’ askin’ for a puckin’n’a spit! Well, I reck’ned Zachry the Brave’d faced down Old Georgie, yay, he’d gone off huntin’ cowardier vic’tries’n me. I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ‘bout my eerie adventurin’, but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on the meatsome feathery buggah…”

The different genres and languages correspond to the piece of music entitled “Cloud Atlas,” which its composer describes as a “sextet for overlapping soloists…each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…”
And isn’t that always an author’s dilemma? These variations on the theme of meta-fictional apologia continually disarmed any impulse I might have had towards criticizing the way the novel is written.

I grew fond of Timothy Cavendish, who was, for me, the hardest character to like, because of his references to reading:
“Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book. Well, Mumsy, no, not really. Your beloved large-print sagas of rags, riches, and heartbreak were no camouflage against the miseries trained on you by the tennis ball launcher of life, were they? But, yes, Mum, there again, you have a point. Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”
I also enjoyed the meta-fictional references to Timothy Cavendish reading the story of Luisa Rey and wanting to edit bits like that “Luisa Rey is this Robert Frobisher chap re-incarnated, for example. Far too hippie-druggy-new age.”

Most of all, I love the way the novel never becomes too arch or self-referencing, because it is so overwhelmingly idealistic. I like the way that, on the last pages, Adam Ewing declares that “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.”

What I loved most about both the movie and the novel is how the parts fit together into a whole you couldn’t see before you saw each separate part. It’s fun for some people to ridicule the way Tom Hanks plays many so different roles in the movie that you get a little sick of the variations of his face, but I think it might be a better idea to take a moment to consider all the parts of this fictional future that will never come to pass if people who read continue to play their roles in directing which way we decide to go next.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2013 7:20 am

    I love this review of a book I love so much that I haven’t been able to bring myself to see the film. The one thing that made me reconsider a viewing was this article last fall in Slate about how the composers went about translating the description of Cloud Atlas (the composition) into sound http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/10/29/cloud_atlast_sextet_what_would_it_have_really_sounded_like.html. And also, I like what you said about how the novel never becomes too arch. That’s it exactly. I puzzled over this while reading. I have a tendency to be drawn by books with interesting and clever structures but am inevitably disappointed because at some point it becomes about the structure and not the story. Or the author gets too self-congratulatory (I’m looking at you, Annie Proulx). Or something. But this never crossed that line for me.

    • January 8, 2013 9:04 am

      One of the many things I liked about the movie is that the first time you become conscious that you’re hearing the Cloud Atlas sextet is when Luisa Rey is searching for it in an old record store and it turns out to be the music playing in the store; it’s part of the mystery she is uncovering.
      My reservation about recommending the movie is that it was wonderful on the big screen. I don’t know how it will be on a smaller screen.

  2. January 7, 2013 7:38 am

    YES! Thank you! This is one of those books that I like more and more as time goes on. I, too, wondered if the author was poking fun at the readers and was trying to be clever but it works and I can’t wait to see the movie. (I don’t mind, prefer actually, to read first then view.)

    • January 8, 2013 9:08 am

      I didn’t take it as poking fun at the readers, but as the author poking a bit at his own pretentions.
      Usually if I read a book first, I like the movie less. Finally I let myself be talked into watching the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird. I did not love it.

      • January 11, 2013 12:29 pm

        OK, not quite AT the readers but I was caught off guard at one point, I think. I agree now that he had the right amount of cleverness. As Melissa eloquently stated, ‘the more distance I have away from it. :)
        As for book to movies, I have decided that I will not take the stance of ‘book is always better’ and so I just enjoy the different interpretations. But I can point to a movie better than the book experience where I saw movie first: Stardust. I was disappointed in the book. Oh, thought of another: The Princess Bride. So, seeing the movie first might ruin the book for me?! uh oh. :D

        • January 14, 2013 8:34 am

          Yeah, The Princess Bride is a good movie, but it’s a shame more people don’t read the book first.

  3. January 7, 2013 10:02 am

    My students talked a LOT about this film – seemed to create lots of different opinions!

  4. freshhell permalink
    January 7, 2013 12:41 pm

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie – it was too long to fit into my small movie-watching window. But, I’ll make an effort to do both soon. And I do think seeing a movie first and then reading a book is good for some stories (like The Descendants, for example) and sometimes the other way around (Hobbit, etc).

    • January 8, 2013 9:11 am

      I have noticed that anyone who has read The Hobbit likes the movie better. Of course, I can’t understand why anyone on earth and over the age of five would not have already read The Hobbit.
      We let Walker see the first Harry Potter movie before he read the book, because he was five when it came out. The movie spurred him to read all the books, so that turned out okay.

      • freshhell permalink
        January 8, 2013 9:43 am

        The Hobbit is of no interest to J and might never be. To each his own. She has also not yet read the HP books and only made it half-way through the first movie because it was too scary for her. She is just sailing down a different track.

  5. January 7, 2013 1:34 pm

    I co-hosted my first read-along this year with Care and this was the book we did. I ended up loving it, even more so the more distance I have from it. I loved the movie as well, though I read the book first. I actually think it worked better to have all the stories mixed together instead of completing one section and moving to the next one.

    I struggled with the language in the Sloosha section, but in the movie that part was great. I loved seeing it come to life and I think they just did an incredible job with such a complicated story. I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

    • January 8, 2013 9:12 am

      I agree that the movie did a good job mixing the stories together, rather than trying to make divisions between who is telling which part.

  6. January 7, 2013 6:43 pm

    I missed the movie, and I’m sorry about that, and I haven’t read the book either, but it’s on my coffee table waiting for me. From your review, it sounds a bit like the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I loved, so I am looking forward to reading it — of course, received knowledge is that you should always read books first, but I think you are right that sometimes its okay to go the other way –

    • January 8, 2013 9:14 am

      Generally, I find that there’s less risk of disappointment in seeing the movie first. Afterwards, finding additional detail in the book is a pleasure. If I’ve read the book and enough of it isn’t in the movie, that’s disappointing. If I go without expectations, though, I am rarely disappointed and then have the additional pleasure of reading the book waiting for me.

  7. January 8, 2013 7:51 pm

    I’m still undecided about whether I want to read this or not. I think it would be best to watch the movie first … it seems like it isn’t the easiest read. That seems to be your advice anyway.

    • January 9, 2013 7:34 am

      The joke of the genre mixing is less fun if you see the movie first, but you’ll have the fun of hearing the dialogue before trying to read the transcription of it.

  8. January 9, 2013 4:50 am

    This is an author who’s been on my TBR for a long, long time. I really must get around to reading him in 2013. Thank you for the gorgeous review – certainly helps to bump him up the list!

    • January 9, 2013 7:36 am

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this one, or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

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