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.