Friday, August 17, 2012

Sky Chart

Man. I think Cloud Atlas may be the best book I've read all year.

Well, since January, I mean. The last 12 months have had a LOT of competition, and it's hard to compare this book against the kinetic intellectual drive of REAMDE or the intricate surrealism of 1Q84. Not as hard as you might think, though! Sections of this book read quite a bit like REAMDE's fast-moving thriller prose, and other parts have the lucid dreamlike qualities of 1Q84. It's an incredibly well-constructed book with many facets that link together in interesting ways.

Ever since college, I've been particularly fascinated by novels that include drastic shifts in narrative style. Exhibit A tends to be Ulysses. It starts in the fairly familiar ground of its predecessor "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by shifting between different narrative voices. As you get further into the book, though, the structure grows increasingly wild, culminating in the Jacobean hallucination of Circe and the quiet catechism of Ithaca. Many people who actually read Moby Dick are surprised to find a similar range of forms on display there: it starts with the relatively familiar tone of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure, but dives into thoroughly scientific textbook prose for chapters on end, and includes a particularly effective Shakespearean play buried between the other chapters.


Those earlier examples can feel like very talented writers showing off, or doing something interesting for the sake of being interesting. Cloud Atlas's variations, though, are intricately constructed, and a key component of the work itself.

Like Ghostwritten, you could choose to view Cloud Atlas as a series of short stories. Each is told in a different narrative voice, and each is linked in some way to the story that precedes and the story that follows it. Where Ghostwritten was a daisy chain, though, Cloud Atlas is a series of nesting dolls. Each story is contained within the outer story, and contains a new story within it as well.

Mitchell is… my goodness, he's such a GOOD writer. Each of his stories is set in a particular era, and follows a style and form appropriate to that era. It starts with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. It is set in the South Pacific during the mid-1800's, mostly on islands and on ships, and not coincidentally reads very much like a Herman Melville story. Now, I think that all readers will enjoy this novel, but those of us who are English lit nerds will be privy to some really clever meta-jokes, some subtly and some not. Early on, Adam is introduced to us as a "notary" from San Francisco. Only later, in a casual conversation, does he also refer to himself by the synonymous "scrivener". You know, just in case we hadn't already made the connection to Melville's famous protagonist.

Anyways: this part of the book is written as a series of entries in Adam's diaries. There are many peculiarities that feel authentic to the time period and Adam's station: he enjoys the Capitalizing of many Words & the usage of punctuation marks and abbreviations, etc. We also get a really good feeling for the man's emotional character: he is a Christian, very sympathetic towards the plight of the oppressed, but also a polite and somewhat timid man who does not always stand up for his beliefs.

The story is interesting without exactly being exciting; well, there is an escaped slave and the terror of Adam's diagnosis with a rare brain-eating parasite, but all of this is filtered through the form of a diary, and so not terribly shocking. We're lulled into a sense of safety, which is broken when we reach the end of one page, turn it… and find that we're now in the second section of the book. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing ends in mid-sentence, leaving a profound note of melancholy and unease in the air.

We jump ahead perhaps sixty years in time, to the other side of the world, to a very different narrator writing in a very different style. We now are following the tale of Robert Frobisher, a peripatetic English composer who has been disinherited, absconded to the Continent, and soon starts a new career as the amanuensis for a declining Dutch composer. He could hardly be more different from Adam: he is proud, clever, sarcastic, bisexual, devious, and very ambitious. He's also highly charismatic, able to walk into the wealthy house of a complete stranger and remain employed there for over a year. This part of the book takes the form of a series of letters he writes to Sixsmith, a young friend of his back in England.

This story is quite entertaining. I got chills when the composer describes how he found a book in his employer's library that he has been obsessing over: it's the tale of an American notary who takes a voyage in the south Pacific. Frobisher complains that the end of the book is missing, with the final pages ripped out, so it ends in the middle of a sentence. So, the story that we had just finished reading, is itself a story within this new story. He speculates about the authenticity and the purpose of the journal - is it real? Is it fictional? It seems like an 18th century tale, but if so, who was the author, and why was it written in the form of a diary? He also picks up on some stuff that I had missed, most egregiously that Adam is a huge hypochondriac, and his doctor "friend" has invented the idea of the parasite in order to fleece him.

The tale of the composer continues for a while and comes to a more graceful end than its predecessor. From here, we jump all the way forward to the 1970s, with the adventure of Luisa Rey, a reporter for a National Enquirer-type magazine that stumbles onto a vast and deadly conspiracy. The tone of this part of the book is extremely pulpy: it reads very much like a good Robert Ludlum novel. This section is a delight to read on several levels. First of all, it's a fast-paced and engaging thriller. Secondly, it's not terribly well written, BUT we know by now that Mitchell is capable of great writing, and so it becomes clear that he's deliberately toning down his art here, mimicking what you might expect from a 1970's potboiler. Think of David Wain directing "Wet Hot American Summer" and you'll get the right idea of what Mitchell is up to here.

The Luisa Rey story also contains its own predecessor: she meets an aged Sixsmith, who has now reached retirement age and decides to tip her off about the nefarious plot unfurling around a nearby nuclear power plant. She eventually discovers the letters that Frobisher had written to Sixsmith sixty years ago, and so she reads the same story that we just finished reading. (And, although the book doesn't make this explicit, she also read Frobisher's writing about Adam Ewing's journal.)

Luisa Rey ends very dramatically (the details probably qualify as "mega" so I'll omit them here, but suffice to say that it's as dramatic as Adam Ewing's ending and also much more final). We then hop foreword to the present day and read about the ghastly ordeals of Timothy Cavendish. This story returns us back to first-person narration from Luisa Rey's omniscient narrator, and takes the form of Timothy's memoirs. Cavendish is a kind of hack publisher, not entirely unlike the publishing house in the Umberto Eco book, who makes a lean living by getting authors to pay for publishing and producing very limited print runs. His life is upended when one of his clients becomes a media sensation, and the book he wrote turns into a gargantuan best-seller. This proves to cause more harm than good, and Cavendish goes on the run.

Unlike Luisa Rey, for whom this would be a gripping adventure, for Cavendish it's a ghastly experience. We're treated to the decay of the once-proud British rail system, the shocking decline in English manners, the unpleasantness of Cavendish himself. Cavendish is a pretty fun narrator who recognizes his own faults, and seems to get the most pleasure in life from calling out the corresponding faults in others.

While escaping his pursuers, Cavendish reads a manuscript that was submitted to his office. It is… "The First Luisa Rey Adventure." And so we have yet another part of our nesting doll in place. It's really fun to read Cavendish reading the thriller, and get his editor's reaction to the piece (he thinks it's trashy, but entertaining trash, and will probably sell well).


From here, things start to get strange and wonderful. Much like "Ghostwritten," "Cloud Atlas" starts off in fairly realistic settings, and then evolves into a more science-fiction direction. In "Ghostwritten," that took the form of an alien intelligence who made contact with a Chinese woman who owned a small inn near a holy mountain. In "Cloud Atlas," it takes the form of a peek into the future of our own planet, eventually delving into a post-apocalyptic breakdown of civilization.

What's really amazing about this is how Mitchell's language continues to evolve, into a future that has not yet occurred. Adam Ewing used formal and slightly archaic language; Robert Frobisher was casually eloquent and spoke with an educated mixture of English and French; Luisa Rey's story used simple words, very short paragraphs and chapters, and lots of direct dialog; Timothy Cavendish wrote, well, a lot like you or I would write in our own blogs or journals. This next section is set perhaps a hundred and fifty years in the future (I'm not sure if Mitchell precisely dates it or not), and it's written in English, after it has gone through the sorts of evolution that you might expect the language to make. Some of these are changes in the way certain words are written, most noticeably the way a leading "ex" is transformed to simply "x": "xactly", "xpert", "xecutive". (Yeesh, after writing these out, I hope that Mitchell was able to disable his own spell-checker.) Brand names have come to replace common nouns: people watch disneys, drive fords, wear nikes, read sonys.

This book takes the form of a formal transcript, recording the confession of a being named "Sonmi". It has some of the catechismal pace of "Ithaca", with relatively short questions and relatively long answers that tell a narrative story, but the questioner here is a person with his own personality that becomes a part of the story.

I think what I liked most about this was the way Mitchell just drops us off in the middle of the future and doesn't hold our hand in explaining things. Things that Sonmi and her interrogator take for granted pass without comment, leaving us in the dark: what exactly a "sony" is, what a "dead space" is and what caused it, the significance of "Unity" and "Unification." Over time, we gradually come to understand these things, but our comprehension comes from grasping context and assigning meaning, much like a child would learn. It reminds me of the techniques of my favorite fantasy authors like George R. R. Martin.

By the end of this section, I had gradually pieced together a rough understanding of what had happened. At least, I think so. The story is now taking place in Neo So Corps, which occupies present-day Korea. This is one of the only habitable places left on the planet; most of the remainder has been blighted by catastrophic climate change, nuclear fallout, or the ravages of conventional war. Technology is highly evolved, while morality has devolved. The state is ruled by an amalgamation of political, military, and business concerns. Consumption is mandatory. All citizens are required to spend a certain portion of their income each month in order to keep the economy moving; the state, in turn, helps sanction a virtually limitless supply of labor in the form of fabricants. Fabricants are mass-produced, genetically-engineered humans. They are born, immediately put in service to a corporation, and generally live their entire lives within a single room. Sonmi, the heroine, is a server at the future equivalent of McDonalds (right down to the golden arches and the red-and-gold color scheme). In their contemporary philosophy, the fabricants are "soulless", and thus don't deserve the rights of "pureborn" humans. In reality, they are enslaved: deliberately bred to be servile, and kept in a submissive state by steady ingestion of "soap"; in a cruel detail, their bodies have been engineered to reject all food other than "soap", and that same substance deadens their capabilities.

Sonmi comes under the accidental tutelage of another fabricant who is "ascending": starting to develop a personality and becoming capable of individual thought. She comes to the attention of some influential academics who believe she may help establish the potential of fabricants. There's a really stunning set of scenes where she describes her first-ever exposure to life outside the restaurant; to a college campus; to the city center. While the tone of the narrative is calm and resigned, the content is pretty interesting, with steadily ratcheting tension, an almost Horatio Alger-ish climb for Sonmi, and several intriguing plot twists. Near the end, Sonmi visits a disney where she and her chaperone view one of the movies that have been forbidden in Neo So Corps: "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," the cinematic adaptation of the story we just read.

And then… wow, just when I thought the story couldn't get any cooler, we move to the climactic section of the entire book. This casts us several years foreword in time… and several millennia back in civilization. The world of Neo So Corps was already corrupt and rotting, staggering along on fumes while the elite prolonged their existence by ravaging the land and murdering their people. That society has now utterly collapsed, and most of the world has fallen into barbarism. The "primitive" tribes that Adam Ewing so pitied had life much better than even the luckiest of these future humans.

Once again, Mitchell proves to be a master of language, and develops a compelling, utterly believable voice for his narrator. In keeping with the decline of civilization, Zachry speaks in a rough, uncivilized voice. Speech is primitive and filled with misspellings. Ther, all sorts of wonderful and head-shakingly-wrong words.

A few random examples include:
"So the visits was, ev'ry year, since anyun could mem'ry."
"The sun was dead'nin' so high up, yay, it roared an' time streamed from it."
 "Froday o' Lotus Pond Dwellin' an' two-three Valleysmen played goatskin'n'pingwood tom-toms, an' Hilo beardies thumped their flumfy-flumfy drums an' a Honokaa fam'ly beat their sash-krrangers an' Honomu folk got their shell-shakers an' this whoah feastin' o' drums twanged the young uns' joystrings an' mine too, yay, an' blissweed'll lead you b'tween the whack-crack an' boom-doom an' pan-pin-pon till we dancers was hoofs thuddin' an' blood pumpin' an' years passin' an' ev'ry drumbeat one more life shedded off of me, yay, I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b'fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin' horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn't describe 'em 'cos there ain't the words no more but well I mem'ry that dark Kolekole girl with her tribe's tattoo, yay, she was a saplin' bendin' an' I was that hurrycane, I blowed her she bent, I blowed harder she bent harder an' closer, then I was Crow's wings beatin' an' she was the flames lickin' an' when the Kolekole saplin' wrapped her willowy fingers around my neck, her eyes was quartzin' and the murmured in my ear, Yay, I will, again, an'yay, we will, again."


Zachry's prose is peppered with near-hallucinations: visions of the Devil (whom he calls Old George, a curious phrase that made me wonder if we're witnessing the last echoes of American hegemony), conversations with dead relatives, and more.

This part of the book was simultaneously depressing and fascinating. I know that there's a long tradition of dystopic sci-fi, but while I'm familiar with the genre in movies I actually haven't read that much in books; I'm more used to cheerfully grimy futures, where the good and bad elements of society have both extended into the future; here, the bad has utterly eclipsed the good.

The action takes place on Big Island: apparently Hawaii was less touched by the nuclear wars that provided the final death blow to civilization. It has still suffered from the social and environmental fallout, though; nobody is expected to reach the age of forty, and someone who has is viewed with suspicion: surely he must have sold his soul to Old George in order to gain such unnatural long life. The narrator's tribe are the Nine Valleys people, and while they're primitive, they are actually much more advanced than any of their island neighbors: they keep history alive through oral traditions, make young ones attend school, grow crops and tend goats, and peaceably trade their goods.

The brightest spot in this dismal landscape are the Prescients, who seem like gods to the narrator's tribe. They sail a giant ship around the ocean, barter goods for supplies, and are tall, black-skinned, seemingly free of the diseases that so plague residents of the Nine Valleys. By the end of this story, we learn that these are the descendants of a group of people who anticipated the cataclysm: they escaped to a secret remote island, deliberately bred their genes and those of their descendants to be more resilient to the harsh conditions of the future (hence the black skin), and have kept alive the technology and knowledge of the ancients. While the narrator thinks that this is wonderful, though, his eventual friend and mentor shares her own caution: all the wisdom of the "ancients" didn't keep them from destroying themselves, and the great advancement of their technology was what led to the total destruction of their species.

At one point, the suspicious narrator roots through the personal effects of his visitor, and stumbles across an "orison"; when he activates it, he sees a vision of a woman, who speaks to an unseen interviewer. Her language is so evolved that he can only understand a handful of words, but what he catches is enough for us to recognize this as the recording made of Sonmi's confession. So: we're hearing the story of Zachry, who watches Sonmi, who saw a movie about Timothy, who read a manuscript about Luisa Rey, who read letters from Robert Frobisher, who read the diary of Adam Ewing. The rabbit hole goes ALL THE WAY DOWN!

Zachry's tale is filled with a lot of despair, but ends on a good-if-melancholy note: he escapes an enslaving tribe that abruptly conquers much of Big Island, but has to abandon his family to do so; he escapes with the other Prescients to a new life on another Hawaiian island. We have learned along the way that we're reading the creation of an oral history: this whole section is being directly narrated from an elderly Zachry to some younger men of his new tribe. And, at the very end, he dies.

We get a few brief sentences of discussion from the other tribe members. Was Zachry's tale true, or was it made up? Well, they figure, most of it was mostly true, based on the pieces of evidence that Zachry brought with him. For example: see, here, he secretly kept the orison which embedded Sonmi's confession. Press it and see it play.

I'd been wondering throughout this fairly long section just where Mitchell could possibly go from here. I was a bit past the halfway point of the book, and what I was reading was already detached enough from my own frame of reference that it seemed impossible for the story to continue along the evolutionary ladder much longer before it became utterly incomprehensible. So, would it try to press further into the future? Would aliens arrive and spend some time with us? Would he find a way to wrap the story back around to the beginning of the novel, or the beginning of time itself? I vaguely thought of a Star Trek-ish plot where the future primitives would travel back in time and become their own ancestors. I also vaguely remembered the curious spot that Adam Ewing found on the island at the beginning of the book, which seemed to have some almost supernatural overtones, and wondered if it was somehow connected to the activities that take place on islands in the book's climax.

Mitchell's actual plan is brilliant: he unwinds the stack, taking the same nesting dolls that he used before and reversing them. This all fits perfectly within the narrative of the book. When Zachry first found Sonmi's orison, he only saw the first part of her confession before he was interrupted, which is why we could only read the first part of her story; after his tribesmen find the orison, they can watch the whole thing, so now we can read the conclusion of her story. Sonmi's initial viewing of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish was interrupted by the Unification raid on the theater; at the end of her confession, her final request is to see the end of the movie, so now we get to read the end of Timothy's story (which I had thought conclusively ended already!). Cavendish finishes reading through the Luisa Rey manuscript, and also describes how his own story was optioned by Hollywood for the movie that Sonmi will watch in a few centuries. Luisa Rey finishes her adventure, and along the way listens to some pressed LPs of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, and receives the final batch of Robert Frobisher's letters from Sixsmith's daughter. Those letters in turn show Adam Ewing finally learning (too late) of his "doctor"'s deception, and finally finishes the story that we first began.


I have a couple of loose thoughts:

I love the subtle and almost ethereal way that the word "cloud atlas" is introduced to the novel. The first time I consciously noted it was in Zachry's story, where someone describes making an atlas of the clouds. The same metaphor is used, in a slightly different context, in the second part of Sonmi's story. I don't remember it in Cavendish's stories, but in Luisa's and Frobisher's it's the name of his magnum opus. Anyways, the words themselves are very powerful, and acquire a really amazing resonance by being repeated throughout such a great span of time.

I think I'd mentioned before that I had totally missed Adam Ewing's hypochondriac nature in my initial reading of him. Perhaps because of that, I was extra-suspicious when reading his final portion. I found myself wondering about exactly what happened to him: did he make it back to San Francisco safely, reunite with his family, and accomplish his lofty abolitionist goals? Or not? The reason I wonder is: what is his diary doing in Belgium? Well, we know that a Dutchman was on Adam's ship, and hated him. Adam casually mentions at one point that he's giving his diary to the captain so the captain can send it along to San Francisco; he mentions casually that the captain must be doing this because he knows that Adam could make trouble for him in America, and wants to placate him. Well… maybe. I have another theory, though. If the captain disliked Adam, and was worried that he would influence his father-in-law to make life difficult for the captain in San Francisco, wouldn't it make sense to make sure that Adam suffered a fatal "accident" before he returned home? And wouldn't it make sense for the captain to take the diary, which recorded all of the captain's misdeeds, and make sure it never returned to America? Perhaps he could take it with himself, and eventually bring it back home to Europe at the end of his career, where it would eventually become lost within a library, torn in half to support a bed, and eventually be found by Robert Frobisher? I dunno. It seems possible.

Hey, let's talk [more] about post-modernism! Mitchell's style is definitely post-modernist: it's clever, and self-aware, and does interesting stylistic things that comment on the action within the story. And yet, he doesn't feel like any of the most famous most-modernist authors. By the end of the book, I was tentatively ready to offer an explanation as to why: this book is clever and has a good sense of humor, but is refreshingly free of irony. Even more than that, this book has a message! That seems like a minor thing, but really, there are so shockingly few books these days that actually seek to change peoples' minds and behaviors; that kind of writing seemed to go out of fashion in the 1970's, and most books today are proudly art for art's sake.

Mitchell presents his message pretty straight-forwardly, too, mostly through dialog in the unwinding stack at the end of the book. As human beings, we are naturally greedy creatures. We have limited resources and unlimited desires. Throughout history, the strongest people, strongest tribes, strongest nations, strongest races, have taken what they want from weaker people, smaller tribes, poorer nations, technologically inferior races. In the short term, this allows those in power to continue accruing power, increasing their advantage over their rivals. However, over time, this same will to power causes the beast to consume itself. Powerful men in a powerful organization will plot and scheme against one another. Powerful factions in a powerful nation will struggle for more power. As technology advances, the consequences of these struggles grow ever more dangerous. Adam Ewing's nemesis hits the nail on the head: mankind will drive itself to extinction because it's always in the individual's best interest to profit at the expense of the whole.

Who are the bad guys? Anyone who believes that "the weak are meat the strong do eat," anyone who justifies the diminishing of one group so a superior group can become more superior. Who are the good guys? Anyone who opposes that philosophy. Anyone who speaks out in favor of the disenfranchised. Anyone who gladly accepts their portion in life without stealing from another to increase their own. Anyone who empowers those who have no power.

There's a wonderful thread that runs all the way from Adam through to Sonmi and on to the brittle humans of the future. Adam is certainly not a hero; he's far too gullible and fussy to accomplish great things. But he has a kind heart, and that alone made him one of my favorite characters in this book.


I can't say much more about this… it's a phenomenal book, and I highly recommend you read it!

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