First thoughts on “Cloud Atlas” and civilized narrative

1 Jan

For personal reasons, I haven’t been reading as much as I want to be or should be reading these days. Having said that, the book that lodged in my consciousness the most last year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I knew nothing about it when I was handed a copy at World Book Night in Cork, Ireland last year – coincidentally (or perhaps not) the city where Mitchell now resides. I was spurred to read it when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and Roger Ebert, one of my favorite writers to follow on Facebook, wrote an enthusiastic review but urged readers to read the book before going to see the film, if only not to be confused by the multiple story lines. If you love literature, I think it’s always better to read the book first, although for me A Clockwork Orange is the exception that proves the rule. I still refuse to see any of the books based on Toelkien because I don’t want to cloud the image in my mind’s eye with someone else’s imaginary. I learned that from storytellers who decry the use of illustration in folklore books. The film of Cloud Atlas, while it has its own pleasures – especially the editing, the makeup, the acting, and some gorgeous cinematography – can only be disappointing to those who love the book, its rich characters, and distinct narrative voices. And for me the vision of some of the stories was so different from my own interior vision that what I remember from the screen is distinct from what exists in my mind’s eye. This is especially true of Zachry’s narrative that forms the exquisite middle novella at the heart of the book.

I’ve heard Mitchell interviewed – and by the way he could give lessons on how to be gracious with readers and call-ins – and much has been made of the master vs. slave dichotomies at the core of the six narratives. Like a lot about the book, though, it’s easy to oversimplify in that way. Far more significant, to my reading, than the master/slave conflict is the eternal conflict between the savage and the civilized, redefined across centuries in ways that are not immediately apparent. The master/slave dichotomy is there in some of the narratives, and it’s not exactly coterminous with the savage/civilized dichotomy that is also there, and that is more dynamic as well. Characters are faced with a stream of opportunities to show themselves as civilized, defined by Merilyne (I think), as those who think of the future generations and those who thing beyond their own individual gratification. It’s an easier reading of the book to see it as a reflection on the master/slave conflict, because we all want to see ourselves identifying with the noble slave, and there’s a feel-good quality to this reading. Who would identify with the masters? It’s more complicated and more painful to read the six stories through the lens of our own age which, like so many others, (perhaps all?), is dominated by savages and the savage urge to accumulate wealth. Mitchell doesn’t hold up a mirror as much as he places us in a hall of mirrors: we may think we see ourselves in the slave or anyone striving for freedom, but what we actually are are the proud descendants of generations of savages. Our relationship to the civilized is more ambivalent. Look at the treatment of Autua or Luisa Rey, for example, even Sixsmith. People, and the characters in the novel, can make choices about whether and when to think of others, think of the future, and be civilized, but we are all inconsistent, deeply flawed and ambivalent ourselves about the struggle to become civilized, before we all destroy one another in one way or another.

One of the things in the book that disturbed me, ironically enough, is the manifesto that ends the book (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it but gets this far in my humble blog). It resonates, about the choices we make to construct a more moral world – issues that I am dealing with in my own life’s work and mission – but it’s also kind of comforting and feels a little like a bromide at the end of a long struggle which one would hope is more unsettling to one’s consciousness. I also think that would make for an oversimplified reading.

The book is not just about the sides we choose and the moral choices we make in our actions. It is equally about the sides we choose and our moral choice in our narratives, the way that our historical moment is not just constructed of the actions of generations that have come before, but also the narratives about those actions, real and fictitious, the ones that are told, the way they are told, and the ones that remain silenced histories. Read this way, there is significance in the selection of six different genres of narrative within the novel. The fact that the book is a compendium of genre fictions makes the stories go down much easier, but it is in the interstices, the way the narratives interlock – planned in the author’s mind but random in terms of actual probability (unless one believes in cosmic connections).

I am shaped equally by the actions of my great-grandfather coming to this country, by the actions of those European settlers before him who cleared the land of its Native inhabitants by killing them off, and by the narratives (and non-narrative morals) passed down in the family about who came here and why. We are shaped by the actions of those that came before, but also by the words about those actions, the self-reports and the third person accounts, by the masters and the slaves, by the savage and the civilized. To write, to narrate, to tell stories like a civilized person, speaking for the generations that come, this is a complementary mission to living a life that enslaves no one.

I’ll return to this later, but wanted to begin the New Year with some reflections on writing and storytelling in this vein.

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