Saturday, August 25, 2012

Both prize & battlefield

I finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas this morning, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. It's a set of six stories nested within each other.

At the centre (I mean this in a very literal sense — this story is in the middle of the book sandwiched by the next story, which is sandwiched by the next. That is, the books starts with half a story, which ends in midsentence and is followed by the first half of another story, and so on. We get the second halves of the stories in reverse order on the way out of the novel.)...

At the centre is post-apocalyptic tale; the society is fairly tribal, technology is near nonexistent, the pockets of humanity are isolated. We have no idea how the world got this way. The presence of a visitor, an outsider, hints that there may be some remnant of a more highly evolved civilization out there somewhere, but the reader isn't given anything to go on. One character has access to an instrument of the visitor's, by which he watches (or experiences) an archival record.

The archive concerns the life of revolutionary. She's a "fabricant," genomically programmed and "born" to serve in a fast-food restaurant. Such fabricants are produced in great numbers to fulfill menial or dangerous jobs. But she attains a level of consciousness and ascends to the outside world. The world is a consumption-oriented corpocracy (there are quotas for how much a citizen must spend in a given month). Our fabricant seems to be an agent of change, but she is also a pawn of the powers that be. One of the experiences she most enjoyed in the outside world was watching a movie.

The story of the movie is that of an author and editor committed against his will to a seniors' residence by a spiteful brother. His outrage is taken for senility and he struggles for some autonomous control over his life. He's been reading a manuscript submitted for publication, which he finds promising.

The manuscript is a thriller. Set in the 70s, a journalist comes across information that a report calling into question the safety of a nuclear power plant has been suppressed. There's plenty of corruption, and murder. She comes into a packet of letters one of her sources has carried with him for decades — they entrall her.

The letters are from a young English musician, who in the 20s worked in Belgium as an amanuensis for a renowned composer. He'd fled England, disinherited, to flee his debts but he accrues more along the way. Shady dealings and sexual adventures serve as balm, financial and otherwise. He's working on a composition — the Cloud Atlas Sextet — and reading a journal to distract him from his difficulties.

The journal is that of an American notary returning home from somewhere in the vicinity of New Zealand. He's seen Maori and Moriori tribes, and he has some mysterious illness, but most of the diary describes his time at sea.

The only thing obviously connecting these stories is a comet-shaped birthmark near the shoulder blade — a character in each of the stories has one. Are they reincarnations of the same individual? I have a feeling the movie version will play this angle up, but I hope not. While it contributes to a sense of connectedness, I think this one little image is flimsy.

A thematic connection is hard to find. Most of the stories touch on how some segment of society has been wronged or oppressed, but it doesn't hold up for the musician's segment. Maybe betrayal? I can come up with a couple themes, but I can't find one overarching theme that fits all the narratives.

Some people love this novel, and I can easily see how most readers could latch onto some aspect. There's something for everyone. I loved parts of the books — I could easily have read hundreds more pages about the future corpocracy and the cause of the fabricants, or the musician's attempts to stay ahead of his debtors. But as a rule I hate seafaring adventures, so I struggled with the journal of the South Pacific, which unfortunately for me opens and closes the novel. I didn't much like the first half of the tale of the publisher in the senior's residence (the style too pretentious), but I warmed to the second half (more human and lively). Your mileage may vary.

While the notary's tale didn't affect me, I'll leave you with some of his closing words. In my view, reading these words make for an easier in to these stories. I'd hate to think that some readers might drop off from Cloud Atlas midway and miss them.

My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates act? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, explitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our sconsciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, sefishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.


Bellezza said...

It sounds like a confusing book to me, with all those stories sandwiched in together and being unable to find a central theme. Of course, Murakami's stories don't follow a central theme, either, so that doesn't have to be a requisite. It's just nice when it happens. You've written such a thorough review of this book, really giving a wonderful picture of its contents.

Teri Pettit said...

It's a shame that you didn't continue the quote through to the end of the book.

"Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law's response: 'Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, ... Naive, dreaming Adam. .... & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!'

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

This last line is the central theme of the book, that if enough individuals choose to live a humane and courageous life, the ocean of history will change.