Saturday, January 02, 2010

[Books] Book Look: Cloud Atlas

Book Look: Cloud Atlas: If you troll for book reviews on the web, looking to fill out your reading list, you will inevitably stumble across a lot recommendations for Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. As a monumental work of imaginative fiction that garnered short listings for the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi awards, it's not surprising that it would appeal to webheads. But it also won the British Book Award for literary fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so it's no genre baby either.

The book consists of a set of six novellas in a structure that is most aptly described as a Russian Matryoshka doll. You get the first halves of novellas 1-5 in order, then the entirety of novella 6, followed by the second halves of novellas 5-1 (reverse order). The effect is like a palindrome, or the winding and unwinding of a yo-yo, or perhaps the expansion and contraction of the universe. A short description of the six novellas:
  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The time is the mid-nineteen century and story that of an American notary trying to make his way back across the Pacific to his home in San Francisco, written in the style Herman Melville. Along the way Ewing encounters savagery from both native and civilized men and experiences a brutal shipboard existence.
  2. Letters from Zedelghem. We move forward in time to Europe between the wars. This one is written in a droll Edwardian style. Driven, talented, but unknown and ne'er-do-well English composer Robert Frobisher flees debt and family shame in England by weaseling his way into becoming the assistant to a world renowned composer in Belgium. What starts out as the good humored, narcissistic romp of a young rake, turns serious. All this is told in the form of a series of letters written by Frobisher to his best friend back in England, Rufus Sixsmith. During his time in Zedelghem, Frobisher discovers and reads Adam Ewing's published journal and finds some sad poignancy.
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Set in the '70s and told in the flat, unadorned style of a flavor-of-the-month mystery. Crusading reporter Luisa Rey is investigating an uber-powerful nuclear power company that is covering up how unsafe their latest reactor is. Nefarious conspiracies, dastardly assassination attempts, death defying action, and criminal corruption clash in this pulse-pounding potboiler. You get the picture. The connection is that Luisa Rey's inside source is none other than Rufus Sixsmith. In the process, Luisa finds herself in possession of Sixsmith's most cherished possession, the letters Robert Frobisher sent him decades earlier.
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. We have reached roughly contemporary times (maybe y2k) and so are given a big ol' dose of irony and satire. Cavendish runs a small-time vanity publishing house which has produced the autobiography of a powerful mobster. Things go sour, as they will when mobsters are involved, and Cavendish must flee for his life. He goes to his brother for help and his brother seems to contrive to have him committed to some sort of asylum, possibly as retribution for cuckolding him some years past. While trapped in the asylum, Cavendish suffers a stroke and struggles to simultaneously escape the institution and regain control of his body. All along, Cavendish, is evaluating 'Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey' mystery for publication.
  5. An Orison of Somni-451. We are now in the future where we find a Blade Runner-esque dystopia. The prevailing culture is a Korean Corporatism that has environmentally trashed the world and created a slave race of highly specialized clones. This story is told in the form of a final confession and explanation of a rebel clone, Somni-451, given to her legal representative before her execution. In the course of Somni-451's transformation from subservient clone to self-valuing humanity, she is exposed to a holographic movie of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
  6. Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After. Now we move yet further into the future and have gone from dystopia to full-on post-apocalypse. We are back in the Pacific at a time when the world has almost totally fallen back to tribalism and subsistence living. The story centers on Zach'ry, a young member of one of the more advanced tribes (although still quite primitive). His family and tribe, along with others, live in constant threat from the Kona, a savage tribe that hunts, kills, and enslaves others. Zach'ry's tribe takes in a strange visitor from the final remnants of a technologically advanced civilization (which maintains a Star Trek-ian prime directive of sorts). Things go from bad to worse for Zach'ry and humanity. We discover that Zach'ry's tribe worships a deity based on Somni-451.

Cloud Atlas is a tour-de-force of writing skill, as I will get to briefly. But it is marred -- jarringly so -- by one serious flaw. The morality behind it is utterly infantile. Mitchell has stated that the primary theme of Cloud Atlas is predation; individual on individual, tribe on tribe, race on race, culture on culture. Fair enough, but every predatory situation is portrayed as perfectly black and white. The bad guys are all violent, conniving, and unremorseful and pretty much avowedly evil or nihilistic or narcissistic. The good guys are all victims and underdogs and prone to hand-over-the-heart nobility.

Before I go further, I'm going to start to get a little more detailed into the stories and there is the possibility of spoilers, although I will try to be circumspect. I should also note that this isn't a thriller with a secret twist at the end; even if I generate some spoilage it will not likely diminish your reading experience, but if you want to be especially careful stop reading now.

Story by story, let's briefly describe the bad guys and good guys.
  • The Pacific Journal...Bad guys: Native slaveholders, corrupt British profiteers, a nihilistic murderer, greedy Christian missionaries, shipboard child rapists; Good guy: A na‹ve, purehearted American who falls victim to his own trusting nature.
  • Letters...Bad guys: a plagiaristic domineering composer, his amoral wife, upper crust society in general by scornfully eschewing talented bad boy. Good guy: the bad boy talent, his brother who died in WW1 to no good purpose.
  • Half-Lives...Bad guys: Greedy capitalists, corrupt politicians, hired assassins. Good guys: Stalwart whistleblowers, a crusading reported who fights corruption in the memory of her father -- a good cop who stood up to bad ones.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal...Bad guys: a mob boss (cut straight from a Guy Ritchie film) and a Nurse Ratched knock off. Good guys: a mildly disabled third rate book publisher and a pack off sweet oldsters who only want to be treated with respect.
  • Orison...Bad guys: owners of McDonalds style restaurant, spoiled and carelessly murderous well off college kids; Good guys: A clone fighting for human rights, members of secret society dedicated to the same cause, a poverty swamped society of outcasts living outside the culture and on their own terms.
  • Sloosha's Crossin'...Bad guys: Sadistic genocidal enslavers; Good guys: a peaceful and idyllic tribe; the last remnants of civilization fighting to preserve itself.

Not a shade of gray in that list. Snidely Whiplash and Dudley Doo-right would fit in perfectly. The bad guys have no redeeming qualities, and the good guys are all noble, righteous, and pure. Not only are the normative ethics simplistic, but some of the cliches are so long in the tooth they're only worthy of MST3K.

Now, while the core morality of a work of fiction is very important, a book can succeed without a solid one, and Cloud Atlas does. But that is precisely the reason the childish philosophy behind it is so jarring. With respect to any other aspect of fiction, Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece.

The sequencing of the stories through history and into the future, something that most writers would have ham-fisted, is handled elegantly: implicit reincarnation, both subtle and direct repetitions from one story to another, circuitous returns to familiar places. The plot structure is surpassingly excellent.

For me, the most impressive aspect of Cloud Atlas is the mastery of writing styles. And not just the writing styles in themselves, but capturing the transformation of the English language as a by-product. From historic styles of 19th century formality, to Edwardian insouciance, to hardboiled potboiler, to irony and satire, then into the future through the dystopian corporate speak, and further to post-apocalyptic pidgin -- this transformation, happening as it does at the point of communication between writer and reader, adds a primal sense of realism that informs the experience of reading at a very deep level. This, to my mind, qualifies as genius. (Long time readers know how enthralled I am by contemporary attempts to use language in something other than a purely utilitarian way.)

Despite the formulaic nature of the characters, I cared about some of them. Frobisher was fun; and Cavendish. And despite the horrors and tragedies that are inflicted upon the good guys in "Sloosha's Crossin'..." and the unadulterated, shameless emotional button pushing, I found this story the most affecting of all. It may have been button pushing, but it was awesome button pushing. (I actually had to set the book aside and spend some time with the deliriously happy characters in Misspent Youth, to clear my palate before going on.)

So, as with all my book reviews, that leaves the question of whether you should read the book. Let me draw an analogy.

Suppose it was discovered that Rembrandt went off into his studio and began working on a new portrait. It was a work of astounding creativity. It drew on everything before it, but also looked to the future and used materials in ways they had never been used before. The quality craftsmanship was unprecedented. The vision and scope was as broad as humanity itself. It was a work likely to profoundly affect you for a long, long time. But the subject...well, the subject was: a velvet Elvis. A shatteringly beautiful velvet Elvis. Would you still want to see it?

By the way, the film rights have been locked up by the Wachowski Brothers, the duo behind another mind-blowing ride with a simpleton's core: The Matrix. Hmm.