Navigating Cloud Atlas
After my first year of uni, during my final stages of planning and packing for Africa I found myself staring at a stack of correspondance spread out all over our bedroom floor. I was on exchange in rural Québec, and we were rooming seven kilometers outside of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, which had a grand total of 732 people in it. The family had four children, and in honour of our arrival, they had emptied out their bright blue playroom for my counterpart and I. We slept on two foam mattresses on the floor an arms length away from one another, my letters covered the only small 8×10 empty patch of hardwood.
Mail is always exciting. My parents would forward packages of my mail via multiple rural routes until it eventually arrived at our old school mailbox in front of the giant blue farmhouse. Endlessly indecisive, I had applied for transfers into four other university programs and been accepted. The door to return to Ottawa was still open. I had been mulling over the decision for several weeks as the applications were processed, during my runs alone in empty fields behind our house, pondering while I replanted thousands of tiny conifers in the greenhouses at work and during the 44km bike-ride to our friends in Victoriaville. I had all the brochures and appropriate enrolment forms spread out all over the tiny space, and was (once again) trying to weigh my options, with grids and pro/con lists, when suddenly a calm washed over me: I realized I would never be attending some of these programs.
I had already made my decision.
I had never been to Halifax when I decided to move there. We hatched an elaborate plan for my arrival. I didn’t have any friends there that I knew of, and the first night we arrived our car was broken into and a bunch of our things were stolen.
I had zero expectations. I heard it was a rough town. I knew there was an ocean, that there was a good music scene and that the weather was crazy but that was about it.
I remember the exact moment of calm in knowing that this was what I was going to do. It’s funny, of all the things I have done in my life, I think moving out there was one of the best and most effortless decisions I ever made. The calm I felt during my time there is almost unmatched from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve heard a lot of people move to Halifax in this way.
And yet, I’m still not ready to even consider going back.
Halifax houseparty, 2008 Photo credit: Ben Dalton
Zero expectations are often the best ways to go about life, books, and when possible: film.
Cloud Atlas came highly recommended. Exceptionally highly recommended. Here is a sample update from one of my literary pals:
So for the last time, everybody read Cloud Atlas. Especially before the movie comes out. It is better than any book you’ve read recently and probably the best thing to happen to novels in decades.
Heck even Ben Affleck liked it. I had been forewarned by friends and pre-viewers to avoid seeing the trailer (by all means) before reading the book, and see the movie at your own risk. Good friends had seen it opening weekend, and returned with rave reviews. A few of us decided to head to pho and cheap night last week. We left the theater reeling.
That being said, if you are intending on reading and/or seeing Cloud Atlas I will not be offended, nay perhaps even recommend that you stop reading this post.
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I have picked up several of David Mitchells books before. A few of them are regularly featured at Munro’s for no more than a handful of dollars. Their covers are decent. Provocative, but not captivating. Titles that are slightly ubiquitous: A Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten – poetic, but almost forgettable. Unfailingly, given enough time I will pick them up, scrutinize the cover, flip them over, skim the back and still intrigued, flip through it again. Each time I’ve put then down and walked away. Mitchell has been short listed for the Booker a number of times before, never made it.Working through Cloud Atlas I wonder if he may have broken the curse.
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in it’s 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.
-Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
To give you a rough idea of the book’s layout, there are six narratives, arranged like Russian nesting dolls, one inside of the other. First up: Adam Ewing, a sickly yet important traveller on a boat in the late 1800s. Next, a series of letters from Robert Frobisher a composer living in Europe during the early 1930s. This is followed by a series of short, punchy chapters with 1970s journalist and protagonist Lisa Rey, in LA. Then comes Timothy Cavendish, a sixty-something year old publisher in London, UK during modern day (2012). This is followed by an interview of Somni-451, the first self-actualized clone in the not-so-distant future: it alludes to a location likely somewhere in Asia (judging from names and other descriptors). Finally, in the middle of the book the last narrative, a yarn told by an old man Zachry, about his escape from what we can only deduce to be Hawaii, sometime in a post-apocalyptical world.
In Mitchell’s novel they are arranged chronologically, cut neatly in half, ended abruptly (one can only postulate by death). The middle narrative is told in entirety, and then, lo and behold, each of the previous narratives are returned to in succession. We find our characters saved at a crucial moment. We had been deceived, they were indeed rescued. In the latter half of the book our suspicions are confirmed that each of the stories are related. The interview of Somni is a relic in the future, the recording captured on a spinning egg, which becomes a mystic oracle in the future. Each of the previous stories had been interrupted part-way through: Somni was watching a film of Timothy Cavendish which had gotten stuck. Timothy was reviewing a manuscript about Lisa Rey, which he had forgotten at home. Lisa had inherited half of the letters of Robert Frobisher (the balance of which are then sent to her). Robert had been reading the diary of Adam Ewing, which had been ripped in half; the second half had been used (as he discovers) to prop up his wobbly bed.
Before reaching the midpoint of the book, you do notice some repetition and common threads, but instead of finding it clever (ahead of your cogency the method to the madness), I found it vaguely irritating. An oversight by an editor? Or was I losing my mind? Several times I actually flipped back through the book to assure myself that yes, it was the second time that Mitchell had said “his muscles atrophied” or that the name of the cemetery was the same as…a nuclear reactor? Most of these “coincidences” are most notable in the second half, but regardless, I found myself flipping through the book a lot. Somni; wasn’t that the name of the last character? And what is with this recurrence of Hawaii? (On a slightly unrelated note, my friend and I unwittingly ended up attending a Hawaii spirituality workshop at a festival a few weeks ago. I keep finding the ticket stub everywhere-it seems to have the ability of being in the pocket of every jacket I own all the time….). Yet by the time you reach the second half of the novel you are aware that this beauty in serendipty is around us all the time, we simply chose to ignore it.
When I realized that these were embedded, intentional, delicately crafted threads, my heart melted. I was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever interpreted these repetitions were oversights, or literary blunders. I chided myself for being so pompous.Isn’t that how we so often deal with repetition? To dismiss it as an oversight, an annoyance?
Since my first reading of his book, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has remained firmly etched – for better or for worse – in some abscess of my mind. It was then that the segment that first made me fall in love with the book gently recited itself in my mind:
This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
–The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
For tonight, I leave you with this. Until then, enjoy the beauty in repetition and coincidence.
To be continued tomorrow!
– (Trying to be) Day 10 (!) –