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Cloud Atlas: on intertextual ties that bind

Illustration for article titled Cloud Atlas: on intertextual ties that bind

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.


Emily Withrow: Cloud Atlas isn't the type of book you lose yourself in—at least not entirely, or without interruption. It's constantly calling attention to itself as a work of fiction. The moment I turned the page to find poor Adam Ewing cut off in mid-sentence, I grinned. David Mitchell was suddenly present, and certainly up to something. Where the hell was he headed? This is the moment I became hooked on Cloud Atlas, and a great deal of that pleasure came from the intertextual play between the various parts of its symmetric structure. Each of the texts finds its way into the others as Mitchell piles on layers that take us through different time periods and dramas. Not only do these texts find their way into the subsequent (or previous) characters' hands, but the characters can't help but provide commentary on the other chapters, bringing in a sort of meta-criticism.

Frobisher latches on to Adam Ewing's diary and criticizes it for being overwrought and perhaps embellished (edited by the son); he also lets on that Henry Goose was poisoning Ewing, in case we hadn't picked up on it. (I hadn't.) Timothy Cavendish tells us "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" would have been better "if Hilary V. Hush weren't so artily-fartsily Clever" and calls bollocks on the whole comet-shaped birthmark connection. Somni-451 calls her whole narrative into question, gently pointing out the cracks and plot holes in her story to her interviewer. Finally, the reality of the book crumbles away once you start wondering which is the book's reality. Is it Somni's chapter and Sloosha's Crossing? Or are they all real within the structure of the book, some parts only appearing to be fictional? Or can reality or presence really exist in a book structured the way this one is?

Before I type a hundred more questions that I'm left ruminating about at the close of this book, let's get back to the birthmarks, which were the only real sticking point for me. These references and criticisms between the texts made me smile throughout; I wondered how much of it was Mitchell's inner critic, so to speak, or whether the presence of the criticism in the book somehow justified those overly dramatic or overwrought moments. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I read that Cavendish was dismissing the birthmarks as a bunch of "hippy-druggy-new-age" stuff. Agreed! I didn't want to think that these folks were all reincarnations of one another. The book's sections are cohesive enough without a binding birthmark. And yet, it persisted, and it's my only real criticism of the novel—it feels overreaching and ham-fisted, slamming home a cycle-of-life theme that's entirely evident already.

I delighted in most of the other connections, finding them clever and rewarding. I'll turn it over here, though. How did you guys feel about them?

Leonard Pierce: I love, love, love intertextuality. I love formalism. I love books that call attention to their own artificiality. I love postmodernism. I love structuralist critique, and I love novels that anticipate my love of structuralist critique and build it right into the narrative. Of course, like anything else, it can be done badly (oh, can it be done badly), and it takes a gifted writer to give a book a clever, daring self-referential structure and the kind of universality and emotional involvement that makes a real masterpiece. But just like some people are suckers for a specific genre, or other people will watch any movie with a certain actor, I'll give anything a shot if the author commits himself to being a clever-dick.

So, naturally, I am more or less David Mitchell's meat, his ideal audience. I had my doubts about Cloud Atlas, but I ended up loving it, and the parts that you called out, Emily—the almost overblown elements of the birthmark—their artifice was defused for me by Mitchell's own commentary on them in the text. As I said, it does a lot for me when an artist can anticipate possible criticisms of his work and weave them into it; it can be done subtly or it can be done, as it is here, in a more obvious way, but it shows me that he's put as much work into writing the book as he expects me to put into reading it.

Did it need that element?  Not necessarily.  While I didn't find the birthmark motif as distracting as you did, it's certainly true that it was there to make a point that was already being made just as well elsewhere.  While you never know exactly how much a work will suffer from the removal of just one element, here, we probably could have done without it and still had a rewarding work of fiction.  But somehow, I found it reassuring. The way it threaded through the text, the way it gave Mitchell and his in-world creations a chance to comment on what had come before and what was still to come, was a signal to me that he wasn't letting things get away from him, that no matter how fancy-pants he was getting with the narrative tricks, he was still in command of the book, and was going to deliver a formal wonder, not just a collection of gimmicks.

Donna Bowman: A work of art can be about its form—that is, it can be formalist —or it can use its form to serve its substance.  I don't want to choose which is better; I find both invigorating and exciting when done well.  The sticking point is what it means to do it well.  The two modes of art require different criteria of judgement.  If the work is realistic, then the form is supposed to fade into the background and not call attention to itself, serving by standing and waiting.  But if the work is formalistic, then the whole point is to foreground the form and expose the skeleton, so you can't criticize it on that basis unless you want to write off formalism altogether.

So when I say that I found Cloud Atlas's foregrounding of form exhilarating 95 percent of the time, I suppose I mean that Mitchell led me in and out of formalism and realism in a way I felt was organic, minimally imposed. The birthmark thing is an exception, and I suspect it's meant to be one—the thing we question and that the author has a character question, as well. I found the connections between the stories, though, to be moments of great wonder. I could not predict them, and I felt when they cropped up, as if I had been privy to a peek behind the scenery, like one of the puppeteers let his wristwatch peek out for a second. Not like I'm watching the author manipulate things (which is how I felt during The Wrestler's Cruel Study), but like I saw the demons that comprise the elemental forces, the grand design that is larger than an author and his plot outline. They felt organic.


Now, not all formalist works are going to be able to pull that off, and many will (therefore?) protest that it isn't a proper criterion for judgment.  But I doubt I would have responded with as much emotion and awe to Cloud Atlas had Mitchell not achieved that kind of transcendence, using the connections within the text to point beyond the text to connections he intuits in reality itself.

Zack Handlen: I'm with you, Emily—my only big problem with the book was the more obvious attempts to connect the narratives. Initially, I would've said the book didn't need those connections, but I don't think that's entirely true. It isn't enough for Mitchell to just impress us by his ability to jump between genres—while I share some of Leonard's love of clever-dickery, I need a reason for the book to be written the way it's written beyond just "What the hell, why not?" I find pure exercise is only interesting when I'm the one doing the exercising. The sections of Cloud Atlas are entertaining in their own right, but only to a point. There's a certain emptiness to them on their own, I found, due to their debt to other sources, even when I wasn't immediately familiar with those sources. (I have no idea what "Cavendish" was supposed to be comparable to, for one.) I can be impressed by the technique, and I can be curious about the story resolutions (and points to Mitchell, I was curious how all of these would end), but if this was just a collection of short novellas, I'd probably grade it as a B+. Not bad, but it's been done.


So the connections need to be there, and I love the direction Mitchell was going for. I disagree with Todd that the conclusion was ironic. Atlas charts a progression of the soul, even when humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes. Ewing is a self-righteous prig who sees the light, Frobisher is immature but his passions betray greater depth, Cavendish is stronger and smarter than his dandified narration lets on, and then Luisa, Somni, and finally Meronym are all increasingly selfless and self-realized. All the characters suffer under the yoke of oppressive social forces, but I do think there's a maturation, and in that final section, we do get some small justification as to why the sections belong together.

The question is, is it enough? I like the ambition of that conclusion, and I think it mostly works, but I found most of the attempts at inter-connectedness to be a little too direct. When characters criticized early sections of the book, it was amusing, but not really necessary, and I didn't get any charge from it. It certainly didn't excuse any of the weaknesses—it can be fun when writers second-guess their critics, but it was distracting more than edifying to me here. And I didn't get any real charge when Cloud Atlas Sextet was explicitly described, because by that point, like Donna said, I knew the novel's structure, and I didn't really need reassurance that the author knew it. Mitchell had shown such a deft hand at disappearing that every time he showed his face, I was disappointed. I wanted that connection, I needed it to really have the book come together the way it was supposed to, but I would've preferred if the references were as indirect as Ewing's final moment of clarity. It was such a good, smart piece of work that those few times it provided me with a user manual, I was disappointed. I don't know if Atlas would've worked without those passages, but I wish there'd been a more graceful way to deliver them.


Tasha Robinson: Add me to the list of people (alongside Timothy Cavendish, Emily, et. al.) who think the whole comet-tattoo connection between Cloud Atlas segments is a bit much; I was appalled at earlier reader comments that suggested David Mitchell has actually talked about these marked characters as all being the same reincarnated soul, and I pretty much have my mental fingers in my ears and am going “la la la la la” in an attempt to drown that thought out. I’m with Leonard in loving self-referentialism and complicated structures and excessive cleverness, but the whole idea of someone being reincarnated through a series of stories in order to illustrate a universal principle strikes me as more twee than clever.

What most caught me instead about Cloud Atlas’ connections was the reaffirming assertion of morality throughout history, specifically in the connection between the outermost shell and the innermost. Adam Ewing’s journal reports on the Moriori belief that killing another person means killing your own soul; the Moriori are wiped out, his society changes immensely, eras go by, generations rise and fall… and then we have Zachry, living on the same islands and living by the same code. He makes his choice to kill, but he’s actively flouting his people’s beliefs—somehow, the Moriori’s pacifist, sternly moral message has survived all the intervening time and space, and has carried forward as far into the future as we can go. I’m glad Mitchell didn’t spell that one out too thoroughly; what’s the point of being clever and allusive if you then explain the joke? That one connection worked better for me than all the ones he takes time to explain, like Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet structure, or his judgments about Henry Goose. (God, Frobisher. Spoiler!)


But while I explained yesterday that I found Cloud Atlas a fun ride down to the center story, and a bit of a slog coming back up, I’ll confess that I got a real sense of satisfaction and relief out of the second half of each story in specific because they reveal more directly that each subsequent segment (“Luisa Rey” excepted) could be taken as “real” events. On the trip “down” to the center, it seemed to me that each story invalidated and replaced the one before; Adam Ewing is just a fragmentary story Frobisher is reading, Timothy Cavendish is just a movie Somni is watching, Somni is just a myth Zachry is telling, and so forth. On the way back “up,” Mitchell seems to take more time to clarify that not only is each story complete, it’s just as real as the one before it.

Here’s the connection I can’t quite get: I’ve theorized in previous discussion installments that “Luisa Rey” is the only fictional story in the book. It’s told in third person, it’s a more conventional good-vs.-evil story than the others, it’s the only one with a big happy ending where the bad guys are all defeated and killed or jailed. So why does it also have a comet-marked character with connections to the rest of the book, in the form of Frobisher’s letters and a copy of his Cloud Atlas Sextet? Am I missing a connection here between all these reincarnate threads and “Luisa Rey”’s author? Is there a piece of clever-dickery that I’m missing here, in spite of not wanting things spelled out for me?


Ellen Wernecke: The intertextuality is what sets Cloud Atlas apart from other collections of linked stories; the strict biographical model, for example, I found really charming until I had read a dozen or so iterations of it, some of which really seemed like novels with chapter breaks put in. It's all well and good to want to play with forms in your text, but they have to mean something — any break can feel like an interruption, but an arbitrary one can kill the momentum of a book entirely. That's where Mitchell peeks through, as the designer of the book and the hand shaping it. The comet birthmark was the most obvious 'tell,' but I didn't mind it that much; I like to think at least one reader needed that clue to be led into the book's larger connections, and maybe that was just bare enough to suffice. I guess I have to take issue a little, Donna, with your portrayal of formalism and realism as separated. Is this not the happy marriage of postmodernism, that you can have both (in whatever permutation you wish) in the same novel? I'm glad that you were 95 percent there, but I think for me the immersion was total.

To your question about Luisa Rey, Tasha: My working theory was that the unnamed (I think?) author of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" encountered both Sixsmith and Frobisher in real life, converted the former into a character and lifted the latter's birthmark as a character trait. Maybe Sixsmith was the author of "Half-Lives," writing a book in which he himself, having not fallen on his sword and exposed the danger to Buenas Yerbas in life, is allowed to be the noble supporting character. That would bridge the fictional-nonfictional gap of having Sixsmith appearing in the real world and the world of the book, as well as adding an extra layer to the expository meat of the story. Care to challenge me? I'm sure someone will.

I too am not all that comfortable with the metafictional idea of all the people being reincarnations of each other throughout the centuries, although I would tolerate an argument that they represent a sort of similar spirit in different environments (as I think you are hinting at, Zack). But I don't even think you have to believe that there's a spiritual connection in order to forge a kinship with any of them, or with their benevolent creator laying down all the pieces.


Todd VanDerWerff: I don't know. I kind of loved the birthmark thing, even as I could see that it created a few more headaches than it was worth. Maybe it's my love of drippy symbolism talking, but I liked the idea of there being something I like to call an Oversoul, a being that encompassed nearly everyone we meet, and that perhaps the people they meet are all parts of their own Oversouls as well. I love gooey mysticism like this when it's not employed too specifically, and the only times it got on my nerves were when Mitchell started waving his hands a little too frantically, as when Luisa Rey saw the Prophetess and had an intense sense of deja vu (which would seem to invalidate that Luisa is a fictional creation, since even if Hillary V. Hush knew about Frobisher and Sexsmith, it seems a huge leap for him to also know about Adam Ewing). But, yeah, I kind of liked this, even as I knew I was supposed to roll my eyes at it. It was a huge wink, and I enjoyed it.

That said, what most impresses me in terms of intertexuality is the way that Mitchell structures the book to keep returning to the same themes and never find a way to address them until the end, when Ewing decides the only way to confront evil is to simply do one's own best, to raise your children in the way they should go and work to make the lives of other people as decent as they can possibly be. I love themes of humans building ad hoc communities, and the end of Cloud Atlas seems to me to be Mitchell pleading for all of us to band together for the betterment of all of us. And it's not hard to see why he says this! His vision of the future that Ewing leads us to inevitably returns right back to the slavery Ewing wishes to fight. Humans will always subjugate each other unless something changes, Mitchell argues, and when he puts these words in Ewing's mouth, he's doing so in a world where Ewing's effort will ultimately fail. It's ironic, yes, but also just a touch moving. The struggle is sometimes more important than success.


In addition, I loved the way that the structure of the book is very like a symphonic piece, the way that it rises and falls, often with characters within the text rising and falling on their own. There's quite a bit of mountain climbing here, and there's a fair amount of precipitous plunges from great heights as well. More accurately, the book itself rises in terms of its audaciousness and its story structure, but the timeline within the book plunges. The world Ewing dreams of gradually devolves into a world where the story of the Maori and the Moriori plays out with the Valleymen and the Kona all over again. We reach a height of civilization, and then things inevitably crumble. Descent always follows ascent, but ascent doesn't always follow descent.

But a curious thing happens after Mitchell leaves behind the "Sloosha" section: The moral underpinnings of the book begin to rise again. All of the characters come to a kind of moral catharsis. You can argue that some of this is forced, but it's as though the book has given them a dim vision of a future they long to fight against, without even knowing why. Mitchell has designed the book to ascend into the future and then descend into the past, but he's building a thematic ascent within his final landing. It's an incredibly tricky maneuver to pull off, and I'd argue he more than did.