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Cloud Atlas: On language and voice

A.V. Club Staff

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.

Leonard Pierce: Through sheer coincidence—honestly, I wish I could take credit for it, but the A.V. Club staff is remarkably resistant to my Machiavellian scheming—most of the novels we've tackled so far for Wrapped Up In Books are ones I’ve already read, or owned and was planning to read.  This, of course, makes it easy on me, and kudos to those of you who voted for books I’ve read, because you make me look smarter than I actually am.  Not that it's hard to look smarter than I actually am.


This time around, we tackled Cloud Atlas, a book by David Mitchell, a novelist I’d always meant to investigate, but had never gotten around to. I did own the book, because a few months before, in another of my inexplicable thematic book-buying binges, I picked up a handful of novels which all featured invented languages and/or fictional dialects:  Will Self’s The Book Of Dave; Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn; Václav Havel’s The Memorandum—and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

Reading the latter two in such close order, it was nearly impossible to avoid drawing a distinction between the world of Riddley Walker and the “Sloosha’s Crossin’” section of Cloud Atlas. They were so close it was almost distracting—in their invented dialect, their post-apocalyptic setting in a barely recognizable but very real place (County Kent in Hoban’s book and Hawaii in Mitchell’s), their imagery of a people disconnected from their past and living a subsistence lifestyle among the ruins of an ancient mirror of themselves they cannot begin to understand, and their emphasis on the metaphorical and psychological importance of storytelling to the advancement of mankind. This similarity was particularly stark because “Sloosha's Crossin’” was the only story in Cloud Atlas that stands completely alone, without the interruptions that characterize the other sections.

Of course, that isn’t Mitchell's fault. He didn’t know we’d be reading the books so close together. But they were truly striking similarities, on every level:  structurally, linguistically, and thematically, one could almost be a retelling of the other. For my fellow A.V. Clubbers, and those of you who have read Riddley Walker (either as part of Wrapped Up In Books or on your own), how did the two compare for you? Did you feel one was more successful than the other? Or did you not find them as similar as I did? And for those of you who have only read Cloud Atlas, how did “Sloosha’s Crossin’” compare to the rest of the stories for you?

Donna Bowman: I predict we’re going to get many variations on “It isn’t completely Mitchell’s fault, but Riddley > Sloosha” in this discussion. But how many of them are going to focus on punctuation? Ah, that's where I hope to stand alone. Reading the “Sloosha’s Crossin’” section, I realized somethin’ that’s alluh’s b’n creepin’ aroun’ und’ th’ surf’ce o’m’brain: Dialect writing with a lot of apostrophes bothers the heck out of me.


One of the reasons I loved Riddley Walker so much, I now think, is that the simplified writing dispenses with much punctuation, and with the apostrophe nearly altogether. Apostrophes, you see, are communication from the writer to the reader, bypassing the character. They are the writer saying “Here’s the way these people talk, cutting off the end of words and running them together, and the way we transform our standard written English into those modified sounds is to indicate that a sound or syllable has been left out, inserting an apostrophe in its place.” Hoban does something different: His character is writing to us, not talking, and Riddley doesn’t know that his mode of writing differs from any standard, so the apostrophes are nowhere to be seen.

And it’s amazing how much more fluid, honest, and affecting that dialect is as written rather than as a record of spoken sounds. Partly, it’s a visual thing; all those apostrophes clutter up the page. But partly it’s a mental processing thing, too; they make me work at sounding out the words so I can “hear” the dialect rather than simply grasping the meaning.


Now, I came around on “Sloosha’s Crossin’.”  The first half of it was a slog for me, easily the hardest section of the book to sink into, but by the time the characters are climbing up Mauna Kea, I was pretty well hooked. Still, for a book with such amazing feats of ventriloquism, I thought the language of this section was the least convincing. It may be the odious comparison with Hoban, but it may also be that it’s simply a less-accomplished feat than the sprinkling of future-lingo in “An Orison Of Somni-451.”

Zack Handlen: It was definitely difficult to avoid comparing “Sloosha’s Crossing” with Riddley Walker for me, and “Sloosha” comes out the lesser of the two. Which is fine, really, because “Sloosha” is just a piece of the whole, and it isn’t supposed to stand entirely on its own. (It’s possible to argue that each section of Cloud Atlas could be self-contained with a few minor edits, but while that’s technically true, they’re all such intentional pastiches that you need the connections between the six to make them really sing.) I shared some of Donna’s reservations, though. I found it harder to get involved in “Sloosha,” because unlike with the other sections, the flow of the language didn't pull me forward, and unlike with Riddley, the poetry wasn’t strong enough to make me feel like my efforts to get invested in the world paid off. I didn’t hate “Sloosha,” and I can see how it’s important to the novel overall, but it was my least-favorite section of the lot, and I was relieved when I finished it.


I also agree with Donna about the distractions of over-punctuation. It’s like trying to read through a series of minor hiccups. Conceptually, I can understand Mitchell’s goals here, and I loved certain elements of the story, and the characters were well-drawn, but too often it seemed like work that was more interesting conceptually, and more necessary to the book, than it was an actual compelling section of writing. It was the longest unbroken narrative in the novel, which means it already had some marks against it, admittedly, and there are great moments. But it was definitely a part of the book I had to make more of an effort to get through.

I found the “Somni” section the easiest to read, probably because of the question/answer format. It also had the storyline that was most compelling to me, and I was impressed at how much information Mitchell was able to convey without flat exposition. If I have any criticism of the conceit of Cloud Atlas, it’s that I wasn’t always impressed by Mitchell’s way of integrating each section into the whole—I sometimes felt like I was getting more direct explanation than I needed. That's an odd complaint to make against such a high-concept narrative, and because Mitchell’s goals were so lofty, I was willing to cut him some slack in trying to make sure I, as a reader, understood the intent. I just felt I understood enough that some of the more blatant reveals were clumsy, and briefly broke the book’s spell. The “Somni” section largely avoided this, and I don’t think I had that problem with “Sloosha,” either; I was mostly just waiting for payoff, then, and that made for some occasionally sluggish reading.


Tasha Robinson: As proof positive that there’s no accounting for tastes, each to their own, different squids for different kids, etc., I loved “Sloosha’s Crossin’.” It and “An Orison Of Sonmi-451” were my favorite sections of Cloud Atlas, and a good deal of my enjoyment came out of the vocabularies Mitchell creates, and their place in his world-building. Yeah, “Sloosha” suffers a little by comparison with Riddley Walker, but I’m with Zack all the way on thinking that that’s largely because Riddley had an entire book to develop its world, language, and philosophy, whereas “Sloosha” does a similar thing over the course of a short novella. If anything, I was impressed by “Sloosha”’s economy, and how much ground it covers in a much shorter time. Besides, we collectively came to Riddley first, so it had novelty on its side. I’m betting if we’d all read Cloud Atlas first, some people might have found Riddley Walker a little redundant (while they take place in strikingly similar post-apocalyptic worlds, the broad parameters didn’t bother me as much as the little details, like the similarity between Cloud Atlas’ “goat tongue” concept and Riddley’s “dog friendy”), and possibly even a bit tedious, since Riddley covers similar ground but takes so much longer to reach its ends.

Leonard, if you do get around to reading all those other fictional-dialect novels, I’m wondering whether you’ll start to feel like you’re experiencing diminishing returns. Each of the books you cite may well have terrific characters, storylines, overarching conceptual networks, etc., but in any book where the language is as this unusual and this crucial to creating a setting and an environment, I suspect you might start to get sick of the process of being artificially fed concepts via vocabulary choices, the same way anyone who reads a lot or watches a lot of movies eventually tends to become conscious of characters or chapters that exist solely for exposition.


That said, one of the things I admired in Cloud Atlas is the way each segment has its own style and voice as well as its own language, and the way those voices help establish the narrators’ characters and establish the parameters of their eras. All those apostrophes in “Sloosha” aside, as soon as you see a phrase like “no un lived in the Waipio Valley ’cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we din’t camo our tent or pull cart or nuthin’,” you get a pretty good sense both for the speaker’s education level and the world he lives in. Sonmi-451 has an elegant, reserved voice full of unfamiliar terms—fabricants and yellow-up and stimulin and Soapsacs all on the first page—letting us know we’re in an unfamiliar world, but being introduced to it by someone educated, intelligent, and with perspective and special knowledge. Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher betray their educations and their respective peevishness and self-absorption in their word choice and tone. The “Luisa Rey” segment is an anomaly—the only one told in third person instead of a form of first person—and it seems like Mitchell uses that as a tipoff that it’s the only segment of the book intended entirely as fiction, rather than as a “real” biography of events.

For me, “The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing” was by far the hardest of the stories to get into, and since it was the first section, and I went in not knowing anything about Cloud Atlas’ structure, I came close to bowing out of this month’s Wrapped Up discussion entirely, because I couldn’t see myself making it through 500 pages of Ewing’s voice. Nothing about it interested me—I found his dry, description-laden, historical-fiction tone, with its quirky ampersands & Occasional Capitalization (much more of a turnoff for me than apostrophes, Donna) tedious and comparatively ungiving. Zachry is a desperate, illiterate kid in desperate times; Sonmi is a sad and brilliant martyr; Luisa is a crusader in a gripping detective story; Timothy and Robert are entertaining in their self-serving self-pity. And all of that comes across in the language. Adam Ewing, to me, was a flavorless tourist without much personality, prone to irritated judgments about what he sees being done to the Pacific Islanders, but not prone to taking action about it, or even commenting on it particularly incisively. Was I alone in not caring what he had to say until the end of the book, when he cooperatively laid out the themes for us?


We’ll talk a bunch more about the book’s nesting-doll structure and fractured narratives in the next couple of days, but one thought here on that structure solely as it has to do with language—it seemed to me that the whole novel was built around the process of watching its narrators’ linguistic formalism and remove, their sense of what was relevant in a story and how it should be told, disintegrating over time as their cultures change and “Civ’lize” falls apart. The language gets simpler, more direct, more streamlined, and more immediate with each story, as we move from past to far future. Which is one reason I loved “Sloosha,” I think—Adam Ewing was work for me. Each successive story thereafter was an easier and more colorful read, further from formal language and further from familiar worlds. So by the time I got there, it felt like I’d hit the bottom of Super Happy Fun Slide, where everything zipped by faster and more effortlessly as I got closer to the bottom.

But that meant “Sloosha” was the apex of the narrative for me. As much as I wanted some of those stories resolved, the climb back to Adam Ewing’s stiff, overwritten formalism wasn’t entirely enjoyable for me. I loved the way “Sloosha” made me far more aware of the degenerating language and spelling in the second half of “Somni-451”—not just “xcite” and “xult” and other “ex-” words, but the way words were spelled how they sounded, or cut down to a syllable. But as the book continued, I felt that formalism and focus on description rather than action closing in around me, and it began to be more like work again. I dreaded getting back to boring old Adam, even as I suspected that he’d be the one to pull all the pieces together—if only because the rest of his story was so dull that it really seemed to have no other purpose. Mitchell’s linguistic experiment is ambitious and I think remarkably well-played, but it did have its downsides for me. Anyone else in the same boat?


Ellen Wernecke: Advantage: Hoban, but it’s almost unfair to compare the two. The language is a part of the necessary world-building for both authors, but Hoban is able to set the snare from the first page and pull us in for a longer haul, whereas with Mitchell we’ve already been bumping and jolting along. The more total the immersion, the less difficult it is to adjust to its flow.

At the same time, I’m surprised that it would be your favorite section; I think it was my least favorite. Narratively, I can appreciate how it functions, picking up the ruins of “The Orison of Somni-451” and the story Adam Ewing is told by the stowaway in the first chapter of the book. And burying the presumptive end of the world in the postapocalyptic home of Zachry and Meronym in the middle of the book is an artful twist. Having looked over the lip of the crater, we are safe to scuttle back to civilization again.


On the other hand, “Sloosha’s Crossin’” had the easiest task of all six sections, and I thought failed to capitalize on that position. Maybe it’s because Riddley Walker was so fresh in my memory, but I had less patience for the meandering this time around. I wasn’t really invested in Zachry’s quest and wondered if the notion of his telling the story was going to turn out as a heavy-handed lesson (which it didn’t, but it definitely looked like one). In case new readers haven’t caught on at this point that the narrative of Cloud Atlas will retrace its steps back through time and space, Mitchell has Zachry climb up a mountain, and then go back down. Maybe it’s unfair to say that I appreciate the chapter’s place in the story, without particularly enjoying it, but for me it was a crossing – back over to Cavendish, and Luisa Rey, and everyone else I’d left behind in the past.

And for what it’s worth, the huddled masses of apostrophes not welcome in Donna’s books are welcome to take shelter in mine.


Todd VanDerWerff: Hey, everyone. I'm thrilled to be discussing Cloud Atlas with you. I have to say that I haven't had this profound a case of book lock in ages. I read the thing - 500 pages in paperback - over the course of about 36 hours, and it was all I could concentrate on. Normally when I read a book that fast, it's to meet a deadline, and while this was that, it was also a kind of compulsion. I found myself thinking about the book at all hours, trying to puzzle out its connections, trying to figure out its thematic meaning, and desperately attempting to convince all around me that it was a book well worth their time. Now that I've finished (and I'm slightly disheveled from the experience), I look forward to talking about this book as one of the bigger fans here.

That said, I was impressed by the language of the book, but it wasn't the element that blew me away. I think it's fair to say that the "Sloosha's Crossin'" section is nowhere near as accomplished in its construction of an alternate English as Riddley Walker was (though it's not really fair to hold that against this book, which isn't trying anything nearly as ambitious in the "Sloosha" section). At the same time, I really enjoyed "Sloosha's Crossin'" though I have a tendency to enjoy stories like this. I liked teasing out the hints of how the world had come to be this way (dropped both here and in "Somni"), and I liked the way the devolution of language acted, like in Riddley, as a kind of hint of what had gone before.


What I'm impressed by is just how much exposition Mitchell is able to bury in his word choices. Tasha is absolutely right that the different narrators of the book convey different attitudes toward the world through their diction, and I think that's one of the novel's chief pleasures. The words Somni speaks convey as much about her as the words Adam Ewing speaks (and I loved the Ewing section, once I got into it, which, admittedly, took a few pages). The one section I had the hardest time getting into was the section that also seemed the most lackadaisical in word choice, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish." I'm not arguing that Mitchell didn't take his time selection these particular words for his narrator to use, but I was always left with the sense that this was just a ripoff of dark comic literary fiction and that Mitchell's heart wasn't in it like it was for the pastiche of the other sections.

That said, it's obvious that the book is, to a degree, about the rise and fall of things (to the point where the novel's central conceit is about two characters climbing a mountain to find answers), and I think you're right, Tasha, that the word choices are intentional to send us heading from slavery toward enlightenment, then back toward slavery again, and to send us from destruction back toward promise, toward a world where if we believe in its goodness just hard enough, it might become that good world, all evidence to the contrary. What I'm most blown away by in Cloud Atlas is how circular and circuitous a novel it is (Charlie Kaufman should direct the film version) without ever really calling attention to that fact, and the language is a big part of that.


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