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Bookends: Back and Forth Through Time and Place February 6, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Back and Forth Through Time and Place

Cloud Atlas

By Dan Davidson

October 17, 2012,  Star, Oct. 19/12

– 873 words-

Cloud Atlas


Vintage Canada

528 pages


I was afraid that thinking of the structure of this novel as being like a set of Russian puzzle dolls might be too much of a cliché, but hearing the author himself describe it that way in an interview for the movie version of the story, I now feel vindicated.

Just how the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer could have managed to shoehorn Mitchell’s story into a movie length offering is beyond me, but I was happy to see the interview.

The novel is composed of six tenuously connected novellas, which move through time from the 18th century to the far future, from the heyday of the British Empire to the collapse of civilization as we know it.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is just what its title suggests, a journal written by a reluctant passenger on a sailing ship. The voyage does not go well for him and his observations of a certain kind of British colonial life are muted but disapproving.

“Letters from Zedelghem” is some correspondence written between World Wars One and Two, letters from a minor composer named Robert Frobisher who hopes to advance his career by acting as scribe and assistant to an ailing senior musician. Frobisher contributes the novel’s title, as it comes from one of his compositions.

The letters are addressed to one Rufus Sixsmith, who pops up as a character in “Half Lives: The First Luisa Del Ray Mystery”. This is a third person narrative set during the years when Ronald Regan was Governor of California. Luisa is a crusading reporter out to uncover a fraud in the nuclear power industry.

Her book is a minor feature in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, the first person misadventures of a vanity publisher who gets in trouble with the mob and is committed for safe keeping to an old folks home by his brother, who promptly dies without leaving anyone with an explanation of the plot. You correctly anticipate that this is the comedy portion of the show.

“An Orison of Sonmi -451” moves us well into a corporate dominated future where a serving class is bred and decanted to work for the real people of the world. The story is the transcript of the final interrogation of Sonmi -451, a server who ascended beyond her station in life and became a symbol of revolution, in a world where corporate brand names have replaced other parts of speech in the way that Xerox and Kleenex did.

In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After”, a young Pacific islander named Zachary, who lives in a world where Sonmi is something of a Madonna figure, recounts the fall of what is left of civilization.

Zachary’s is the only tale that is complete in one go, for all the others developed cliffhangers at crucial moments (sometimes in mid-sentence) as we entered Mitchell’s literary Tardis and were transported to another time, place, voice and literary genre for the next part of the story.

Zachary’s story is the mid-point of the book, after which we rejoin the other tales in reverse sequence, finding out how each of the nested stories concludes until we reach the end of Adam Ewing’s journal entries.

If this all sounds a bit mechanical and bit of a stunt, I suppose it is. Other than overlapping names and bits of bric-a-brac, the only other thing tying these stories together is the notion that each of the central characters seems to have an oddly shaped birthmark.  It is suggestive of some sort of genetic connection, but this is never really spelled out.

There is something dreadfully wrong with each of the societies featured in the stories and there’s a bit of name checking along the way. Sonmi, for instance, advances her education by reading books by writers named Huxley and Orwell on her sony (no books – just e-readers in her world, and the iPad hadn’t happened when Mitchell wrote this book). And the final fate of the serving class directly references a novel by the late Harry Harrison, which made it to the screen as “Soilent Green”.

Words matter. Zachary, telling tales to his descendents, speaks of the importance of the written word. Frobisher writes long letters, Ewing keeps a journal in spite of his illness. Del Rey is a journalist and Cavendish a publisher.

The voices, narrative styles, genres and pacing of the sections are quite distinct, and serve to mark the passage of time as well as changes in language itself. It can be a bit precious when technique pulls you out of the story and causes you to go “wasn’t that clever?” and this did happen to me a few times in this book, but not enough to ruin the overall effect.

As I said at the beginning, I have no idea how they could cut this down to movie size and still deal with all six narratives. Might be interesting. Might be awful. After all, the Wachowskis produced both the first “Matrix” movie and then “Speed Racer”, which certainly exist at opposite ends of any quality continuum.




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