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Castles in the Sky: Cloud Atlas

From Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail:

King of Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

Cloud Atlas has earned, I believe, a fairly unshakable reputation as a great piece of literature. In common with all great works of art it is heartfelt, complicated, courageous, and a lot of fun. The book came out in 2004, can more be said? One aspect that especially interests me, a day or so after having finished it, is its ability for whipping up truly impressive structures of vapor. This book artfully and consistently drives the home the artificiality of its narratives while simultaneously cannibalizing each fiction to sustain the next interrupting story. It's a little bit like prefacing a joke with the disclaimer, "This never happened but it's really funny." Writing is the act of creating an entire world and suspending it upon the most slender of supports, the willingness of a reader to accept your malarkey. We build castles in the air.

First a quick primer on Cloud Atlas if you've not had the pleasure of reading it or watching the movie which does a earnest job translating the themes of the story into a movie. "The Pacific Diaries Of Adam Ewing" opens the novel, the account of an American notary send to a distant Pacific Island to resolve a business deal. His journal describes his small act of kindness in rescuing a Moriori slave from certain death and his own deteriorating health despite the ministrations of his friend Dr. Goose. This account ends in mid-sentence and the story shifts to a young composer Robert Frobisher attempting to become the aneumis of another, more celebrated composer. This tale is itself interrupted. The novel is ultimately composed of six novellas written in a variety of genres and time periods, all arranged so that just as a story hits its stride and begins to ratchet up the tension it's interrupted by the next story in order. Only the last story in the series -- "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After:" an oral reminiscence of a man describing his escape from a post-apocalyptic Hawai'i -- is told without interruption. Once past that story, the conclusion of each of the preceding tales appears, each one the turning of a page until we are once more back with Adam Ewing. The themes of one story are elaborated in the others, the protagonists of each story often share a birth mark or tattoo described as a comet. 

All of this is deftly handled by Mitchell and each story registers clearly, forcefully (something I thought the movie didn't quite achieve) and very much in its own world. The cyber-punk Manifesto of the "Orison of Sonmi 451" is just as sincere and fully imagined as the post-modern satire of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish." While the voice of each novella is clearly Mitchell's he does an effective make-up job for each novella. But this gets to my central question. How does he do it? How does Mitchell pull off the prestidigitation of presenting six patently false tales in such a way that each becomes greater in the reflection of its companions?

Cannibalism is a prominent theme of the novel as a whole. Adam Ewing meets Dr. Goose on a beach where he is digging up teeth, spit like "cherry pits" from the bodies consumed by the 'natives' of the island. Dr. Goose is anything but a reputable source on this but he does provide a nifty epigraph for the central concern of the book: "the weak are meat the strong do eat." The dying composer Vyvyan Ayrs attempt to borrow and assimilate the creations of Robert Frobisher's pen. Sonmi 451 discovers to her horror that fabricants, artificial humans such as herself, are never freed but are instead slaughtered and fed to the next generation of fabricants. Power, in Cloud Atlas' many universes, is something sustained on the labor, flesh, and lives of its subjugates. But that theme also provides a clue to the structural games Mitchell is playing with the novel as a whole. The past is prey to the future in each the novellas. Ewing's diary is ripped in two, one half used to prop up an unstable bed. Frobisher's letters are scattered and incomplete, his work obscure and forgotten. The thriller narrative "Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" is disparaged as slush pile material by the next narratives caustic publisher Timothy Cavendish. Sonmi 451's abolitionist manifesto becomes a religion for Zachry's people, a religion shown as mistaken by a technologically advanced visitor. Rather than undermining the story as whole, the attack on each previous narrative becomes a way to support the present story, much like Vyvyan Ayrs' bed is supported by Ewing's diary. By the time we are cast into the distant future after the "Fall" of technology we aren't asking whether or not the story is plausible, because the support of each story propels us into the imagined future with the same inescapable force it used to pull us from the past.

It reminds me a little bit of the legendary Indian Fakir trick where a boy climbs a rope into thin air and then disappears. According to the published accounts of the trick, the Fakir then climbs after the boy, stabs the thin air and produces a pile of bloody limbs. The Fakir drops those limbs into a basket, shuts the lid and then opens it again to produce an unharmed boy. There is an element of a disappearing act in each of the stories: people are constantly narrowing escaping, whether by smashing out of a submerged car, sneaking out beneath the noses of an totalitarian security service or hiding beneath a bridge as militaristic slavers ride past. As objective observers we know that what we are seeing can't possibly be true but we're taken in by the audacity of the trick. We are the missing support in the trick. The readers are the thread that holds each of the improbable stories together.

Greg Egan's excellent novel Distress provides a different perspective on the same trick. Without going too much into the plot, at one point, the narrator discovers what is holding up a city built on an artificial island deep in the middle of the Pacific. He had previously assumed the artificial coral was somehow cantilevered over the remains of an extinct submerged volcano but is shown how nano-engineered bacteria are producing buoyant gases as they grow beneath the city. If the city is resting on anything, it is actively floating on a cushion of life. The image was of central importance to the story as a whole, the idea that the connections of society, the glue of personal trust and legitimacy sustain its existence even when the more obvious supports, such as law and government wither away. An optimistic vision but one I think one Mitchell elaborates upon masterfully in Cloud Atlas.

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