David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”

1927

To the Lighthouse is widely regarded as Woolf’s most structurally perfect novel, with its three parts – “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” standing as testaments to temporal experimentation in the novel. The first section, “The Window,” is 186 pages in length, and covers an afternoon in which two people are engaged, Mrs. Ramsay knits a stocking, Mr. Ramsay worries, Lily Briscoe begins a painting, and a dinner party occurs. “Time Passes” switches from the jumping subjectivity of the first section and takes on an object-oriented view, giving only bracketed attention to the major events of the family (Andrew and Mrs. Ramsay’s death and Prue’s marriage and death). Ten years pass in less than 30 pages. The final section, “The Lighthouse,” 120 pages in length, returns the Ramsays to the old house, revisiting a grown Cam and James, and considering Lily as she “finishes” the painting begun so many years ago. The leaps in this section are fewer and further between, with less on characters reading one another, per se. (Kent Puckett says the novel has a “sartorial omniscience,” put on and taken off alternately).

In “The Brown Stocking,” Eric Auerbach examines the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s free indirect discourse at the start of the novel at some length. He points out that the time taken to describe or read it is longer than the time it would take in the experience. His point is that the richness of the characters’ consciousness unfolds in Woolf’s lingering over the everyday. He also examines how things are never described objectively, except in the very self-conscious “Time Passes.” For Auerbach, this shows Woolf’s interest in presenting herself as no greater an authority on her characters than the reader, versus the Victorian narrator.

There are a few passages in this novel that interest me especially. The first are the opening lines, so much like Mrs. Dalloway in their in medias res quality: “‘Yes, of course it it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added” 9. She is cutting figures from a magazine on the floor with James, while Mr. Ramsay discourages his hopes about the lighthouse trip. Mr. Ramsay is a terribly linear and literal man, as his concept of greatness demonstrates. He evaluates his own “splendid mind” as an alphabet – he has reached Q, but not R. This is not only like a “Question and Response” with himself, it is also a failure to arrive at R – the letter of his own name – the failure to arrive at himself. Furthermore, Ramsay is conflating levels of signification – he treats an arbitrary semiotic sign (a letter) literally, as though it were a signified (an object itself), when it is not even a signifier (a word).

In the face of his weakness, Mrs. Ramsay gathers herself as Clarissa does, in this novel more clearly to serve the endless needs of her insecure husband: “here insensibly she drew herself together, physically, the sense of her own beauty becoming, as it did so seldom, present to her” 64. Lily’s painting, in which Mr. Bankes cannot see

“What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’? he asked. It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James. She knew his objection – that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness… if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness… Mother and child then – objects of universal veneration [a contradiction in terms?], and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty – might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverance” 81.

Lily counters that the painting is not of them, but a tribute to them. Rather than prioritizing the bounded form, later filled with color as ornament (a Kantian ideal), Lily prioritizes the balance of color and shade first, only adding the definitive line (we don’t know if it is vertical or horizontal) in the last moment of the novel:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was – her picture [reminds me of Clarissa!]. Yes, with all its greens and lbues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush with extreme fatigue [post partum], I have had my vision” 310.

In the end, Lily’s painting brings discourse and reality together. Mrs. Ramsay’s art is to bring things together as well – not only people, but things and their figurations, metaphors (a game, people blind, etc.) that will bind us as readers to the experience she is having that,like the embedded painting, we cannot actually see.