Reaching For The Cloud Atlas

Double dip recession, industrial strike action, prominent feminist publishes a book about vaginas…Yes sirree bob, these 1970s sure are bleak.

Different times, similar experiences – the human condition is essentially universal, which is why Shakespeare is still relevant today and why the Wachowski’s Speed Racer will never be relevant.

This essential universality of the human condition, and humanity’s will to power as a constant facet of said condition, represents the general thrust of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Cloud Atlas is a sprawling novel, more a series of novellas, that was short-listed for the Man Booker prize.  My copy makes a big noise about Mr Mitchell’s dazzling linguistic proficiency and the headache-inducing list of genres his book crashes, mashes and splashes across each scented page.  

Suffice it to say I bought the damn thing because I saw ‘David Mitchell’ and got confused.  Peep Show it ain’t.  In fact it’s precisely the sort of book I detest –  ‘dazzling’, funny (it’s not), awards-baiting, temporally disaligned narrative structure that’s just so ‘in’ right now, by which I mean from shortly before it was published to now, because more standard narrative structures can’t reveal the underlying TRUTH in everything as though such a thing existed.  It doesn’t.  The word zeitgeist doesn’t actually appear, but you can bet that it was a sore temptation.  I assumed, incorrectly as it happens, that like most such hi-falutin’ novels with such a prosaic theme, Cloud Atlas would be a novel with delusions of depth.

I agree that ‘disaligned’ probably isn’t a word.

Books that are listed for awards tend to preen about how challenging they are on the basis that elitism for its own sake is somehow something to boast about.  And to be fair, Cloud Atlas is challenging, for two reasons.  First there’s the structure, which means that by the time you get into each story’s style and characters, it ends.  This can be jarring.  Secondly, the plots are mainly, objectively speaking, atrocious. 

Let’s deal with the second point first.  Cloud Atlas is a book about many things, which we can succinctly categorise under the umbrella term ‘showboating’.  That’s not a criticism, in fact it’s the novel’s greatest asset, utilising motifs, different forms of writing and syntax, genre-splicing and time hopping to decent effect.  It’s completely over the top, which is presumably why so many people insist, erroneously, that it’s funny.  This should mean that it’s doughy and turgid, but in fact it’s a veritable soufflé of light fluffiness.  Or a cloud. 

Sorry.

What it’s not about, blessedly, is realism.  Realism in novels with pretensions to literature fell out of fashion a long time ago, Grandpa.  This is why it doesn’t matter that the sleazy 1970s portion of the novel reads like a bad Jeffrey Archer ‘thriller’ and this is why it’s ok that the Carry On At The Retirement Hell farce wasn’t edited out entirely.  It also explains why there aren’t any real characters, simply skinbag ciphers that aim to reflect archetypes of reality and fiction from their various eras.  

You could, of course, read it as a straightforward novel.

In other words, it’s multi-layered.  Like an onion.  Only you read it.

As to the first point about the novel’s structure, it is at first an enormously irritating but hardly new-fangled conceit, after all, William Faulkner was pissing people off with the educationally–subnormal-first-person-protagonist-with-no-concept-of-linear-time in the first tranche of The Sound And The Fury.  Cloud Atlas pulls off another trick, in that the structure (and the title) is reflected by one of the characters, which should be pretentious, but somehow works.

Basically, I can’t recommend it enough.

So obviously, when it comes time to adapt such an ambitious tome, it needs a deftness of touch, the surest of hands; the word you’re looking for is ‘subtlety’.  But of course the world is in a parlous state and devoid of logic or justice, so the Wachowskis got the gig.  And that Tykwer fellow. 

Anyone who saw the second Matrix film or, worse, Speed Racer, knows that the Wachowskis have an instinct for visual excess that is distinctly, uh, excessive.  Perhaps they were victims of their own success with The Matrix and its bullet time technique, but the scene in The Matrix Reloaded where Keanu Reeves and his stick and the bazillion cameras fight 18,000 Hugo Weavings became immediately self-parodic.  And then there’s Speed Racer.  Incidentally they also produced the distinctly whiffy V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin.  Didn’t see Ninja Assassin, did you?  Me neither.

The second two Matrix films and V for Vendetta also reveal an affinity for the sort of superficially ‘deep’ po-faced intellectual vanity that is unbecoming in a first year arts undergrad, let alone a one-time globally vaunted pair of visionary film makers.

Tykwer by comparison is largely blameless as a film maker but did jump off a cliff critically with his first big Hollywood feature The International.  He also submitted a film starring Natalie Portman to Paris Je T’aime.  On the other hand, he did give the world Run Lola Run and Perfume, which is better than you think it’s going to be even if it doesn’t quite work (hint: it’s actually not really about perfume at all).

So between the three of them, Tykwer and the Wachowskis offer something of a mixed bag.  From the above it’s easy to infer that Cloud Atlas will be sumptuous to look at but risks being over-saturated and saccharine, with its themes and morals crudely drawn in the cinematic equivalent of crayon.  So take sunglasses and painkillers with you to the cinema and drink plenty of water. 

But, I hear you shout (oh dear, am I hearing voices again?), The Matrix (the first one) and, say, Avatar, were also self-important, preachy and intellectually vacuous.  Additionally, they were visually a touch de trop, if you’ll pardon my English.  And they were massively successful, groundbreaking movies that earned far more adulation than opprobrium, even from the critics, even from the snootier broadsheet critics who only like esoteric monochrome arthouse movies from the Czech Republic.

The difference is that those films didn’t over-reach themselves, that is to say their ambition and self-regard didn’t outstrip their ability to deliver the goods.  And I’m speaking as someone who hated every minute of Avatar and didn’t understand why everyone thought The Matrix was the second coming of Star Wars, enjoyable though it was.

Over-reach then, I reckon, is the biggest risk Cloud Atlas will take.  Funnily enough, I don’t think that the book’s structure will have posed too much difficulty for the directors; after all, cinema has a long history of cutting and splicing between scenes and time periods.  Might be a bit confusing but it worked in 21 Grams.  But setting itself up as a coherent think-piece with pretensions of profundity while offering a new level of spectacle and being an enjoyable romp?  That’s the challenge.

Well that and betting $100m+ and marketing costs on a relatively little-known, heavily stylised and somewhat off-putting novel, the main quality of which (the prose) can’t easily be realised on screen, and the gist of which can’t easily be boiled down into a short trailer likely to attract the casual cinema goer.

On the plus side, at least we know that the film won’t culminate in Keanu Reeves literally turning into a Jesus Christ metaphor.

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