Beyond the limitations
by Keith Taylor
By the time this issue of the Observer is out, we will have begun to see the reaction to the new movie made from David Mitchell's wonderfully odd novel, Cloud Atlas. The movie has been getting some early attention because of its cast (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant), because it was produced by the same folks who brought us the Matrix franchise, and because of an extravagant trailer, supposedly "smuggled" out, but actually released last summer on the Apple website. It was gorgeously filmed, riveting, and deeply puzzling.
And the confusion is justified. Cloud Atlas, the novel, moves in progression through six different stories--a nineteenth-century sailing narrative involving slavery and murder, an early twentieth-century story of musical composition and the tribulations of artistic creation, a hair-raising tale of an investigative journalist in 1970s America, a contemporary piece about a British publisher of pulp fiction who manages to score a best-seller, a futuristic piece about clones bred to perform menial labor for "pure bloods," and a dystopian story, set on the Big Island of Hawaii, in which a tribe of survivors struggle to keep themselves alive in a world their forebears had tried to destroy. Once that final piece is finished, the novel starts back through the previous five to see how they were resolved--so the reader moves forward through time, then backward.
Each of the stories is told in a very different style, using a language appropriate to its place, even bending its sentences to fit its moment. Mitchell seems to find prose enchantingly plastic, shaping it to his changing purposes rather than defining a personal style. The cover tells us that the stories are "linked," but even that seems far too obvious for whatever it is that is happening in Cloud Atlas. There is a birthmark that seems to recur on characters of different gender and race at very different moments in real or imagined history. People in the future
find books and films that refer to the earlier stories. There is a recurring reflection on what freedom might mean and how we humans tend to twist that meaning to suit our own purposes.
None of that, however, captures the indefinable atmosphere of a novel that is unlike any other. Even the idea of "reincarnation" seems far too easy for whatever is happening in these stories. It appears as if Mitchell has created a world where the simple fact of our humanity, the physical nature of our species, moves beyond the limitations of our individual mortality. The effect is haunting.
Mitchell reads from his work on October 29 at 5:10 p.m. at UMMA, and he gives a lecture there on November 1.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the November 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The cast list and period of the film have been corrected.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]