A Few Words on David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’

I like it. He did a good job with the chapter entitled Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. This passage’s language is full of a simple wisdom, I think, which gives the reader a sense of the time and place an’ hist’ry o’ the ‘Valleysmen’.

As far as the ‘gimmicky’ plot which readers on Goodreads, etc., are decrying. . .

Well, for my part,

I din’t have no spesh yearnin’ but for an adventuresome’n’well-cogged yarn bein’ told, yay—and with a spesh emph’sis on ‘yarn’.

Ha. So I say,

These readers, yibberin’n’bellyachin’ ’bout wantin’ the hole true in ev’ry rollick’n tale told, is prob’ly too anxed ’bout changin’ their stony ways to cogg the times the straightwise giv’n true ‘pears as a Dev’lish Buggah, fogg’n’n’mudd’n what they ‘ready say-soed ’bout the world.

(the following is a quote from p.302 of my copy, near the end of Sloosha’s Crossin’…:)

“I wondered where’d my tribesmen’s souls be reborned now Valleyswomen’d not be bearin’ babbits here. I wished Abbess was there to teach me, ‘cos I cudn’t say an’ nor could Meronym. We Prescients, she answered, after a beat, b’lief when you die you die an’ there ain’t no comin’ back.

But what ’bout your soul? I asked.

Prescients don’t b’lief souls exist.

But ain’t dyin’ terrorsome cold if there ain’t nothin’ after?

Yay—she sort o’ laughed but not smilin’, nay—our truth is terrorsome cold.”

And the words which follow (also on p.302), come from the mouth of a soul who has worshipped Sonmi as a god all his life, yet doesn’t know it is she whom he’s now regarding, as he say-soes to himself:

“Jus’ that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o’ time, Abbess’d say, like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world. Sonmi’s the east’n’west, Sonmi’s the map an’ the edges o’ the map an’ b’yonder the edges.”

In Sonmi, in this quoted passage, I see the same quiet fatalism found in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, yet with this difference: that while Hemingway, in his time, was able to get away with portraying the reality of a life lived in the shadow of certain death without sugar-coating ‘the hole true’ (he did romanticize the person who could face the ‘terrorsome cold’, though), perhaps David Mitchell, in contrast, circa 2004 when he wrote Cloud Atlas, felt he could not get away with the same, as he felt too that maybe the world needed the fiction, in the form of the tall tales found in the pages of Cloud Atlas, because he sensed that the world was grappling with the loss of the future promised them at the turn of the century. Perhaps David Mitchell sensed that even the ‘gimmicks’, and the obvious tropes which he used, would be palatable, because they were necessary to sugar-coat what the world was only slowly, because reluctantly, becoming cognizant of. In the quoted passage above, the soul who professes faith in Sonmi and in the stories told about her, echoes the same.

Of course, that was 2004, and a lot has changed these past fifteen years—the world has indeed become cognizant of the reality in which it dwells. Perhaps readers of Cloud Atlas, circa 2019, mistake its author’s uncertainty and sensitive consideration for timidity and a gross—or perhaps even commercial, and thus offensive—vapidness.

So I wonder what readers need now?


Addendum: I wrote the above few words concerning David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas after having just read up to the end of Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. What followed in the latter half of the book left me underwhelmed. I won’t go so far as to say Cloud Atlas is a bad novel, just that its author seems to have made many little half-hearted (or half-baked) choices, here and there, which added up in the end. That said, for the sake of giving Mr. Mitchell the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to leave my reflection above as written, as it captures my thoughts about the narrative at the end of Sloosha’s Crossin’.

In fact my decision is based not only on this reason—I would simply like for the assessment to be true, as it stands. I think it is either really wrong, or somehow really right, with the latter possibility becoming more credible if one attributes the storyteller’s apparent prescience not just to David Mitchell, but also to a publisher or agent in his ear who was very good at his or her job, advising the author on his work’s ‘commercial viability’ in the year 2004: it being just three years after 9/11, after all, when British soldiers, backed by the support of much of the rest of the world, had been deployed in Iraq only months before.

Woah! I hear you say. Where’d that come from?

Well, please note that I only bring global politics into my reasoning because Cloud Atlas of course possesses the defining marker of an epic: that a whole world moves as one toward the same fate. It’s speculation resting entirely upon the benefit of the doubt, as I said before, and perhaps at this point I’ve now given the author too much credit. On the other hand, The New York Times Book Review, on the back cover of the book, is quoted as saying “[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius”. I haven’t read any of Mr. Mitchell’s other books to know for sure.

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