The film adaption of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is releasing in theaters this weekend – a fact which has me both excited and apprehensive. Great literature and Hollywood do not, in my experience, go well together, and I’d hate to see such a magnificent novel turned into a lackluster movie. But enough about that – I’m here to talk about the music. I could probably spend a few dozen paragraphs extolling the brilliance of it, but I’ve chosen to reduce my commendation to two simple sentences: the Cloud Atlas soundtrack is finally here. Buy it now.
The main theme is an exquisite piano melody, otherwise known as The Atlas March. It’s introduced early on and reappears frequently (and in different forms) throughout the rest of the score – the thread that holds Tykwer’s musical tapestry together. Though the score as a whole is not action-oriented, tracks like The Escape and Chasing Luisa Rey deliver more than their share of excitement. Cavendish in Distress has a comical sound to it (appropriate, considering the character in question), while Papa Song throbs with futuristic ambience. Good stuff, to be sure, but the most powerful moments occur in pieces like Sonmi-451 Meets Chang, Death Is Only A Door, Finale, and End Title – for it is in pieces like these that the orchestra is allowed to soar in all its spectacular, cloud-brushing glory.
A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”
Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.
Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.
The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.
Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?
An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.
I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.
While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.
As N.D. Wilson says,
Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag.
This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.
At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:
He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!
Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
The Chinese Banker by Dustin Hill
A novel of an America ravaged by a Chinese-induced financial crisis. The publisher contacted me last week with a review request, and since conspiracy theories never fail to intrigue me, I figured, Why the heck not? I guess we’ll see if the book is worth its salt.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
“So the books are waiting. Of this you may be confident: they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.” Has anybody else read this book? The title alone was enough to grab my attention. I like reading about reading, and Jacobs apparently enjoys writing about reading, so it’s a win-win situation. (He’s also the author of The Narnian, a biography of C.S. Lewis which I’d love to get around to one of these days.)
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Finally. Returning to McCarthy’s work is like reuniting with an old and dear friend. The man is a genius, I tell you. The Crossing is the second book in his Border Trilogy, following two teenage boys across the American Southwest and Mexico in the years before WWII. If it’s anywhere near as good as All the Pretty Horses, I’ll be elated.
Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell
A grandly-conceived and elaborately-executed piece of contemporary literature. It is essentially a novel of novellas – a series of loosely connected stories put together like nested dolls. Mitchell’s writing is fabulous, his ability to dance from genre to genre wildly entertaining. I’m just over half-way through it: here’s hoping the final act is as satisfying as the first.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I’ve been told this is one of those can’t-miss books for writers. As I dig deeper into it, I can see why. This guy knows his stuff, and I’m more than ready to listen. For instance, he says, “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces a total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.” YES.
What’s on your bookshelf right now?