David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.
In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.
This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.
It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.
I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.
I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.
Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. … Some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
But as you no doubt know, they always call admirers a cult when the admired writer is a woman; if one admires Virginia Woolf or Stevie Smith or Sylvia Plath, one is part of a cult. If one writes endlessly on James Joyce, one is just showing good business sense.
Two things I read today. The first quote is from novelist Meg Wolitzer, in a New York Times Book Review essay published today on the rules of literary fiction for women and men. The second quote is from novelist Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, aka Amanda Cross, in her 1984 detective novel Sweet Death, Kind Death. Good to see there’s been real progress in terms of women being taken seriously as writers in the last thirty years.
I’m trying to think of the last time I was so in love with a book that I couldn’t wait, couldn’t wait, couldn’t wait to see the movie. I think it was the 1995 Persuasion, when I was in the middle of the obligatory Discovering-Jane-Austen period. I read the book in anticipation of the movie, because the story sounded so fantastic, and I wasn’t disappointed. But I also didn’t have to wait very long between finishing the book and seeing the film — maybe a day or a weekend — so I’m not sure that counts.
I loved the first few Harry Potter books, but I think I was starting to fall out of love with them by the time the first, disappointing, movie came along. And I’m mired somewhere mid-book three in Game of Thrones, which I’ve always found to be a slog, so the television show hasn’t done much for me. Both reading and watching the first Twilight installment was an exercise in curiosity and/or schadenfreude on the part of my book club, so that doesn’t count. And I never really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings books, so the movies were an improvement on the mountain-filled prose, but I didn’t have a stake in the adaptation. (Lest this all sound way too negative, I have loved books since Persuasion that have been adapted for film, but none that have been successful — Golden Compass, anyone?)
I was one of the women wondering how David Fincher would handle the brutal, graphic, prolonged rape of the title character in his new film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We’re talking about the man who glamorized and stylized violence in Fight Club here, the music-video director who presented blood and bodily damage as the crucible that made Edward Norton into a more alive human being.
So I was surprised to walk out of the theater last week with no strong feelings about the rape scene at all. It was graphic, certainly, but I was neither impressed nor offended. (It was funny to watch the critics decisively pick one or the other of those options — A.O. Scott of The New York Times found “something prurient and salacious about the way the initial assault is filmed,” while Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline concluded, “The movie’s central rape scene is candid and horrifyingly intimate, without stepping over the line into sick prurience.”)
O.K. then! Yes, Fincher sexualized and fetishized the rape scene – but only to a point, and not to the point I was expecting. Yes, he gave in to his “undies-and-butt” fixation. But he otherwise tread faithfully – even gingerly – in the footsteps of the book’s description, and of the previous film adaption. Ultimately that scene, like the rest of Fincher’s adaptation, was safe, boring and predictable.
So did we really need to see it at all?