Wednesday 22 March 2017

a duck-fart in a hurrycane

'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell has been sitting around the living room for quite a while; what an utterly brilliant book. Not one story but six, linked by slightly intangible factors that come together as the pages pass. I confess I had all but forgotten the first story by the time we finally returned to it, but that's almost the strength of the book that he manages to get the reader completely engaged with each narrative so quickly. There are six stories: a lawyer takes a sea voyage in 1850 across the Pacific, letters to a friend by a young man in the home of a reclusive composer in Belgium in the 1930s, a young woman investigating corruption and safety at a nuclear power plant, a middle aged publisher ends up in a rather scary retirement home to escape the attentions of some small time criminals, a corporate Korean 'brave new world' where fabricated humans do all the drudge work on the promise of a Hawaiian retirement, and a post-apocalyptic future where humans live a nasty, brutish and short life and the heroine of the previous tale is worshipped as a god. When we reach the last story the book then dives backwards through the others, picking each one up where they were abandoned (sometimes mid sentence) and bringing each to their (somewhat) satisfactory conclusion. 

I found the book satisfying because it made an interesting point about stories, about how real they can feel when you are in them, but then from one step removed you suddenly realise they are just stories, and that the history of human beings is just layers and layers of stories. Wanting to be remembered or whatever by history is pointless because no matter how big your impact or your contribution, one day you will just be a story. I didn't write many quotes down, which is usually a sign that I am embroiled in the narrative. Each story was so unique, but it was not like a series of short stories, the links were subtle but they were important enough to make the book a complete whole.

"To men like Ayres, it occurs to me, this temple if civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants and foot-soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists and, most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization's architects, masons and priests. Ayres sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer's profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, 'Look, there is Vyvyan Ayres!'
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes because winter is eternal and because if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.
R.F." (p.82 Letters from Zedelghem)

In the far distant future the world has returned to ignorance and superstition, lacking knowledge and technology, the people in awe of the Prescients who arrive periodically by boat to trade. In this central story Zachry goes on a journey up the mountain with the visitor Meronym. Here they discuss what will happen when they reach their destination and his fears of a mythical figure of Old Georgie, and the reader is left in no doubt that their history contains some cataclysmic events that have wiped out the relevance of all previous lives. I find it is often the case that fiction about the future is laced with not so subtle messages about what humans are doing to their world. I liked the style in this story; the notion of what it might be like to write down speech for a culture that was no longer literate and so had lost formal conventions of spelling and grammar:

"Meronym said the weather was way more scaresome to her.
I spoke my mind: You don't b'lief he's real, do you?
Meronym said Old Georgie weren't real for her, nay, but he could still be real for me.
Then who, asked I, tripped the Fall if it weren't Old Georgie?
Eery birds I din't knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old'uns tripped their own Fall.
O, her words was a rope o' smoke. But Old'uns'd for the Smart!
I mem'ry she answered, Yay, Old'uns' smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an' made miracles ord'nary, but it din't master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o' humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old'uns'd got ev'rythin'.
O, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big but it weren't big 'nuff for that hunger what made Old'uns rip out the skies an' boil up the seas an' poison soil with crazed atoms an' donkey 'bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an' babbits was freakbirthed. Fin'ly, bit'ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar'bric tribes an' the Civ'lize Days ended, 'cept for a few folds'n'pockets here'n'there, where its last embers glimmer.
I asked why Meronym'd never spoke this yarnin' in the Valleys
Valleymen'd not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ'lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person's b'liefs ain't true, they think you're sayin' their lifes ain't true an' their truth ain't true.
Yay, she was prob'ly right." (p.286-7 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After)

Even though things worked out for our characters I was left with the idea that we are all, in the grand scale of things, duck-farts in a hurrycane.


  1. I love his books. I can never remember a thing about them after I've read them (overloaded brain!) but I sure do enjoy them at the time!

  2. This remains one of my favorite books ever. I loved the way it picked up speed as it raced back through the stories and genres. And I love the accuracy of "Fin'ly, bit'ly, then quicksharp" as a description of the end of civilization. Thanks for reminding me about that gem.


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