Reading Cloud Atlas

By Eric Hughes

October 26, 2012

Halle's favorite Tom Hanks character is Woody.

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I think my thing for Cloud Atlas began with a regular page flick of the New Yorker to reveal a splash of the Wachowskis -- Lana, with her shock of pink hair -- as art for a story about the making of their latest film project. Of course it happened to be their adaptation of Cloud Atlas.

I have deep respect for the Wachowskis. That they were hard at work on -- or, by the time the article got published, had been hard at work on -- a purportedly “unfilmable” film was exciting to me. The creators of The Matrix, of their own accord, welcoming an enormously tall order. Or venti order, some might say.

I don’t typically hear about a flick and then go: “Okay! Time to go read the book!!” For one, I go to the movies hardly at all anymore. The new Wes Anderson was the last time I was at the theater, I think, and I don’t know that I could confidently name the one prior to that. For two, I’m generally unenthusiastic about adaptations because the instances when the movie is better or even as good as its source is, I’ve found, a dismally small number.

The Wachowskis shaping a thing like Cloud Atlas for the screen seemed like a “stars aligning” kind of occasion. A gut feeling, really, because by that point I didn’t know much about the book or its author. What I’d learned, though, seemed to be describing the type of novel that might sit, snuggly, in my wheelhouse.

Cloud Atlas is a story -- or stories, as you’ll come to find -- that is best experienced by the reader who’s trusting enough, at least this once, to go ahead and read whilst knowing little to nothing about the contents. I assumed I’d done a decent job at this, but now that I’m done I know I did not.

I kindly offer you the chance to run for the hills.

Cloud Atlas is not one novel, but six novellas. Each time you get about halfway through one novella before the next bumps in. Novellis interruptis. Only the final novella plays out in full before all the ones that came before, now reversed, respectively close. We finish, then, with the second half of a story that actually began the book. I’ve probably said too much.


Well, anyway, as you trudge forward, each successive segment (until the things repeat) jumps you ahead 80 years, 50 years, whatever it might be, all the while placing you in starkly new settings, and with totally new characters to study. And yet small (or maybe big) associations are casually encountered from parent story to child story to grandchild story -- or is it the other way? -- like the past links to present links to future. And back again.

What’s telling about the book is how immensely dependent it is on its unique structure. Such is high concept, and perhaps that’s its point. Pluck free any one of the book’s six novellas and read it straight, and I don’t know that it would satisfy on its own. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, actually, is a generically bland action-adventure. It could not stand alone. But that it’s in a way nestled into Letters from Zedelghem, and in a way nestled into The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish makes it peculiar and compelling.

Cloud Atlas seems bent on capturing human history in several ways. The most gratifying of which is what it may convey about methods of communication. Segment one: Dude on a boat, journaling his experiences with physical pen and physical paper. Segment two: A series of letters, formerly sent by mail, compiled and affixed side by side. Segment three: A literary work broken into page, page-and-a-half James Patterson-like bites. Segment four: A film. And so on. All the way through to mediums that do not exist. (Yet.)

It reads like subtle commentary on the methods we’ve utilized to convey ideas and meaning to each other. Each time successively less formal. Each time less personal, maybe, yet strangely more revealing.

The idea I think is central to Cloud Atlas’ narrative. In any case I continue returning to the idea when I think back to the book. And, having thought it, quelling the kind of “now how in the hell will the Wachowskis do it?” that boils over knowing that filmmaking is in ways less malleable than writing. My most favorite thing about Cloud Atlas will most certainly be lost.

Perhaps the film should be studied less as an adaptation of David Mitchell’s work and more like a continuation of what he began. The approach would do right by the book anyway.



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