Murder to Create: Revisiting Cloud Atlas While the Wachowskis Prep Their Ulysses

I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.

­Andrew Kevin Walker (screenwriter) – Se7en


I. The (moderately) Wayback Machine

The year was 2004. Jonathon Franzen had long since made nice with Oprah and his Corrections was, three years after its publication, still being used in intellectual and academic conversation as the period at the end of the postmodern sentence. It was also – not coincidentally – still kicking the dog-shit out of the best-seller lists. Things were grim for the rag-tag band of experimental writers that had taken up the mantle of Pynchon and Coover at the end of the 20th century. It didn’t help that those authors still using their own marketability to sneak some experimentalism past the gate-keepers at agencies and publishing houses weren’t exactly blowing anyone away: Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was skewered for using its ‘tricks’ to obscure bad writing, lame and unlikeable characters and, more to the point, stale melodrama. David Foster Wallace was fighting his demons the best he could and, one suspects, wondering where one goes nearly a decade after Infinite Jest (yes, there are multiple orders of infinity; no, the market couldn’t float them in 2004). For a lot of people it seemed that postmodernism was dead and Realist Fiction had – after a brief interregnum – returned for its crown.

The King is dead, long live the King.

Then David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas made its way across the Atlantic. The novel was, in fact, six novellas, each one – save for the ‘core’ or center story – interrupted half-way through by the next and chronologically subsequent and then, after the central story, each one concluding (it’s become a useful convention to describe the novel a Russian nesting dolls, Wikipedia does a passable job of over-viewing). By then end of the book, the reader has traveled forward and backwards in time in a massive, sprawling meditation on human predation. Though only half the size of Infinite Jest, it packed enough Pynchon-esque gambits – multiple narrators and protagonists, time periods, writing styles and enough self-recursiveness to drill through to even the densest readers – to send Jonathon Lenthem running around Brooklyn screaming in alternating bursts of envy and joy. One of Mitchell’s narrators – a literary agent – gripes of the literary world: …all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.” Mitchell doesn’t rescue the archetypes of fiction with a gimmick or a trick, he rescues it with all the tricks. An allegory for the value of allegory: it is a hell of a show.

II. Time for Some Classic Reviewer Litotes

The book is not without flaws. Some felt it was too late in the day: like Candlebox – a decent band who missed that mercurial Seattle moment and fell in with the profiteers– or those later nuclear tests that, while awesome, became somehow routine in the Nevada desert. And, like the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter of Ulysses – in which Joyce parodies the styles of English writing from medieval incantation through the canonical greats and ending in a blizzard of hyperbolic Dublin slang – Mitchell apes Melville, Wyndham Lewis, James Elroy, his own work, Phillip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood. Each narrative alternately flirts with parody or suffers some by comparison with the original. For one example: Mitchell, who is inexplicably hesitant to deploy profanity when the scene calls for it, writes corrupt pseudo-mafiaso goons as timidly as his 19th century narrator suggests the profanity of his salty shipmates. For another: the invented post-apocalyptic language of Mitchell’s final story cleverly mixes Dutch (‘coney’ for rabbits), British (‘suss’ for figure, ‘faggot’ for small fire), the dropped-g’s and conjunctions of Afro-Caribbean pigeons; the language makes a historical point, but lacks the attention to linguistic detail (i.e. why the archaic ‘coney’ would survive, or what ‘faggot’ would return to its Shakesperian usage) that Burgess gave his slang in Clockwork Orange. Fair to say, the novel is an extra-baggy monster, but still, the overall effect is dazzling: a compendium of what modern fiction can do.

But beyond the prose level, what set Mitchell’s book apart was its unrelenting theme: predation. As Luis Rey, one of Mitchell’s interlocutors, recalls from a (fictional) interview with Hitchcock:

I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well that’s… the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes

The ‘great man’ could be Hitchcock, or Franzen or Foer, or nearly any popular artist with the possible exception of Bret Easton Ellis or Cormac McCarthy (who, for all their shared misogyny, are in way past their toes). And, of course, the novel’s Hitchcock has no answer to Rey – or Mitchell – because (a) it’s not a question, and (b) the real Hitchcock did think the world was a Bates Motel, but he had to fight the studios and the Hayes code, and (c) Hitchcock was also an entertainer who knew where his bread was buttered. Mitchell’s cold eye on human nature is balanced only by the quasi-Buddhist conceit of reincarnation – his six protagonists are, as Mitchell has pointed out, the ‘same soul’ reincarnated over and over again, each marked with a tell-tale comet-shaped birthmark. For me, this is tea nearly as weak – as sentimental, as optimistic-by-fiat – as Christian afterlife conceits (i.e. The Lovely Bones), but then again even Pynchon had his mythology, and his faith in the preterit, to hold against the cold Truth of the world. And I have to admit, Mitchell’s got the integrity to put the question, however rhetorical, on the table: fiction shows us the world, but through a glass, darkly. Would we like a clearer mirror?

What’s rare about Mitchell’s novel is both that he takes a hard look at the world and that he does so without losing faith in the evolution of fiction itself. The novel – for Franzen, and so many others who had dabbled in Post-Modernism and Hysterical Realism – had to retreat to the illusion of transparency, of straight Realist fiction, in order to see things clearly. Mitchell’s counterargument is that fiction cannot regress, it can adapt – has to adapt, can never stop adapting – if it wants to see anything beyond the immediate.

III. Oxen of the Sun: Redux

                Joyce, like Se7en’s John Doe, was no stranger to sweeping pronouncements on his own work and most graduate-level seminars on Ulysses, like David Fincher’s film, hesitate to say ‘genius’ or ‘megalomaniac’ (let me save you seven years and a skull-crushing debt: the answer to all academic either/or questions is ‘both’).  You do have to wonder about the relationship that an author has to the world when their driving force is to capture it and overmaster it. And so I have to wonder, what will come of the brother-sister (rock on sister!) Wachowski team and their adaptation of Cloud Atlas?

The novel is dense, packed with allusion and reference, written in six completely different styles and settings. Five hundred pages of man’s inhumanity to man, on every scale from familial deceit to global genocide. Cloud Atlas is, metaphorically and at times quite literally, an attempt to map the world in its swirling, brutal beauty. What could have attracted the Wachowksis to it? Now, The Matrix was an intriguing allegory, especially early on in the film, and it had a few decent philosophical ideas tucked away in it (let us not mention the increasingly silly second and third installments). But Speed Racer was the ultimate Theatre of Attraction, an anti-film, non-metaphorical, non-allegorical; its raison d’etre was to show what CGI could do (and possibly to advertise the Wachowskis’ skills to DARPA, should the DoD decide to create a directed-cinema epilepsy weapon).

We’ll find out in December, if the film stays on its current production schedule. And, of course, the big names – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry (check out the IMBD listing as it swells to Oscar ensemble proportions) – are bound to have cynics wondering if the Wachowskis have unearthed a simple melodrama beneath the multi-tiered theatrics of Mitchell’s novel, part of the industry’s hysterical need to cannibalize every other medium (apparently to avoid the risk of producing original films). But there’s another possibility: that the Wachowskis– having survived their embarrassing downgrade from ‘visionary film-makers’ to ‘video-game designers’ – are ready to throw a gauntlet. A compendium of what film can do, a real adaptation of Cloud Atlas would have to master six different styles, tell six different kinds of story, and – perhaps most of all – make a case for cinema as up to the challenge of the world. Cloud Atlas, the movie, would have to exhaust and surpass the state of the art.

And if it does all that, it’s still quite possible that it will be a hideous, masturbatory disaster. No less has been said of Ulysses. But there’s a reason to hope, even for that. Why? Because Joyce sounded the death knell of Realism for serious, self-aware authors and we never went all the way back after that, never saw Realism as a transparent medium again. And, as exhausting and exhaustive as Uysses and Finnegan’s Wake were, what followed – Beckett, DeLillo, Pynchon – found ways to keep going and produced some of the most powerful literature ever written. There will always be a mainstream, there will always be an Oprah’s book club. But the Wachowskis have an opportunity to take stock of the state-of-the-art and then blow it to pieces. If they can avoid the fate of Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close, a massively sentimental and bloodlessly dramatic film, they might actually change mainstream filmmaking.

But no King relinquishes power peacefully. We need a massacre. Have a look at the trailer – five minutes (of what is likely three hours) in which there’s evidence of greatness and hints of schlock – and let me put the question to you all: do you smell blood in the water?

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