Cloud Atlas

In 2001 I didn’t remember what it was like to be six years old in 1991, but in 2011 I do remember what it was like being sixteen. When I was six, I was in my second year in kindergarten (we had two years, K4 and K5, before first grade) and I didn’t care about much, other than lying stomach-down on the bed reading book after book and playing let’s-pretend games in the garden. When I was sixteen I was trying to write short stories; after September 11th, I wrote one called “Judy Powell is an Immaculate Heroine.” It was a story about a girl called Mary Fran who makes up a story about a survivor of the Pennsylvania plane crash, the titular Judy Powell, writes fake news stories about her survival and brings them to her English class so her teacher can post them on the bulletin board, fooling everybody into thinking that the story is real. I never finished it but what a vaguely Borgesian plot, no? I even submitted it to a journal; it wasn’t published due to its “violent and intense content” but I think the editors complimented it for its “intense imagery” and “strong writing style.” Go 16-year-old me!

After listening to NPR September 11th-themed broadcasts all…week…long (my weekday commute now has me going out to Vancouver, which means I’m going to be VERY in touch with the news on!) out of curiosity I dug the dusty story out of the archives (i.e. the bowels of my yahoo email inbox—I emailed all my high-school era stories there shortly before going to college in 2004, and I’m really glad I did, because otherwise they would basically be lost as an undiscovered copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls). I’m not going to, like, testify to the quality of a story written by a 16-year-old, but it was a nostalgic walk down memory lane nonetheless. Here’s the first paragraph:

 Mary Fran had a masterplan that rivaled that of the terrorists who’d flown a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center (the Twin Towers in New York City) the other day and knocked them to the ground. Except that her plan was going to make people feel good instead of bad. She was going to create an imaginary character in her head, bring it to life, and use it to reassure people that Nostradamus had left one of the glass frames of his spectacles behind in his bedroom that morning, so his view of the fortune telling stars through his telescope that day were a little blurred and thus his predictions for World Doom and Apocalypse were a little off track.

LOL, gotta love my long sentences. I also like the part where I refer to “, an Internet search engine,” as if that wasn’t clear, as well as all my references to CDs and Discmen, and the part where they talk about how in 2012, they’ll be 27 (“the same age as Kurt Cobain”), “the beginning of the end.” Ha Ha Ha! Gotta love it.

So yeah, 9/11 everywhere. Even the daily poem on 3quarksdaily was the lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen song.  I don’t really have much to say the day itself, quite frankly. This recent letter by an Iraq War vet in my favorite advice column pretty much sums up my feelings about it—that it really, really sucks to live in a world where a violent society and culture can cause that level of suffering, not just to Iraq war veterans or World Trade Center office workers and janitors but to Afghani and Iraqi suicide bombers. That letter has really affected me, to be honest. I can’t stop thinking about it. In yoga class this morning the teacher said “if you have any feelings about September 11th, or whatever, maybe think about dedicated your practice this morning to someone from that day,” and the only person I could think about was that Iraq veteran, wanting to die, and the others like him all over the world. I dunno, I am NOT a fan of soapbox preaching, but I just think it really sucks to live in a society where violence can make people so numb and damaged. It’s HORRIBLE. In this veteran’s letter, he reminds me of these Mexican/Colombian narcos, their brains blasted by bazuco, killing people mercilessly because they’re so numb and dead inside themselves that they’re barely human anymore. I think maybe one of the things that freaked so many Americans out about September 11th is that people just weren’t used to violence happening here. In Colombia, there’s a much bigger culture of people being more unshocked and unsurprised by these horrible atrocities, simply because it happens so much more that people are used to it, numb to it.

One of my favorite books, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (from which the name of this blog comes from), asks the question of whether or not humans can live together in peace, without resorting to conflict or violence. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Or to be more precise, “maybe for a brief period of time, but it can’t last.” On my flight back to the U.S. from Colombia (a Medellin-Miami-Dallas-Portland whammy) I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in one sitting, a book with an interestingly similar message.

 Cloud Atlas is a pretty great book and the theme throughout is that humans just plain can’t get along, due to their inherently violent and power-craving nature. I really admired the ambition of this book, but there were definitely some sections that I liked more than others. Basically, the book consists of six different stories, all interconnected (it reminded me a bit of A Visit From the Goon Squad). When one story ends (usually on a killer cliffhanger), another begins. You move through time and space, starting with 1) a 19th-century journal of an American notary in the Pacific Islands, to letters written by a British composer to his lover, 3) a 1970’s thriller of a journalist trying to uncover an environmental disaster secret, 4) a picaresque adventure in which an elderly publisher becomes trapped in a retirement home, 5) a futuristic society in which human clones work in fast food restaurants before organizing a revolution, and 6) a post-apocalyptic “Avatar”-like world in which people have resorted to a more simple, primitive way of life but humanity’s basic tendency to destroy and kill anything that’s good and worthwhile remains.


So yeah, for a huge literature lover-nerd such as myself, this book was a complete and utter joy to read. Each section is narrated in a different style: we have a journal, letters, airport thriller, picaresque, interview and Cormac McCarthy/Faulkner-like monologue. Basically, Mitchell is a wicked talented author, and considering how radically different and ambitious each section is, he really comes off as a writer who could write pretty much ANYTHING if he wanted to. (Right now I’m reading his Black Swan Green, which is equally astonishing in how simple and straightforward the narrative is!)

One problem I had with the book is that I wish that the characters didn’t have that comet-shaped scar (thus implying that they’re connected through reincarnation, that they’re all the same soul). I feel like I would have still gotten the whole “connected” theme through the literary works that the main characters read in each section. I guess I like the idea of people being connected through ART, rather than a mystical construct. That being said, that’s really more like my own personal beef as opposed to a hardcore critique.

I’m really glad that books like this are still being written in this day and age. It’s a small drop of water in an otherwise very big ocean of war, deformed orphaned children, bombs, widowed wives, traumatized soldiers and mutilated bodies. I guess that ocean also contains things that I find heartening and hopeful, for whatever bizarre and senseless reasons. Like the fact that there’s a documentary coming out about Pearl Jam’s now 20-year career, PJ Harvey winning the Mercury prize for her anti-war album 20 years into her own career, the recent photos of Frances Bean Cobain, now tattooed and modeling, and that I’m still writing short stories with too-long opening sentences ten years later. “Yet what,” Mitchell writes in the book’s last sentence, “is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

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Filed under books, fiction, really deep thoughts, violence, writing

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