Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cloud Atlas: Thoughts on "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"

[No major spoilers, but those who actually plan to read the novel should probably not read this post until completing the first short section of the book. Those who are not planning on reading the novel should probably just skip to the end for the jokey stuff.].

So I'm pretty well-versed in the young contemporary hotshot writers. I've read some DFW (yes, I made it through Infinite Jest). I've read some Franzen and some Lethem and some Safran-Foer (the Jonathans, as they are often called). I've read some Chabon. But this is my first real experience with David Mitchell (I think I read a few pages of Black Swan Green once and got bored).

What I've gathered over the years from encountering Cloud Atlas reviews is that it's essentially composed of interrelated pieces that inhabit different genres (from the old-fashioned seafaring adventure to pulp-fiction to post-apocalyptic sci-fi). The first section offers up selections from the 19th century journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary embarking on a journey home from the Chatham Islands. We're talking some flowery and ornate language here, folks, with a shout-out to Melville as early as pp. 10. Our group member, Courtneybelle, who is not a fan of Moby Dick, will probably be displeased. But it all seems fairly straightforward, so far, with the exception of a single footnote that appears unexpectedly and displaces the sense that we are reading a present-tense journal by alerting us to the existence of the journal's curator and (possibly?) editor.

Thematically, the first section probably recalls Conrad as much or more than Melville. There's some not-quite "doubling" going on with Adam and a cannibalistic tribesman named Autua (who's a bit like Melville's Queequeg). When Adam first encounters Autua, who is being lashed, Mitchell offers up this unexplained tidbit: "The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye & shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing." Note also a passage later where Adam dreams that "not English but the guttural barkings of an Indian race burst from my mouth." Readers, we're ready to talk pompously about colonialism and race. Brush up on your Edward Said.

Random thoughts:

--Obviously there's an interest in the roots of civilization in this first chapter, with an embedded tale about whether a society predicated on non-violence can survive (the answer seems to be no). Presumably the novel is eventually headed toward some post-apocalyptic civilization. Taking us from the beginning of time to the end of time is so hip right now! (see Malick's Tree of Life as current example and, in its bizarre and ultra-quirky fashion, Miranda July's The Future).

--There's at least one good dick joke, with a character who insists on referring to Adam, the scribe, as "Quill-Cock."

--Dr. Henry Goose is also a funny name.

--The section of the novel ends in mid-sentence: obnoxious!

Best pretentious, postmodern sentence so far:

"Occasionally I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent."

Signs and rumors:

--Someone pointed out that the PBR of our club could also stand for "Postmodern Books (at) Replay." Wow. This book club is surely meant to be.

--Each meeting of the book club will be called to order with the recital of Frank Booth's immortal words from Blue Velvet: "Heineken? Fuck THAT shit! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON."

--Bananasuit will shotgun a PBR before each discussion.

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1 comment:

  1. Yes, I will shotgun a PBR! Although what I'd like to shotgun is a martini. I'll save that one for the Pig.

    Clearly, in the first seafaring section of Cloud Atlas, we're situated in a masculine realm. Let's inventory the female characters encountered so far, shall we?

    1. That corpse in petticoats, Marchioness Grace, who's going to be gifted a set of cannibalistic dentures via Dr. Goose.

    2. Your run-of-the-mill sullen maids and whores at the service of the seamen.

    3. Mrs. Evans, that dull churchlady who retires to her kitchen duties after serving Sunday dinner.

    4. Widow Bryden, a frigid old sow who requires "Dr. Quack" to frisk her, for medical reasons.

    5. Kupaka's wife, who naively serves Kupaka the poisonous fish that will send his slave Autua to the whipping block.

    What really fascinates me, in this first section, is the clashing of a rational world, governed by clocks, statue books, and soup tureens, with a more "indelible, fearsome & sublime" cthonic realm, where clocks stop working and rotting hog's hearts hang from trees. Will Adam's mysterious parasite make him surrender to this realm -- ruled by slaves, cannibals, and whores -- or will he learn, as the conquistadors before him, to manipulate and subdue the magical for his own unimaginable power & riches? Stay tuned.

    My favorite line from Section 1: "Torgny, give me your gift instanter or, by the hinges of hell, you shall regret the day you crawled from your mother's [my quill curls at recording his profanity]."

    And my favorite character: Boerhaave, that brutish first-mate, who's first introduced on page 7, sitting "amidst his cabal of trusted ruffians like Lord Anaconda & his garter-snakes." The ultimate villain. And, he's Dutch!