An enjoyable weaving-together of stories across space and time, Cloud Atlas is at its best when it's at its least message-y. Rarely have I felt so bombarded by a movie's thesis. The prosthesis-heavy makeup, 172-minute running time, and an enormously unfortunate use of dialect also threaten to scupper the film, but for me there is a saving grace in a clutch of deeply human stories.
The message, though, clangs around like a bolt in a steel drum. Ultimately, its ubiquity is matched by its simplicity: we are all connected, and our present actions will have consequences across future generations. In case you fail to hear it explicitly every few minutes in the dialogue, the Wachowskis decided to include a thorough exposition of the idea in a subversive broadcast late in the film. "From womb to tomb..." intones a central character into a microphone. As violence again bursts out in front of her, she delivers a speech to the world that sallies forth with all the rhetorical power of a few rejected Hallmark cards. The simple meagerness of the film's moral vision comes into a harsh light when this climactic piece of oratory is set alongside that of another film from a very different time.
From Cloud Atlas:
Sure, the comparison is unfair—The Great Dictator is unique in film history for the context of its creation, which is essential to its power and importance—but I also find it illuminating as far as it goes. The Wachowski's sentimental New Age-y spiritualism just doesn't fare too well next to Chaplin's urgent humanism. Make of it what you will. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for its accomplishments with a complicated narrative, for several of its stories and its sheer ambition, but the transcendence it aims for seems to remain consistently out of reach.
D.G. Myers thinks it may be Michael Chabon's best yet. There's certainly a lot to love here: Chabon's characters live in a real, adult world with real, adult problems to match, and yet they are no less beautifully and humorously sketched than any of his past creations. The stunning prose picks up from page one with a description of a skateboard's wheels sounding out with a "granular unraveling"—I particularly enjoyed chewing on the vivid aural descriptions and vocabulary, a lovely expansion of Chabon's stylistic powers necessitated by this book's saturation with musical themes, motifs, and allusions—and yet some subtle lack left me hankering after a little more.
What's missing, exactly? Well, I suppose you might call it a sort of spiritual urgency. Chabon continues to strike me as a writer driven to create by his Updike-level giftedness with words rather than by some truth about life that he needs to get out there, if I can chance a rough distinction. That makes this book perfect for the beach or the subway commute, but perhaps not as well-suited to the solitary nightstand in a one-bedroom apartment, if you get my drift. All the same, it's a frequently dazzling piece of work with big characters and a jazz-timed heartbeat. Reading it reminded me of the rich pleasures that become uniquely available through good fiction.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Hopefully this 1927 novel by Willa Cather will make an appearance in an upcoming essay on religious belief in fiction, which essay I am turning over and over in my drafts folder. In anticipation of that day of posting, might I encourage you to pick up this spare and powerful testament to the power of faith, and wonder at its depths? Father Vaillant and Bishop Latour are Catholic missionaries to the southwestern regions of the growing U.S. territories in the 19th century. We come to know them as we do other people: from the outside, with almost no indication of the internal workings of the mind of either man that would be unavailable to an onlooker or overhearer. Subtext and intention are only discernible through the actions and words of each, and sometimes then only through accumulation; so it is that I could be devastated by an unremarkable aside from one to the other in the waning days of their work together. What Cloud Atlas would rather make explicit in spoken dialogue, Cather's book allows to well up in the negative space. It's refreshing to be trusted by an author in this way.
My Bright Abyss
Christian Wiman's reflections on his faith as a modern person issue in jagged shards of insight, and the wisdom these gathered fragments contain is alloyed with suffering. I had been reading Simone Weil's Waiting for God in anticipation of Wiman's book, and the similarities in perspective, tone, and concern were illuminating. If you are a person of faith, gird up your loins and prepare for a bracing wind if you decide to follow after Wiman's lead. You will be asked even to abandon your need for the consolation of an afterlife, for the sake of allowing God a sliver more of his terrible and awesome scope. On the other hand, if you believe religion to be impossible in the present day and age, perhaps consider this a map that may point you toward something resembling the intelligibility of belief as a still-living option for a thinking person. Seeing as My Bright Abyss is a book that deserves its own post—or series of posts—I will save further thoughts for another time.
Up in the Old Hotel
I wish I'd heard about Joseph Mitchell sooner. I picked up this omnibus of his midcentury reportage only a couple months before The New Yorker began publishing a series of newly-discovered reflective essays by their old staff writer. As a person whose literary education began in a post-DFW era, my experience with Mitchell has been invaluable. His self-effacing attention to his subjects casts the John Jeremiah Sullivans of this world in a rather unflattering light, and that's coming from the fingertips of a Sullivan fan who foists "Upon This Rock" on his friends at every chance.
Mitchell is a quiet genius and a master of his own brand of straight-shooting prose; his journalistic essays and taut reportage are a cooling balm for the tortured and inward-turning soul of the millennial writer. In the first section of the compilation alone we meet a cast of bearded ladies, gypsy matriarchs, fishmongers and itinerant preachers, Native American construction workers dancing across windswept steel girders and homeless writers assembling a people's history of the American republic. These and others gathered for Mitchell's portraits are accorded dignity and respect even as their quirks and sundry weirdnesses shine through. Read the man like you've got something to learn from him and your writing will benefit, I promise.
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In addition to above-mentioned drafts in various stages of completion, upcoming posts will include thoughts on a number of things I've got in the hopper, such as Colum McCann's latest novel and Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. Thanks for reading, and please don't hesitate to share your opinion on any of the above in the comments.