At the exact midpoint of the novel Cloud Atlas, in a post-apocalyptic future with nuclear contamination so severe that children are born deformed more often than not, the narrator watches the birth of a baby—his baby—who is born without a mouth. The baby dies within moments, panicked but silent, held in his helpless parents’ arms.
I read Cloud Atlas the first time last year, haunted by silences. The novel had been recommended to me a few summers before. Craig Arnold, standing in my kitchen, smiling, washing my knives, leaving them arranged in a careful steel spiral on a blue towel, fixed me with his bright-eyed gaze (it was one of the few times in the years I knew him when he really did that, and so also one of the few times when I understood why so many people loved that crazy bastard) and said: “Cloud Atlas. Read it.” And then, a few weeks later, my kind, wise, loving former professor Huston Diehl recommended the same thing, in an email. She was pretty sick then, I think, but in prose her voice was still clear and emphatic.
That these two people—hugely different, but equally intelligent and imaginative, two of the people I’ve known in my life who completely inhabited the gift of speech–recommended the same book to me, at the same time, felt like some sort of sign. Maybe it was. Anyway, it’s hard not to think about it that way, because by the time I read Cloud Atlas, and encountered its mouthless baby, both Huston and Craig were dead. Neither of them would ever recommend a book to me again.
Cloud Atlas is a somewhat difficult novel. By “difficult” here, I mean “annoying.” It’s divided into six stories, all but one narrated by distinct first-person narrators and taking place in very dispersed places and points in history. The book starts with an explorer in colonial New Zealand and ends with a tribe in post-nuclear meltdown Hawaii, visiting characters as dispersed as a post-war English book publisher and a swinging seventies Girl Reporter on the way. Just as you get used to one character’s voice and interested in their story, you jump to the next piece, with no explanation. It’s disconcerting, and the novel is, sometimes, a little pleased with its own cleverness.
But I am so grateful that the Wachoskis have released their movie—whatever it ends up being like—at this moment, right now, so that we all have cause to think about the novel in this particular election season. 2012 is a strange year—oddly quiet, compared to the euphoric loudness of 2008’s campaign and 2011’s occupations. The 2012 election is a reminder that change is hard, and speech not always effective, at least not in the way you planned. Cloud Atlas is anchored by those hard truths. And yet, it’s also the novel I’ve read in the last few years that most effectively made the case for the urgent moral imperative facing us all: to bear witness to what we, as a people, are doing to ourselves and this planet.
Cloud Atlas’s six juxtaposed stories illustrate a several-hundred year history, some of it speculative, in which social injustice and environmental devastation combine, as the inextricable effects of crass, blind, human greed. The novel charts the awakenings of several characters as they struggle to act against the injustices they witness. Is what they do enough? How will they know?
Of the few threads that combine the stories, one is the lingering trace of storytelling itself. The words characters speak have powerful ripple effects through the timescape of the novel, inspirationally so. Cloud Atlas returns, again and again, to the imperative need for speech. And it’s because it so powerfully delivers this message that Cloud Atlas’s small details—especially, but not only, the mouthless baby—are so completely wrenching. This mouthless baby is the darkest specter raised by Mitchell’s moral parable: somewhere in this moral universe is a possible future with no storytellers, no voices at all.
Knowing this makes the drive to say something, anything, almost impossible to resist. Yet what I admire about the book is its keen awareness that speech, like change, is hard. It does not always go right.
The year I graduated from college, Huston Diehl was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer started in her tongue. A friend and I wrote her a card, sitting outside our favorite diner. It was spring and I had just discovered my first gray hair. I wrote, “Dear Huston, I am so sorry, and am glad to hear you are doing better.” We wrote in alternately lines of pink and purple ink. “I imagine you feel sort of like how I used to when I would get a foot cramp on the way to dance class—pained in important places.” I remember that line exactly because I was proud of it right up until the moment when we put the card in the mailbox and I realized that I had just compared cancer to a cramp. I never really apologized: what to say? The last time I saw her, she was smaller, but smiling, and we embraced.
Craig Arnold died—was lost—exploring a volcano. I wish I were making any of this up. About the weeks between the day he set off for a morning hike and the afternoon, too many days later, when we learned the search for his body had been called off, it is very difficult to speak. Craig is not really mine to grieve. When I think about it, I don’t imagine rock. I think of green, green, green: leaves and lushness, rushing up, beautiful.
I think of the inside of a volcano. The stomach of a quiet volcano is where Cloud Atlas—and here is where I’m always a little stuck, wondering what Craig knew or was telling me—begins. In the novel, the main character finds a sort of cemetery, a tribute to a people that had been nearly exterminated. That mass grave is the start of the narrator’s awakening, a beginning and an end.
The second half of Cloud Atlas spirals backwards in history, through its six stories, to it’s original character faced with several hard truths. He sees slavery, decline, failure, doom that might be “written in our nature.” He also sees hope. “Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind’s mirror, the world.” He says something we should all remember. “I will do this…because I must begin somewhere.”
I would recommend Cloud Atlas to you because it is a beautiful book. Because it is about love, not in the Tom Hanks sense of the term, but in the darker, truer, and more enduring, galvanizing sense—the love that’s like grass growing on stone, a kiss next to cancer, the love that looks death in the face. Someday, we’ll all die, no matter who is elected. Someday a mouthless baby may be born. That doesn’t mean it is not of the utmost moral concern that we do everything we can in the time left to us. It might earn us a little more time. It might, possibly, make the time we have a little more beautiful.
Sarah Mesle: A little judgy.