Thursday, December 20, 2012

Immersion: the Case of Cloud Atlas

“I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished reading it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.”
Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

When someone asks me what my favorite book is, I often can’t even answer.  Or, I could give a different answer every time asked.  Or interrogate the question.  My go-to answer for a few years, if I happen to have half my wits about me, has been David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  When I say I might interrogate the question I mean, in the case of Cloud Atlas particularly, it’s my favorite as in favorite reading experience, as opposed to other kinds of favorites.
After seeing the recent film version directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, I was talking about the book with my friend Sherry Simpson, who also liked it and she said she couldn’t remember that much about it, that she remembers it as a kind of dream.  Yes to that.
I loved Mitchell’s first two books Number 9 Dream and Ghostwritten, and I knew I would read Cloud Atlas as soon as it appeared, as I have continued to do with Mitchell’s work, and will until he misfires, which he hasn’t yet done. 
In 2004 I lived in a town without a bookstore.  I lived there for thirteen years.  And yes, I worked in a university.  This, of course, begs the question, what kind of university town doesn’t have a bookstore?  Frankly, without Amazon, I may not have survived there for as long as I did.  So whenever we left town we wove a bookstore visit into the excursion.  Thus even when I drove down to Springfield to have some x-rays read (another thing that apparently couldn’t be done in that town) I left a couple hours early to hit Barnes & Noble.
I found a damaged copy of Cloud Atlas and bought it.  It had a little coffee stain and, anyway, the book hadn’t been released in hardcover in the U.S.  Then I went to the specialist and was told I had cancer.
The surgery was three weeks later and I read Cloud Atlas while I recuperated, during which I was in considerable pain and under a fairly steady dose of morphine.  Thus to say that reading the book was like being in a dream was exponentially true of this reading.  I was immersed, distracted from my pain both physical and psychic.  I was lost in Mitchell’s worlds, and they were marvelous.
The movie, by the way, is not nearly as marvelous, but I give the directors an A for effort, and, in fact, I would see it again.  But the problem with the film is that it is obvious where the book is subtle, at least subtle enough to not dispel my suspension of disbelief.  The book does not need to explain itself, as the movie seems to feel repeatedly compelled to do.  The book shows, the movie tells, for you writers workshop types.  The New Yorker critic, Anthony Lane, says of the movie, “one has to ask: does it allow for immersion?”  It’s obviously a rhetorical question: it does not, precisely because it presents itself as a puzzle, a test to see how capable the audience is of “paying attention.”  You watch the film as if you will be tested on it afterwards.  The book, however, is a world(s) into which one might be immersed.  I sure was.
Theory alert: skip this paragraph if theory makes your head explode.  If I remember Barthes with any accuracy (doubtful) I would say that Cloud Atlas is scriptible, as opposed to lisible; writerly as opposed to readerly.  Thus its effects on the reader are more of the jouissance variety: bliss, not merely pleasurable (plaisir).  Were I to say one more word about this I would certainly be wrong, if I’m not already.
To say that in another way: Consider the photograph that opens this post.  It’s a chart Mitchell made as he was writing his most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The photo is from the Paris Review #193. When you read the book, you don’t see the chart, or imagine there had ever been a chart.  The book feels organic.  But in the film of Cloud Atlas, you not only see the chart, the movie feels like it is itself almost a chart.  Another way: in the movie you can see the strings that connect the marionettes to the puppetmasters.  In reading the books you can’t imagine such strings exist.
Cloud Atlas is one of those rare books that I love but don’t necessarily wish to reread, because eight years after reading it for the first time I remain entranced and I don’t wish to risk breaking its enduring spell.
I was planning to add some thoughts about the experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while on an expedition in Nepal.  Talk about a dream within a dream!   But that will have to wait . . .