Conflict (or the Lack Thereof) Through Structure
July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.
Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.
I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas. Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years. Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.
All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.” These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well. I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another. But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form. The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite. Nothing is ever only its own story. No one is ever only their own self. That’s the point.
It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict. You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature! man vs. self! man vs. society! That whole bit. (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.) The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.
Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident? Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length. (I loved drawing those graphs. If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.) But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete. The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions. Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.
One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after. You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension. (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.) A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:
Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”
The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it). Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar. Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.
What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics. He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey. That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.