Cloud Atlas: Part II

September 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

I have to admit: I cried. It seems to be a recurring theme in my life recently that, whenever I am alone and watching a film, I cry. Of course, this may have something to do with the film itself. Watching the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for the first time, by yourself, is never the best decision.
Watching Cloud Atlas alone was, in fact, a good decision. I am reticent in saying this next bit, but: reading the book helped. Perhaps this is true of most adaptations. Watching Apocalypse Now armed with your knowledge of Heart of Darkness can only add to the experience, enabling you to predict the outcome of each instance. In fact, I think knowing what will occur inevitably in a film and, therefore, knowing its overall raison d’etre and purpose, can add to the suspense and tension – perhaps, two rather typical things to note in relation to film. With Cloud Atlas, this was certainly true, although its directors, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, tweaked aspects of the novel’s partly inverted plot. This had to be done and I think that their choices were the right ones to make when it comes to film. For example, visuals, of course, played a huge part throughout with actors playing numerous roles, thereby reappearing across eras. It was fun spotting the overlap: in one scene we see Hugh Grant as a cannibal in a post-apocalyptic Earth; in another, he is the sexist head honcho of a nuclear power plant, doing his usual turn as a smarmy charmer. Yet, there were instances in which it became outright funny, particularly Tom Hanks’ attempt at an Irish accent. Nevertheless, I understand the decision to use the same actors for several roles; it was an avant garde choice for an avant garde book. In an interview with the three directors, an accompaniment to the movie’s trailer, they discuss their desire to not only have actors played different roles, but different races, gender and ages. This, they say, delved to the heart of the book’s central ideas: connectivity, karma, the inheritance of consequences. (If you would like to watch the directors’ commentary, then here it is). It is this aspect of the film that I think most people have struggled with; that, and its inability to be defined. As Andy Wachowski says, ‘Why keep genres separated?’, a point that raises further queries regarding genre itself, in both fiction and film, and the stigma that so-called ‘genre fiction’ faces. No one knows quite how to describe this film. What is it about? In fact, what is it?’ Films struggle far more with such issues than books do (although, NB: I am no film studies expert). In a book, there is the space and length to describe anything and everything, as minutely or vaguely as the author wishes. Film is a different medium, one based on the eye, on a moment. We may have the rewind button, but rewinding back to a scene can create a jarring experience; unlike with a book, which welcomes the easy backwards flicking to a previous page, to another chapter or, even, the final line (I am all too guilty of the latter). That moment in the book when Luisa Rey reads Robert Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and he ‘mentions a comet-shaped birthmark between his shoulder-blade and collar-bone’; then, in the shower, she looks in the mirror at the ‘birthmark between her shoulder-blade and collar-bone’. This was one of the novel’s numerous revelatory moments that the reader tallies up like clues in a detective story. Yet instead, in the film, we have this instance reduced to an obviously Significant Moment in the elevator when Sixsmith mentions Frobisher’s birthmark and we see Luisa’s reaction as it slowly dawns on her (that old cliché). This scene felt a bit forced; I could almost see the mechanics of it. Of course, it’s an important discovery and I see why such decisions must be made in a time-constrained film that is already bursting at the bit with action and characters and time-zones. But, I prefer the slow burn of the written word and being given the chance to come to a conclusion by yourself instead of glaringly obvious ‘this is important, stay alert’ dialogue.
Although, it must be noted that this scene in the elevator did not require prior knowledge of the book, nor did several other scenes such as the brilliant unfurling of the Frobisher and Sixsmith story, right to its devastating end. Their strand was beautifully rendered on screen and I could have watched an entire film solely dedicated to their relationship. However, the opening with Zachry left me a little startled and confused; obviously, I don’t want to underestimate an audience’s ability to contextualise the opening or position themselves in the narrative, but if I hadn’t read the novel, I would have been lost from the beginning. I must concede, though, that my prior understanding of the book may have been a disadvantage when it came to the film. I watched it expecting one thing and, when the film did not adhere to the book’s structure, my mind rebelled somewhat. Perhaps this says more about the difficulties in adapting novels to the screen, and less about Cloud Atlas, the book and film. Regardless, I like that the film ends where it begins, with Zachry, in a similar way that the book itself does (the film inverts the book, in that the book’s central story of Zachry becomes the film’s metaphorical bookends).
If anything, Cloud Altas is a film that requires your attention; it isn’t “easy viewing” exactly but I prefer films with important messages, however highfalutin that sounds. This certainly comes armed with numerous big messages, ones that are pertinent to our current culture and society, one that is based heavily on connectivity and yet largely devoid of community or mutual responsibility. Having only recently watched The Matrix, too, I can’t help hoping that Cloud Atlas may turn into another Wachowski cult classic, one infused with philosophical and political questions about our world and the decisions that we must make about its future.


Cloud Atlas, Part I

August 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ever since the trailer for Cloud Atlas emerged on YouTube a whole year ago (seriously, Time, where do you go?), I have been somewhat obsessed. I discovered the advert back in October and watched it, re-watched it, watched it again, and again ad infinitum. It was one of several things that helped me through my dissertation, giving me some distance from it and providing time to think of other things beyond Brontë Land. I promised myself that I would not see the film until I had read the book. This is a recurring theme in my literary life of late. I keep watching adaptations of novels and then, never actually reading the original text. North and South, for example. Thankfully, that’s on one of my module reading lists for this coming year in Durham, so there is no excuse not to read it. Anyway, back to Cloud Atlas. Miraculously, I have now read it. Having already read Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, his debut novel (and what a debut!), I knew what to expect: an impeccable ability to be another character. Reading his novels is like reading in the voice of the narrator, and there are plenty of those. Cloud Atlas shares a similarity with Ghostwritten in that both weave together several characters’ seemingly separate lives, lacing them together until they are all connected; their lives cannot be un-knitted together. Cloud Atlas is, to quote Mitchell, structured like a Russian doll. Its stories are encased within one another. It begins in the ninteenth century with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, who is cut off mid-sentence as we slide to the next section, Letters from Zedelghem, set in 1931. Once more, we only get halfway through this story before the next one begins. At the centre of the novel is effectively its conclusion in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, from which the previous sections all start up from where they left off until we end where we began with Adam Ewing. I know I keep harping on about my Contemporary British Fiction module, but it is truly one of the few modules that has kept me thinking, even after the final tutorial and exam. Perhaps it is because it is so… contemporary; I felt that the literature we read had a pulse, a living present and could lead to other interesting, unique and revelatory works. Cloud Atlas, in my opinion, is one such work.

Whilst considering the novel’s structure, I have to agree that it is, of course, like a Russian doll. But, it also spans outwards from it’s centre, like a giant fan or an accordian. The central story (by central, I do not mean ‘most important’, but, literally, at the novel’s core), called Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, involves Sonmi, whom the Valleysmen worship as a protective goddess. When Meronym, a member of a more enlightened tribe called the Prescients, comes to stay with the Valleysmen to learn more about their ways of life, she brings with her an orison. This orison contains the image of Sonmi~451, the central character in An Orison of Sonmi~451. Within that story, is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, woven into Sonmi’s narrative as a film. And then, within Timothy’s ghastly ordeal appears Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery which, in turn, includes Letters from Zedelghem which involves The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the section that opens and closes the entire book. It is also bestowed with one of the best last lines (well, paragraphs) that I have ever read. So, there you have the structure, which either fans out or stacks inwardly like a Russian doll – take your pick.

Woven throughout these six interlaced strands is the motif of the comet-shaped birthmark shared by several characters. This birthmark reappears, as fixed on the skin as a star in the sky. Not only does this image imply rebirth and reincarnation (although, these characters are not the same person; they are all unique and individual – although, I’ll return to this later); the symbol of a comet must hold some meaning in itself. A certain fixity and, yet, fleetingness: this is, to me, what comets represent. If you are lucky enough to see one streaming across a clear night, then you will understand the thrill of witnessing such a phenomenon. And yet, it is over in seconds. The comet birthmark may represent those fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them similarities between people, those coincidences that link us, from generation to generation. Mitchell is wonderful at portraying a world in which everything is connected; and, therefore, one in which we must all share responsibility. There is also the element of pursuit; in each section, the main character is being pursued or imprisoned or manipulated by another, often stronger, group or individual. Mitchell himself has spoken of the novel’s preoccupation with predacity, the way individuals prey on others. As ‘Dr’ Henry Goose tells Adam Ewing: ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat’. So, the novel becomes a tale of survival; humanity’s indomitable ability to keep surviving, to keep going, despite the self-destruction of civilisation. Fleeing hotels, escaping precarious situations and avoiding death all recur, with Luisa Rey even feeling a sense of deja vu whilst escaping from Swanneke Island in the early hours of the morning: ‘A swarm of deja vu haunts Luisa as she stuffs her belongings into her overnight bag. Robert Frobisher doing a dine and dash from another hotel.’ This is, again, simply the nature of humankind, the preservation of the self. Even more so, it is about the power of Good over Evil, those elusive dichotomous words. The survival of Ewing, achieved, as he notes, because of his own mercy on the self-freed slave Autua who saves his life, becomes symbolic of the ‘virtuous acts’ which stem from doing what is right, in pursuit of truth, equality and justice (another sense of pursuit; only, not quite so predatory). It is bitter-sweet way to end the novel, with Ewing’s avowal to pledge himself an Abolitionist against the words of his father-in-law and against the so-called “natural’ order of things’. He concludes that ‘one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself’; ‘selfishness is extinction’. Adam’s monologue predicts the future of the human race and of Earth. The reader has already seen the outcome of our own selfishness, which did, indeed, lead to virtual extinction. Those strong who ate the weak began to consume themselves. Reading this novel ten years after its initial release does not lose its sense of immediacy. Of course, survival is possible. But, so is change. Perhaps some philosophers or social anthropologists would argue that this is the ‘natural order of things’, to have predators and victims, to have the stronger and the weaker. Yet, as Mitchell writes, is such entropy written within our nature? Is this truly the ‘natural’ way of life and of human beings?

The best way to end is to simply quote the novel’s ending, in which Adam predicts the words of his father-in-law, a firm believer in this ‘natural order’ – he gives the perfect response:

“Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than a drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’

The Lighthouse

July 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Back in March, some of my friends and I went to Oxford. It was wonderful and I came away from the mega-Blackwell’s with three books: a limited edition of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’; John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’; and Alison Moore’s ‘The Lighthouse’. Three months on, and I have finally read them all (except for Gray’s, which is on hold until I can regain the strength to cope with his pessimism). Moore’s debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, coming up against such heavy-weights (considering the length of their entries, quite literally) as Hilary Mantel and Will Self. Moore’s was a much quicker read, coming in at only one hundred and eighty-three pages; however, its slimness does not reflect its depth. To put it metaphorically, it is like skimming a rock and watching the ripples, only then to follow the rock itself as it spins and sinks to the water’s floor. This novel follows the rock.
The novel’s chapters are all titled. As it progresses, the reader accumulates a list of objects, from violets to oranges, breasts to disinfectant. Not only are the chapters headed with these items; the rest of the text is filled with little inferences and mentions of them. Venus flytraps are, perhaps, one of the most memorable objects that permeate the differing, interweaving strands of the novel. There is Futh’s adolescence, the days after his mother’s abandonment of him and his father, one strand that appears through a series of flashbacks, remembered by the current Futh on a walking holiday along the Rhine. As he walks, he recalls previous visits to Germany, first with his father after his mother’s desertion, and then with his now-ex-wife, Angela, on their disastrous honeymoon. These two strands of Futh’s life, past and present, entwine with the thread of Ester and Bernard, the managers of the first and last hotel that Futh stays in during his holiday. Since their hotel is Futh’s first and final stop, he comes full circle, returning to where he began. Yet, as he nears his destination, there is an ominous sense that lingers. It is an atmosphere planted by Carl’s (a man whom Futh meets on the ferry to Germany) question: ‘Do you ever get a bad feeling … about something that’s going to happen?’ [p25]. The Venus flytrap is just one of the objects that maintains this sinister sense. Futh’s father begins an affair with the neighbour, Gloria, whose son, Kenny, Futh is acquainted with (Kenny ends up playing a key role in the breakdown of Futh and Angela’s marriage – see: the layers of accumulation and responsibility build up, until you realise that everyone is connected in some way). Gloria has a Venus flytrap that ‘catches every little thing that comes by’ [p74]; it catches a moth and Futh sees ‘legs and the edges of wings poking out’. Ester has a Venus flytrap, too; in fact, she has several and tickles their leaves to make them close over the half-dead insects that she feeds it.
Helpless, small creatures are engulfed by a mechanical-like being; it is beyond their control or strength. In a way, Futh is like these insects. He is drawn back to the Rhine, a bit like a moth to a flame, returning to where he and his father holidayed, to where he and his ex-wife (disastrously) honeymooned. He comes back to Ester and Bernard’s hotel, only to be trapped in Ester’s bathroom. Whilst hiding in the bathroom, Futh smells camphor and the reader knows his fate (it does feel fateful; the answer to Carl’s prescient question). Camphor is the scent with which Bernard douses himself. It lingers throughout the novel (another recurrence), heightened further by Futh’s own occupation as a developer of artificial smells. When he smells it, just before the bathroom light turns on, we already know what is to come.
I could write so much more about this book. It has a slow-burning quality, as its numerous strands are tied together suddenly, almost without the reader realising. At first, I did question the need of characters such as Kenny. Yet, now, I see that my dislike of him stemmed from the unsettling sense that there was something hidden beneath his gruff exterior. Unsettling is the only word that is apt enough for the novel as a whole. That, and uncanny. For, there is a familiarity to it all; yet, there is something else too: a dark void beneath these formalities and familiar normalities. Something lurking; the unspoken, the undone, that side of ourselves that no one knows nor ever will.

Hiatus; hi again

June 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

After a hiatus (from life, basically), I am back in the “real world”. In other words, my degree is over, graduation is in a week’s time, and I am being disgustingly lazy for the first time in an age. The other day I stayed in my pyjamas until 5pm when I had to walk the dog. Blissful, easy, breezy happiness. And the sun’s been out too – thanks, Glasgow!
I’ve been off on my travels, first to Rhodes and then to Amsterdam. The first was a week in the sun, filled with wine, cocktails, dancing, and not much else. Oh, and apparently I drink water like it’s air. Who knew?! We visited the site of the Colossus of Rhodes and sauntered around the Old Town which was beautiful, the perfect place for an evening ramble. One night we went out in Rhodes and found ourselves in a club that was a bit like being in a rock concert, complete with a mirrored stage, a woman playing an electric violin and some stage-crashing a bit later on. The drinks were horrible, too; worse than nail-varnish remover diluted with water and grenadine. I also managed to squeeze in a bit of pool-side reading, finally finding the time to read Alison Moore’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, ‘The Lighthouse’. I’m going to write a review of it later this week because I think it is worthy of one. Whilst reading, my mind kept wandering, as I thought of all the ways in which it could be interpreted and analysed. The recurring Venus Fly Trap, the perfume, the named chapters, fathers and mothers, that lingering, haunting ending. Even the name of one of the protagonists, Futh. It sounds like the noise made when a dead moth’s wing breaks up into dust between your fingertips. Fusty, moth-like. Futh.
Amsterdam was all about the walking. We walked endlessly. I could live in Amsterdam. I love the busy buzz, yet there is an ease to life there that I enjoy. I like the coffee and the cake, and the canals; the museums, the cycling, the attitude. Although, my prudish side is a little dismayed by the whole Red Light District area. Plus, I almost knocked a cyclist over (or, perhaps he almost knocked me over) and he looked at me with such hatred, such loathing and disgust, then uttered a stage-whispered ‘Jesus!’, only the ‘j’ was soft and the ‘u’ lengthened, so it sounded like ‘Hesoos!’ Actually, I have a lot to say about Amsterdam and the museums that we visited. I’d been before with my mum, so whilst my friends went off to the Van Gogh Museum, I took myself to the Stedelijk Museum, the Modern Art Gallery. That visit alone is worthy of one post.
So – that’s me for now. Full of lots more to write! Until next time.

Michael Donaghy, ‘The Present’

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I don’t really want to make this blog a list of poems that I admire but, for now and whilst university work is all I care about, here is another. We’ve been warned not to use adjectives in our writing but, still, this is beautiful:

For the present there is just one moon,
though every level pond gives back another.

But the bright disc shining in the black lagoon,
perceived by astrophysicist and lover,

is milliseconds old. And even that light’s
seven minutes older than its source.

And the stars we think we see on moonless nights
are long extinguished. And, of course,

this very moment, as you read this line,
is literally gone before you know it.

Forget the here-and-now. We have no time
but this device of wantonness and wit.

Make me this present then: your hand in mine,
and we’ll live out our lives in it.


Also, for some reason, the black lagoon reminds of me Ezra Pound’s fourteen word poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’. It’s probably the word ‘black’…:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

London & Oxford

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend, I was in London & Oxford (I have also become accustomed to using ampersands) with some of my closest friends from school. Having never visited Oxford, I was very excited to see it. I suppose like many people I have held it in my mind with awe. Whenever I think of it, it is hazy in that sepia-soaked romantic way, with a blue-tinted glow. I blame Brideshead Revisited for such a vision. Anyway, we went along, Kim, Fi and I, and had one of the best weekends of our lives. Okay, so this would usually be a cliché and, therefore, something I would avoid. But – seriously – it was true. We stayed at a hostel, the Oxford Backpackers, and everyone there was just wonderful and friendly and warm and funny. They even told us that we were laidback. I have never been (and probably will never again be) called laidback. We spent two days of endless talking, laughing, being a bit wild, in a constant state of sleep-deprivation but nothing about those two days felt deprived of anything – except, perhaps, sanity! It was as though we were given an alternative life for a weekend, one without worry or insecurity about work or friends or love or anything. It was just ourselves, our conversations and ebullience. And – did you know that the Bodleian library houses all publications within Britain? Even leaflets, stickers and Playboy magazine?! I am aghast at this information!!

On the train back to London, I carried in my bag three books (The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; Straw Dogs by John Gray, which looks incredible; the Penguin limited edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, so inventively simple, I can’t stop looking at it), a beautiful sepia-toned postcard of High Street in Oxford, and, on one finger, a silver ring that has the word LIVE repeated around the band. We all bought a ring. It may sound a childish, frivolous gesture; but it felt oddly apt.

Although, coming back to St Andrews after such a wonderful weekend has been a jolt back to ‘reality’. I have six weeks left until my degree here ends. I am filled with simultaneous feelings of dread, fear and excitement. It all hangs on these next six weeks and part of me feels confident, whilst another part has doubts. Endless doubts.

View from Trinity College, Oxford


Here is a photograph of a view from Trinity College, Oxford, that I took. It snowed when we arrived and continued all day. I know this isn’t the most beautiful of pictures but, to me, there is something quiet and peaceful, almost melancholy, about it.

Larkin, ‘The Life with a Hole in it’

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

My personal essay has led me to read a number of poems in an attempt to find one that fits the words. I came across Philip Larkin’s ‘The Life with a Hole in it’; its final stanza is rather wonderful. The image of the ‘unbeatable slow machine’ reminds me of my mum’s description of working life and the ‘real world’ – once you’re on the treadmill, you can’t get off:

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.