Cloud Atlas, the Trailer

Thomas Jones

A very long trailer for the very long film version of David Mitchell's very long novel Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, and starring multiple Tom Hankses and Halle Berrys, is propagating across the internet, with Warner Bros' lawyers in hot pursuit. It would be nice to think they're trying to repress the trailer because it makes the film look utterly terrible: lots of dreary CGI, clunking explicatory voice overs, bombastic score, intertitles announcing the themes as 'death life birth future present past love hope courage everything is connected'. 'You've saved me twice,' one of the Berrys says to one of the Hankses. 'You fall, I'll catch you,' he replies. Barf.

But then I didn't care for the book either: 'not so much one big novel as a collection of short-winded novellas, each with a beginning and an end, but not much of a middle.' Matthew Reynolds, reviewing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, gave a better sense of what's wrong with it:

Beneath Ghostwritten’s postcolonial multiplicity lurks a neocon assurance of the smallness of the world and the fundamental Westernness of all who live in it. ‘Backpackers are strange,’ the Mongolian spirit says: ‘I have a lot in common with them.’

Cloud Atlas reruns the concept of Ghostwritten but adjusts it as if to palliate this unease. Here the far-flung but tenuously interconnected characters are all English speakers: rather than pictures from a global family album, Cloud Atlas gives us episodes in the continuance of a culture. But the past and the future, the hither and the yon, again turn out to be stocked with recognisable characters and plotlines. Mitchell flaunts his skill in pastiche, matching his different situations to genres including nuclear thrillers and Asimov-inspired sci-fi. Events crowd in, melodrama flourishes: nothing ordinary is allowed to happen for long.

On the plus side, at least the novel doesn't have Tom Hanks in it.


  • 27 July 2012 at 3:21am
    outofdate says:
    I quite enjoyed the book; you're not meant to think about it. It's only because he was given the A.S. Byatt Seal of Approval (the kiss of death for many a nice young man) that he's come to believe he's serious.

  • 27 July 2012 at 1:20pm
    lapsangsouchong says:
    Poor David Mitchell: bathed in gushing admiration wherever else he goes, flinching under the harsh light of critical scrutiny every time he appears in the LRB. Both reviews are pretty much on the money, and so are the passing comments about Cloud Atlas. (I haven't read the two earlier books.)

    You're a bit too mean about Black Swan Green, though. Plenty of writers struggle with the artifice of speaking in the voice of a child character and that book manages it better than most. As to the 1982 signposting, a lot of it realistically captures the sort of specifically dated references that might swim through anyone's stream of consciousness at a given moment, especially the child of highly status-conscious parents. I'm a few years younger than Jason, but I'm pretty sure that The Empire Strikes Back, Madness, At-At walkers, ET, Monster Munch, and Triumph TR-7s figured prominently in my stream of consciousness in 1982--they certainly figure prominently in my memory.

    The physical and mental landscape is perfectly caught, too. I live a few miles from the real-life 'Black Swan Green', and biking around the area you can recognize (with the shifts and changes of a generation's difference) landscapes, characters, lifestyles, attitudes from the book: small villages with large cars, and rows of houses--of commuter homes--that would have been brand new when Jason, or someone like him, or someone like David Mitchell, lived there in 1982.

    But yes, the second half of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a real disappointment.

    • 29 July 2012 at 2:04pm
      Yesbut: a child narrator, preferably with some sort of affliction -- what could be pandering more abjectly to the market for lower-middle-brow 'literary' fiction? You're both still in your different ways being too kind to David Mitchell, who it seems self-evident to me is a writer of popular fiction best reviewed in roundups, and better still not at all.

      Here's a scenario. In the late 1990s, early 2000s certain kinds of SF loosely grouped as 'slipstream' gained some mainstream traction, mainly thanks to Rupert Thomson on the one hand and on the other SF authors like Ian McDonald and Christopher Priest, with William Gibson always in the background. As a result Mitchell got a respectable publisher, which confused poor Mrs Byatt, who'd naturally read none of the real stuff and therefore thought his books vastly fresher and more original than they were.

      Up to the third book he may have been derivative and no Einstein, but he did have a knack for a ripping yarn; now with the dead hand of the doyenne upon him, where could he drag himself but to the worst cliches of her world (whose gate, I always imagine, bears the inscription 'Roddy Doyle Ha Ha Ha')? And when he crept back into genre -- The 1,000 Whatsits is basically an outpost-on-the-edge-of-a-singularity SF novel -- he found himself so weighed down by the trappings of his new station that he fumbled that too.

      Nor should we forget the critic James Wood, than whom none better and more sensitive at explaining why books are good that time and less articulate colleagues with better taste have established as such, but who faced with younger writers will invariably plumb for the twee-est and most doily-like on offer -- and what could be twee-er than what you might call mid-period David Mitchell? And even Wood timidly asked what the 'real' David Mitchell might sound like if he laid off the pastiche, and of course there's no such thing.

      In short, it's all been a terrible misunderstanding. Terrible for literature, partly (but she'll live, or more likely not, regardless), and terrible above all for David Mitchell, who was once an honest entertainer, up there with Robert Goddard and Philip Kerr, but must now roam limbo with nothing but shitloads of money and an armful of prizes to show for it.

  • 27 July 2012 at 8:19pm
    grrg says:
    For the record, it is not accurate to refer to Andy and Lana Wachowski as "The Wachowski Brothers." Lana is a transgendered woman. The pair go by "The Wachowskis" now, a appellation with the added benefit of concision.

  • 8 August 2012 at 5:18pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Cloud Atlas is not 'very long'. At 529 pages it's shorter than The Da Vinci Code. Nor does it take long to read — it's a clever page-turner, where the the moderately intriguing structure and skilful literary pastiche fooled some more excitable readers into thinking there was also a matching depth of characterisation and theme. Enjoy it is as a smarter-than-average beach read and you won't go far wrong.

    And Tom Hanks is due a good movie. He's had them before — Big, Saving Private Ryan, That Thing You Do!