Aaaaaaand David Mitchell!


out of africa

I wonder if I can say anything about it at all. I know why I shouldn’t. I didn’t put myself in the position of being able to explain Said to one of Said’s own students (you’re welcome, Vince) without understanding [at least some of] the many ways in which I should read this book with a fistful of criticism at the ready. And I do, I cringe at the parts where she makes these comparisons between people and non-people. Hell, I read Gone With the Wind in order to better understand the assbackward Southern mentality that welled up around me from time to time; I see the similarities. The things that should not be written and, once written, should not be read, not by someone like me, now.

But her descriptions. Of the drought—they’re beautiful. Of the land. Of course of the land—what do I ever return to but glorious descriptions by one person of a people-less place? People will disappoint you; you have the relief, with rock and cloud and leaf, of never having been under the impression that it gave a damn about you in the first place. Resist, if you will, the urge to view that as self-pitying. There is no pity here. I love people who write about land. Even if their other topics are problematic. Embarrassing. Especially coming from someone who was so impressive in other ways. Sticking it out. Trying to make her far-flung foreignness work—more guts than I ever had, there. But:

On and evening just before sunset, the scenery drew close round you, the hills came near and were vigorous, meaningful, in their clear, deep blue and green colouring. A couple of hours later you went out and saw that the stars had gone, and you felt the night-air soft and deep and pregnant with benefaction.

When the quickly growing rushing sound wandered over your head it was the wind in the tall forest-trees,—and not the rain. When it ran along the ground it was the wind in the shrubs and the long grass,—and not the rain. When it rustled and rattled just above the ground it was the wind in the maize-fields,—where it sounded so much like rain that you were taken in, time after time, and even got a certain content from it, as if you were at least shown the thing you longed for acted on a stage,—and not the rain.

But when the earth answered like a sounding-board in a deep fertile roar, and the world sang round you in all dimensions, all above and below,—that was the rain. It was like coming back to the Sea, when you have been a long time away from it, like a lover’s embrace.

(An aside—am I more susceptible to second-person voice, after a childhood spent reading and writing Choose Your Own Adventure stories, and an adolescence more or less spent trying to pry meaningful direct address from anyone I respected? Certainly I am more susceptible to the Britishism of this period—“round” instead of “around;” “got” instead of “received” a certain content…they’re barebones without meaning to be; clipped words that didn’t yet know future would elongate them; demand more from them; at least on this side of the Atlantic.)

I have been sick, and can smell or taste nothing. So when she describes the drought:

It was, then, as if the Universe were turning away from you. It grew cooler, on some days it would be cold, but there was no sign of moisture in the atmosphere. Everything became drier and harder, and it was as if all force and gracefulness had withdrawn from the world. It was not bad weather or good weather, but a negation of all weather, as if it had been deferred sine die. A bleak wind, like a draught, ran over your head, all colour faded from all things; the smells went away from the fields and forests. This feeling of being in disgrace with the Great Powers pressed on you. To the South, the burnt plains lay black and waste, striped with grey and white ashes.

I think, vainly, of the absence of taste and smells in my skull; of the drought of sensation a terrible headcold (god, what an ethnocentric—not even that, just plain selfish—comparison!) brings, and I pine for the rain along with the writer.

But I do love the book. I picked it up now, though it was in my house all the years of my growing up, while thinking of my mom, who told me—why she hadn’t done so before, I don’t know—in the car, as we drove to the airport to catch my plane to Japan and as I glowered fiercely at the floor lest I be seen to be the crying wreck I was, of her flight to Kenya. How there were so many different planes, it was a 28-hour trek in all, and in the little bushplane on the last leg she kept thinking oh god, what have I gotten myself into, I’ll never survive this. And then the sun rose over the savannah, this huge hulking disk of red lighting up the silhouette of a baobob tree (just like you’d imagine!) and she thought (she told me) You know what, no, I can do this. I thought of this all the way over, and then now, when she has been ill, really ill, I thought of the book I’d never bothered to read, disinterested in Africa as I was as a child. 

And it’s beautiful but upsetting. I want so much to respect this lady for toughing it out and for—something Margaret Mitchell surely never managed—yes, managing to care for people as people, independent entities capable of forming their own (not inferior) ways of looking and acting in the world. It’s just that in the descriptions…all this bullshit about being one with nature like this or that animal…ick. I know the times in which she wrote didn’t frown on it but I can’t not wince, reading it, or worry that in liking anything at all in the book I am in some way endorsing this antiquated and dehumanizing viewpoint.

Anyway, I wanted to write something about it now, before I went to see Cloud Atlas and all other things went out the window.

cloudless atlas

This appears to be the year of filmic reproductions of all the books I read in 2009, when I was alone abroad and in a prime position to take a whole hell of a lot to heart from them. Below is the extended trailer for Cloud Atlas, which played before Argo yesterday:

I was skeptical when I heard this was being made into a movie. It’s not my favorite of David Mitchell’s books, but like I said, I was in a position to absorb the maximum amount of meaning from any English-language materials I could lay my hands on, and I didn’t want this mucked up. Bits of what I guess would officially be trailer critique I was unable to avoid reading in seeking this video suggest the more movie-minded doubts about this being an “unfilmable” book. That’s fine, but that wasn’t my concern. I didn’t what was mattered to me tampered with.

And this trailer has restored my faith that that might not be the case.

Let me go on record as maybe the only person my age who has a lasting respect for and trust in Tom Hanks. Not for his portrayals of a generation not my own—I haven’t even seen all of Saving Private Ryan; just bits and pieces various professors decided to shock us with over the years—but because, I guess, the many movies I saw him in, at all parts of my life, seemed to show a way into adulthood (beginning and end) that wasn’t abhorrant to me. This is not a paean to Tom Hanks and I’m not going to go into detail. But he could be a teenager without smashing pumpkins, a bemused young lover without being a lecher, a man abandoned without enacting revenge. I think many people my age just see him as a hack, maybe just because he did find success in that somber way that he did with Saving Private Ryan. But I probably respect his voiceover as much as Morgan Freeman’s—maybe more so, because I haven’t heard him do so many commercials so when I hear the voice, I think it’s someone whose chosen characters, at least, are people I would listen to, by and large.

So him being in it and voicing so much of this introduction to this moviefied book I care deeply about, yeah, that matters. But even before that—look, this is like a kaledeioscope of so many images that are of personal value to me. The tallship (how many hours did I spend writing Master and Commander fanfiction and, conversely, plowing through the books as the rare piece of literature my father and I could share?) the angle of the sun (how many of my little plastic book stickies joyfully direct my later attention to a passage proving that at last, someone else feels exactly that same way in exactly that same kind of light), the lone piano (surely I’ve sung its praises more than adequately here by now) being absorbed by one incapable of producing music and (what’s more) palpably jealous of the one capable of producing it? I know I am willfully projecting onto this and what is actually in the book versus what I’m projecting is muddled; I don’t remember all of the book. I read it in two or three parts—I had a lot of books going that year. When I would reach the end of a section, I would lay it aside for awhile. They aren’t as connected as in Number 9 Dream.

But see, that’s what’s so glorious about this trailer. It connects things for you. The thread in the book could be lost and forgotten about for pages at a time. Not here. I make no claims to visual high-mindedness—those simple fade-ins slay me, because if I can’t remember all of the plot surrounding them I know the yank of time passing they’re making clear, and the people I loved passing away as heralded by the fade. I think at the 1:18 mark I started crying in the theater. Of course I have a personal attachment to the trains. I am no coldhearted reviewer seeking to separate my personal bias from some imagined objective measure of good or bad. I grew up with trains and gorgeous landscapes and the people who took me to them are falling away from me. Often by my own doing. Of course I cry. (No one noticed, by the way. I am highly skilled in camoflaged crying. At any time of year I can come up with a believable allergy for you, or time my coughs so you are brought to mind of the guy hacking his lungs up two rows behind, and you think “god what a terrible cold that’s going around…”)

Anyway. The train fade. The piano. The bespectacled Tom Hanks that follows, saying “I can’t explain it, but I knew when opened that door…” And I don’t remember who that character is, or which segment that appeared in or if it was even a line at all. But the trailer fills it in with “I knew you before.” He doesn’t say it but we clearly see it. And let me state how hard I have tried to force familiarity in my life. I was always told, growing up, “You’ve been here,” of places I couldn’t remember because I was too young (two years!) or too stupid or self-absorbed to take in in the proper way. I could see that my inability to remember things pained people, so I tried desperately to force a memory. I built on the tidbits they gave me and fed them a memory I never had. The texture of a snowball or the sting of a cut knee. The vista from a certain outcrop; the peculiar lawn furniture on grass I might have toddled across at one point, but which only existed now in pictures and in the minds of others—not my own. Movies, advertisements, peers with little to no geographical knowledge: I had been there, I had done that, I had walked those roads even if little Timmy next door didn’t know what country they were in, let alone what state. The onus is always on me. Remember, and cheer people, and bring comfort to them. Force lines of connection that memory should rightfully have smudged past all recognition. Connect the damn dots. Remember what my family is doomed to forget.

And this trailer does it for you. I suppose people could scoff at this and loftily claim it tells rather than shows, even to the point of flinging words at you—deathlifebirth, futurepresentpast etc. Let them come. Sometimes people need to be fucking told. I realize this is dangerously hypocritical, coming from someone who hugely resents the religious overtones to the comfort I have recently been offered by some parties. I know they mean well; I know that the beliefs they subscribe to are those they deem necessary for themselves, and I do not begrudge them those beliefs. But that strifled, straitlaced telling of how things are is not the telling I am saying people need. Or that they are getting, with this film trailer. It only throws concepts at you after all; what you do with your knowledge of them is your responsibility. Even with the extensive voiceovers—“our lives are not our own”—there is still no dictation as to what one ought to do. Merely the insistence that we see them as extant, perhaps for longer than is first apparent. That is what I value. And I don’t remember a dictation from the book. Maybe it was there and I forgot; maybe the message was as fragmented as the narrative. Maybe it was more subtle than all-caps words flashing across a screen. Maybe that was the book’s failure—not making people see.

But some things will be clear. Can’t not be clear. The Moriori, for example. I never forgot them, but I always forgot that name. Every few months I will look it up—at home, at work, on my phone, wherever. I remember them as the people in Cloud Atlas on the Chatham Islands (I can remember those, even! empty names!) who actually existed, who really didn’t kill, and were all killed instead by the Maori, whose names I can always remember. But Moriori always slips off my tongue, for all that the syllables conform easily to languages I tried to make a career out of, once. The name’s just a hole in my head, and it’s one I refill time and time again, reminding myself. And that’s no big or deep revelation, I know. But in a year where everything I read was ratcheted up to a deranged level of intensity necessary for me to feel like a living thing and not a distasteful bit of something stuck to someone’s spike heel, for the one people in this one section of this one book to have lasted and made me feel a pressing need to always remind myself of who they were, is surely worth something.

ETA: In the shorter trailer (this one), at the 1:12 mark (voiceover starts at 1:07, if you want to get the whole sentence), there is another very simple fade that makes me swoon. Both settings date from different historical obsessions of mine; the forced visual connection may be artless but then so were my forced memories, and they served their purpose, even if they have since instilled in me a desire to connect things (surely I’ve seen that actor before? that vista? that piece of music?) that have no connection.

Stone’s Fall

I read for two reasons: to be amazed and to be sheltered. Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears whom I very much love, I sheltering in its vastness. One of my favorite periods in history, expansively portrayed and explained. Massive and immediate and all-consuming.

Reading things like this, though, I begin to wonder if maybe the motivating factor behind most conspiracy theories isn’t hate or narrow-minded was even, but simplistic fear. If you assume that people are in control way up there somewhere, even if you think they’re evil and hatching nefarious plots, they are people, like you, and can be understood with time. Maybe believing evil people are in charge is more comforting than thinking that there’s no one at the wheel, that we’re careening down the tracks with nary a thought as to where we’ll end up, or even if the tracks have been laid yet to get us there.