Posts Tagged ‘hitchcock’

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

This book is sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock mashup, so of course I loved it. It’s a mystery that has echoes of Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author worked in cinema in the 1960s, so the influence can’t be an accident. You may not see his pen name on the screen, though; some of his work was done under his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. I’m impressed with the fact that he gave himself a sobriquet that is an anagram of his real name.

It’s easy to kill, it’s easy to die. Everything is easy. Except, maybe, to console for a minute the child who is still trapped inside of us, who has not grown up, who never will grow up, and who never stops calling for help.

Dany Longo is a nice girl, pretty, shy, like a Joan Fontaine character. She borrows her employer’s Thunderbird while he’s on vacation and goes on a trip of her own, but as she gets away from Paris, people keep claiming to have seen her the day before. Shopkeepers, garage mechanics, hotel concierges, everyone saw her passing along yesterday, even though she knows that she’s never been down here before. It’s all very Gothic and unsettling, but she’s not so weak as people think she is. At one point a guy steals the car after seducing her, so she tracks him down and within two hours she’s in a different city taking the car back. There is a (very) handsome truck driver who helps her with some of this, but like a good Gothic book/film, most of the suspense comes from the protagonist’s response to circumstances that are revealed through ordinary people/minor characters.

She was living, fully awake, in a dream. Neither a good dream nor a bad dream; an ordinary dream, the kind she sometimes had and forgot afterwards. But this time she was not going to wake up in her room. She was already awake. She was living in someone else’s dream.

Do such things exist? To take a step indistinguishable from all the other steps you have taken in your life and, without realizing it, cross a frontier of reality; to remain yourself, alive and wide awake, but in the nocturnal dream of, let’s say, the girl next to you in the dormitory? And to keep on going in the certainty that you’ll never leave it again, that you are the prisoner of a world modeled on the real one but totally absurd, a world which is monstrous because it may vanish at any moment into your friend’s brain, and you along with it?

As in dreams, in which motives change as you go along, she no longer knew why she was on a road driving through the night. You walk into a room where – click – a little picture shows a fishing port, but Mama Supe is there, you came to confess to her that you have betrayed Anita and you can’t find the words to explain it to her because it is obscene, and you hit Mama Supe again and again, but she has already turned into another old woman whom you came to see about your white coat, and so forth. What was clearest was that she was supposed to get to a hotel she had already been to, before they could tell a policeman that she had never been there. Or the other way around. They say that when you’re crazy it is other people who seem to be crazy. Well, that must be it. She was crazy.

And of course, it’s hard to see who is significant and who isn’t, who is the murderer and who is mad. Maybe the Mama Supe (Mother Superior to strangers) who raised Dany and now lives as the voice in her head is really malevolent and not the part of her subconscious that protects her from the suicidal urges she feels sometimes. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end and Dany figures it all out.

Of course, there are also moments of humor. It’s a delightful book.

The people of Marseille are very nice. First of all, they don’t insult you any more than most people do if you try to run over them, but they also take the trouble to look at your license plate. When they see that you come from Paris they tell themselves that obviously they must not expect too much of you, they tap their foreheads with their index finger, but without ill will, simply because it’s the thing to do. If at that moment you announce, “I’m lost, I don’t understand anything about your rotten city, the stoplights are out to get me, I’m looking for the freight yard in Saint-Lazare, does it even exist?” they take pity, they blame the good Mother for your misfortune, and a dozen of them crowd around to give you information. Turn right, then left, and when you get to the square with the Arc de Triomphe, watch out for the streetcars, they’ll run you down, my cousin’s wife’s sister stopped one of them and now it is she who has stopped in the family plot, and since she’s at the Canet cemetery it’s too far to bring flowers.

I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even I once caught myself giving directions that included as a landmark that house on the corner that used to be painted chartreuse with yellow trim. Oh you know which one I mean, the guy only painted his house like that because his friend bet him fifty bucks he wouldn’t do it and leave it that color for a year. The joke was on the friend, because he lived happily in the chartreuse house for years. I think it’s white with dark trim now, but it may still have one green side. Then you turn again at the house that always has the dogs lying in the sun on the porch roof. You know the one.

If you’re looking for a great little mystery from the pre-cell phone age, this is it. Of course, there are some triggers: date rape seems to have been very common in France in the 1960s, and once Dany escaped only to leave her friend Anita in her apartment with two horny guys. She feels guilty about it, but she’s also dealing with post-abortion guilt. An important thread to the narrative is Dany’s journey toward valuing herself. At the beginning she’s so weighted by guilt that she’s murmuring “Kill me” in her sleep, and by the end she’s winning the fight to save her life and her sanity from the people who threaten her. She doesn’t have a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant to save her (sexy truck driver isn’t around all the time), so she learns to do it herself. Not just how to save herself, but that her life is worth saving.

Life is full of pressures from within and without, and we have to learn to choose ourselves. For some of us, that’s a hard lesson. And we keep having to repeat it. But our happiness won’t come on its own; we have to learn to value it, to work for it, and to enjoy it when it comes.

Cloud Atlas is structured as a series of interrelated novellas, but upon reading it this time, I believe that it tells one story, about how corporations destroy the world. Some of the people quoted on the cover seem to wonder how it was possible for one man to have written this. I think it’s pretty obvious. First, read widely enough that you’re basically familiar with several genres of fiction. If you love reading, this is not necessarily hard. Then, write one of your six novellas at a time. Read particularly deeply into the genre of the one you’re writing as you go along. After you have your six separate pieces, split them apart and sandwich them together, 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1. It’s not a simple process, but it’s not mindblowingly difficult to understand how he did it. It’s not like authors sit down at page one and write straight through until they finish page 510. The narratives are nested like matryoshka dolls, but someone in Narrative n+1 is always reading Narrative n, so the stories frame each other backwards, like an inside-out Arabian Nights. Each protagonist gets into some sort of trap, and as the net tightens, they find ways to escape: execution, suicide, rescue, triumph.

Part Six: Post-Apocalyptic, Neo-Prehistoric Fantasy

Zachry is a teenager living on Hawaii, the last remaining bit of land that hasn’t been poisoned by ecological disasters so far in the past they’re forgotten. People can live here, so they do. Zachry’s people are fairly peaceful, but the warlike Kona are always threatening their existence. There’s almost no technology, and most children have severe birth defects that prevent their living long, like Zachry’s son who was born without a mouth or nostrils. There’s another group of people on a distant island who retain an understanding of advanced technology, and they come around twice a year to trade. One of these Prescients stays for a half-year to study Zachry’s people, and while he resists at first, he eventually grows close to her. They take a heroic journey up Mauna Kea, and she reluctantly tells him how the world became so fucked up:

Eerie birds I din’t knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.

Oh, her words was a rope o’ smoke. But Old Uns’d got the Smart!

I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.

More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin’.

Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an’ babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.

I asked why Meronym’d never spoke this yarnin’ in the Valleys.

Valleysmen’d not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person’s b’liefs ain’t true, they think you’re sayin’ their lifes ain’t true an’ their truth ain’t true.

Yay, she was prob’ly right.

Zachry’s people believe in a goddess Sonmi, who watches over and protects them. They have an Abbess who interprets Sonmi’s will for them – useful sort of a person, I suppose. The Prescient, however, knows that Sonmi was a real person who lived a few hundred years before, and Zachry finds a recording of Sonmi, which forms the next part.

Part Five: Hi-Tech Sci-Fi Tragedy

Think Arthur Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. Much of the world has been deadlanded, or rendered unfit for human habitation. This makes it clear that the devastation in Zachry’s world isn’t from a nuclear war; it’s the natural, gradual evolution of the type of system we already live in. Korea hasn’t been destroyed yet, but corporations have taken over the government, and to some extent the language. Spelling is simplified to levels that are occasionally hard to understand, and most products have been renamed with a brand name, so all cars are called fords and all films are called disneys. Sonmi-451 is a clone worker for not-quite-McDonald’s; she and her ‘sisters’ work for nineteen hours a day for twelve years, engineered not to ask questions or desire anything more in life. Sonmi begins to develop higher brain function, so she’s removed for further study. Over time, she realizes that she’s the victim of a plot much more devious than she had originally thought. As she’s running from the corporate police, she meets a small commune outside the city, where people resist the corporations.

I said how all purebloods have a hunger, a dissatisfaction in their eyes, xcept for the colonists I had met.

The Abbess nodded. If consumers found fulfillment at any meaningful level, she xtemporized, corpocracy would be finished. Thus, Media is keen to scorn colonies such as hers, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp, royalties from VegCorp patent holders, oxygen from AirCorp. The Abbess feared that, should the day ever come when the Board decided they were a viable alternative to corpocratic ideology, “the ‘tapeworms’ will be renamed ‘terrorists,’ smart bombs will rain, and our tunnels flood with fire.”

I suggested the colony must prosper invisibly, in obscurity.

“Xactly.” Her voice hushed. “A balancing act as demanding as impersonating a pureblood, I imagine.”

After her adventures in running from society, Sonmi writes a series of Declarations that oppose the current system, gets labeled a terrorist, and while you know what will happen to her, her Declarations spread and become the ruling doctrine for the majority of (what’s left of) humanity. But while she’s running, she watches a film about a little old man who gets trapped in a retirement home.

Part Four: Gothic Suspense.

Think Ann Radcliffe or Franz Kafka, but in roughly contemporary England. Timothy Cavendish is a small-time vanity publisher who gets into big trouble when one of his books becomes an accidental success. Running from goons in London, he goes to borrow even more money from his brother, who sends him off to an address in Hull. The address is for an old-folks home taken straight from Ken Kesey, complete with a Nurse Ratchet type overlord. She is prepared to take every necessary step to keep the senile dears from hurting themselves or others, including cutting off all communication with the outside world and confiscating all keys and valuables. Cavendish makes a few friends who still have some sense, and they plot their escape.

“Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back.” Veronica settled herself in a rattan chair and adjusted her hat just so. “We – by whom I mean anyone over sixty – commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

“Veronica’s parents served life sentences in the intelligentsia,” put in Ernie, with a dash of pride.

She smiled fondly. “Just look at the people who come here during visiting hours! They need treatment for shock. Why else do they spout that ‘You’re only as old as you feel!’ claptrap? Really, who are they hoping to fool? Not us – themselves!”

Ernie concluded, “Us elderly are the modern lepers. That’s the truth of it.”

How is this part of the decline of civilization? Cavendish’s UK is full of policies that benefit corporations but make life unnecessarily difficult for individuals. Outside Aurora House, he’s constantly being bullied and expected to wait in lines or wait for trains that unexpectedly stop short of their destinations and leave him stranded. Conformity and patience are expected everywhere, and as people age, their tolerance for this type of institutionalization fades, so we lock them in special homes “for their own good.” Didn’t someone somewhere say that the true measure of a civilization is how it treats its elderly?

Among the things not confiscated is the manuscript of a mystery novel that he was to have considered for publication, Half-Lives, the first Luisa Rey mystery.

Part Three: Hard-Boiled Detective Story, Environmental Edition

Think Dashiell Hammett, but in 1970s California. Actually, skip that and think The Pelican Brief. Luisa Rey is a small-time reporter for a disreputable magazine who finds out that the local nuclear power plants are not actually that safe, and that her town is ready to go Chernobyl. The company that runs it, backed by the government, does everything in its power to destroy all the evidence so they can go on making money until central California turns into a Thalidomide baby factory. Luisa makes friends with one of the top physicists on the project when the two get trapped in an elevator during a power outage. She tells him about a very brief interview she once had with Alfred Hitchcock:

He didn’t answer my questions because he didn’t really hear them. His best works, he said, are roller coasters that scare the riders out of their wits but let them off at the end giggling and eager for another ride. I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that’s . . . the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes. Hitchcock’s response was […] ‘I’m a director in Hollywood, young lady, not an Oracle at Delphi.’

With Luisa, we get to see the corporate evil up close, almost as clearly as we do with Sonmi, but more realistically because it’s set in a time that we’re familiar with. Luisa also ends up with a set of letters that her physicist friend keeps with him at all times, from his only true love.

Part Two: Modern Art

Think Virginia Woolf, or D. H. Lawrence, or E. M. Forster. Robert Frobisher is an impoverished composer, recently removed from Cambridge without earning a degree. He dashes off to Belgium in 1931 to work as a scribe for an aging big-name, and to hide from his English creditors. He calls his physicist friend the one true love of his life, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping around with men and women of all types.

Next I found a backstreet church (steered clear of the tourist places to avoid disgruntled book dealers) of candles, shadows, doleful martyrs, incense. Haven’t been to church since the morning Pater cast me out. Street door kept banging shut. Wiry crones came, lit candles, went. Padlock on the votive box was of the best. People knelt in prayer, some moving their lips. Envy ‘em, really I do. I envy God, too, privy to their secrets. Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. Did my best to think beatific thoughts, but my mind kept running its fingers over Jocasta. Even the stained-glass saints and martyrs were mildly arousing. Don’t suppose such thoughts get me closer to Heaven.

Frobisher is a joy to read, but I think I would have a hard time being around him if he were real. His boss starts stealing his material, so he decides to go on his own, despite threats of being ruined. He writes a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, cello, clarinet, and violin, which by all accounts is very beautiful, but I doubt I’ll ever get to hear it.

Like Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, it might seem hard to place this in the context of corporate destruction, but Frobisher does experience the snobbish philistinism of those who made their fortunes in trade. He also goes to visit his brother’s grave – Adrian died in The Great War. While there, he chats with a diamond merchant who tells him that the only constants in human life are war and diamonds, and that the end of it will be the destruction of the race, which is a bit more prophetic than either of them realize.

Frobisher spends some time at his employer’s house looking for rare books to steal, and he comes across one of those old South-Sea journals.

Part One: Nineteenth-Century Travelogue

Think Herman Melville. Lots and lots of Melville. Adam Ewing is a notary from San Francisco on a long journey home from Australia. He’s naïve and devout, which leads to frequent conflict with the captain and crew. He does get to witness firsthand how religion is put to use, enslaving the natives for corporate gains in the name of God. In the end, I think that his last page gets right at what the book is all about:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, […] If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

Our belief both reflects and shapes the world we live in. I believe this very strongly, which is why I often ignore my friends’ advice to be canny and careful and end up in the scrapes of the naïve. I want the world to be a good place, so I insist on believing it is so. I want people to be good, so I assume they are better than they are. And I doubt I’ll stop, because I want to make the world a better place, and this is where I choose to start.

Ewing imagines his father-in-law mocking him:

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 one drop in a limitless ocean!

And he replies:

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

One person can make a difference. I don’t know what my lifelong legacy will be; if someone were to write an eighty-page story that sums up me, I don’t know what he would choose as the turning point, where I make an irrevocable decision that sets my course in a firm new direction. But I’ll do what I can, and let history account for me as it may. One ignorable drop in an ocean of hope.

Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return comes back here. The implication is that the six protagonists are really one person, reincarnated several times. Similar patterns emerge, similar choices must be made, similar thoughts are thunk. Like these bits about the title:

Zachry:

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Cavendish:

Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides . . . I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

And of course, Frobisher’s composition is called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Characters remember events from past lives, end up living in the same places, and even run into people with similar names. The genre changes, the situations are often different, but the details are somehow the same. Like that comet-shaped birthmark they all have.

I’ve been wondering why my subconscious is sending me to so many books about historical recurrences, and I think it’s a warning. This summer I vacationed in the place I think of as home, and I’ve been really tempted to move back. It’s a wonderful place to live, and my current situation is unsatisfactory. But. What kind of life would I have? Working more than sixty hours a week divided between two part-time jobs, still only paying my bills with more luck than foresight, hoping for a romantic connection with someone whom I barely know? That’s no life at all. If I were assured of full-time employment (or full-time romance), it would be different. But things being as they are, it would be completely daft of me to try it. I remember how depressed I was, even in that paradise. In this case, I’m going to try to approach the next step in my journey with more logic than sentiment. An atypical approach for me, but we’ll see how that works.

Oh, and there was a movie, too.

I think this is probably the best possible film that could be made based on this book. Each of the stories is twisted a little, some a lot, but film is a different medium with different constraints, etc. The six stories are all mixed up together instead of being arranged tidily, so instead of matryoshka dolls it becomes scrambled eggs. They reuse most of the actors in each story, which drives home the reincarnation theme and the déjà vu feel, but it’s not obvious most of the time; aside from dramatic differences in makeup, many of them also change gender. Being a film, it’s often more dramatic and more violent than the book; it also has more romance. Zachry the teenager and Meronym the fifty-year-old Prescient are an unlikely couple, but if you cast them with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, it suddenly makes more sense. With this plot omelet, any gesture toward making sense is welcome. I also love what they do with Old Georgie, Zachry’s hallucination of the devil. This movie is filmed beautifully, but I think that you really ought to either read the book or watch the film several times to be able to follow it. Considering how many times you might need to watch the film, it’s probably more time-efficient to read the book.