Masterpiece of the week, times two: a brief review

Mary Karrs, Liars’ Club – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

What is it that marks the greatness of these two writers? — Karr, telling with raw courage her childhood in a soul-taxing East Texas; Mitchell, writing lives within lives and books within books, in this ultra-novel novel that inspired the inspiring movie.

They are all in. There is no playing nice with cardboard language, it is all guts and demarcation of verbal innovation at every turn. Yet, a compulsive consistency in voice in character, whether narration or dialogue, interior/exterior, Texan or postapocalyptic, learned or simply articulate in the marrow of individuality.

Political-correct is out of its depth here.  We go to the heart of the matter, at any level of truth or stage-play, set-up or exposition.  There is no stray static, no leaking gas. The engine is purring silently, weaving us to our destination.

Or rather, in the case of Cloud Atlas, it’s a thundering, intricate, Russian-doll / Chinese-box, six-cylinder Persian carpet. A literary masterpiece, in the best sense: breathtaking mastery of language in variety of genres, voices, eras, all convincing within each of of the six interlocking story lines.

And what better message for our times, than the final pages of Cloud Atlas (507–9):

My recent adventures have made me quite the philosopher, especially at night, when I hear naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity. My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules, only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this—one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

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. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law’s response: “Oho, fine. Whiggish sentiments, Adam. But don’t tell me about justice! Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell ’em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s! Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor & gray in caucuses! You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naïve, 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 one drop in a limitless ocean!”

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?


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