It’s busier than normal in here. I don’t like it. Always detested crowded spaces: too much going on to take in; too great a possibility of accidental trampling; just generally too much life for me to deal with at ten in the morning. I like my space, ok?! I guess it’s fun to watch people so engrossed in their daily lives though, much in the same way I appear so engrossed in mine to them I imagine. It’s like a big game of Who’s Who, except there’s no right answer. The loud group in front of me discussing child psychology; the anxious couple on the other side of the room; the quiet girl sitting on the sofa, law textbook in lap and coffee in hand: I can’t help but wonder what their story is. Who are they? Where do they come from? Which several million thought processes combined to bring them here this morning? We enter people’s lives for the briefest of the moments: half the people in this room I won’t see again, or at least I won’t remember them. Yet they are the result of so many stories, and they have so many of their own yet to create.
Not only is there a term for this overwhelming feeling of realisation (sonder, which in German means both ‘special’ and ‘without’), The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows provides the most beautiful definition for it:
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
All this musing – which to be quite honest I’m proud of, rarely having such coherent thought this early in the day – led me back, as such thoughts often do, to what I can honestly consider my favourite book ever written: David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. I can’t remember if I’ve blogged about this before but I don’t care: it’s awesome, and you should all read it. Right now. Yes that means you.
An epic work looking back to the mistakes of the past as well as forward to the possibilities of the future, telling six stories spanning from the American Gold Rush of 1849 to a post-apocalyptic future in 2321 Hawaii, Cloud Atlas weaves a complex web of connections, community and compassion, in a story that will forever alter how you look at the human beings around you. The film is also well worth a watch: despite moving from the ‘Russian doll’ style of the novel to a more ‘mosaic’ approach (in Mitchell’s own words), it still brings the work to life with stunning visuals, heart-wrenching moments and a seriously awesome soundtrack by German composer Tom Tykwer, nominated for a Golden Globe as well as several awards from the IFMCA. Seriously it’s a lot quicker for you go read the book and watch the film then it is for me to tell you everything that makes it so fucking brilliant, I think we’d all be in our graves before I had finished. I did want to touch briefly on one aspect though.
As the title of the post suggests (it is, incidentally, one of the many memorable quotes from the book), Cloud Atlas primarily concerns itself with connections. The six protagonists of the novel could not be more different in terms of their gender, ethnicity, culture, values and even their biology (Sonmi-451 is a tank-born ‘fabricant’, a clone slave used by the corporate giants of 2144 Neo-Seoul). Yet a seemingly random set of people each set off a chain of events that impact and inspire their fellow beings in the deepest of ways. In addition to this, the connection between them has a much more simplistic element: they are united in their humanity. Freedom, love, truth: all six experience these basic inevitabilities, and deal with their opposites, in a literary symphony that I will fondly remember until the day I die.
I am not, and do not think I will ever be, a religious man. There is no one answer, simple or otherwise, to this big mess of matter that we call life. But if ever there was an argument for the presence of the soul, and its post-death transmigration that ripples and touches, however briefly, all the other lost souls around it, Cloud Atlas is it. A chaotic harmony of life and all its wonderful, fucked-up consequences, the novel will leave you changed. That is all I can guarantee. A famous gladiator once claimed that “What we do in life, echoes in eternity”. Perhaps if we were more understanding of one another, more considerate in our actions, more forgiving in our judgements… Perhaps that random act of kindness will matter more than we can ever know. Maybe we just need to slow down and think occasionally.
“Sit down a beat or two.
Hold out your hands.